Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 13.

Scott and George iv.

The first relations of Scott with the Court were, oddly enough, formed with the Princess, not with the Prince of Wales. In 1806 Scott dined with the Princess of Wales at Blackheath, and spoke of his invitation as a great honour. He wrote a tribute to her father, the Duke of Brunswick, in the introduction to one of the cantos of Marmion, and received from the Princess a silver vase in acknowledgment of this passage in the poem. Scott’s relations with the Prince Regent seem to have begun in an offer to Scott of the Laureateship in the summer of 1813, an offer which Scott would have found it very difficult to accept, so strongly did his pride revolt at the idea of having to commemorate in verse, as an official duty, all conspicuous incidents affecting the throne. But he was at the time of the offer in the thick of his first difficulties on account of Messrs. John Ballantyne and Co., and it was only the Duke of Buccleuch’s guarantee of 4000l. — a guarantee subsequently cancelled by Scott’s paying the sum for which it was a security — that enabled him at this time to decline what, after Southey had accepted it, he compared in a letter to Southey to the herring for which the poor Scotch clergyman gave thanks in a grace wherein he described it as “even this, the very least of Providence’s mercies.” In March, 1815, Scott being then in London, the Prince Regent asked him to dinner, addressed him uniformly as Walter, and struck up a friendship with him which seems to have lasted their lives, and which certainly did much more honour to George than to Sir Walter Scott. It is impossible not to think rather better of George IV. for thus valuing, and doing his best in every way to show his value for, Scott. It is equally impossible not to think rather worse of Scott for thus valuing, and in every way doing his best to express his value for, this very worthless, though by no means incapable king. The consequences were soon seen in the indignation with which Scott began to speak of the Princess of Wales’s sins. In 1806, in the squib he wrote on Lord Melville’s acquittal, when impeached for corruption by the Liberal Government, he had written thus of the Princess Caroline:—

“Our King, too — our Princess — I dare not say more, sir —

May Providence watch them with mercy and might!

While there’s one Scottish hand that can wag a claymore, sir,

They shall ne’er want a friend to stand up for their right.

Be damn’d he that dare not —

For my part I’ll spare not

To beauty afflicted a tribute to give;

Fill it up steadily,

Drink it off readily,

Here’s to the Princess, and long may she live.”

But whoever “stood up” for the Princess’s right, certainly Scott did not do so after his intimacy with the Prince Regent began. He mentioned her only with severity, and in one letter at least, written to his brother, with something much coarser than severity;1 but the king’s similar vices did not at all alienate him from what at least had all the appearance of a deep personal devotion to his sovereign. The first baronet whom George IV. made on succeeding to the throne, after his long Regency, was Scott, who not only accepted the honour gratefully, but dwelt with extreme pride on the fact that it was offered to him by the king himself, and was in no way due to the prompting of any minister’s advice. He wrote to Joanna Baillie on hearing of the Regent’s intention — for the offer was made by the Regent at the end of 1818, though it was not actually conferred till after George’s accession, namely, on the 30th March, 1820 — “The Duke of Buccleuch and Scott of Harden, who, as the heads of my clan and the sources of my gentry, are good judges of what I ought to do, have both given me their earnest opinion to accept of an honour directly derived from the source of honour, and neither begged nor bought, as is the usual fashion. Several of my ancestors bore the title in the seventeenth century, and, were it of consequence, I have no reason to be ashamed of the decent and respectable persons who connect me with that period when they carried into the field, like Madoc,

“The Crescent at whose gleam the Cambrian oft,

Cursing his perilous tenure, wound his horn,”

so that, as a gentleman, I may stand on as good a footing as other new creations.”2 Why the honour was any greater for coming from such a king as George, than it would have been if it had been suggested by Lord Sidmouth, or even Lord Liverpool — or half as great as if Mr. Canning had proposed it, it is not easy to conceive. George was a fair judge of literary merit, but not one to be compared for a moment with that great orator and wit; and as to his being the fountain of honour, there was so much dishonour of which the king was certainly the fountain too, that I do not think it was very easy for two fountains both springing from such a person to have flowed quite unmingled. George justly prided himself on Sir Walter Scott’s having been the first creation of his reign, and I think the event showed that the poet was the fountain of much more honour for the king, than the king was for the poet.

When George came to Edinburgh in 1822, it was Sir Walter who acted virtually as the master of the ceremonies, and to whom it was chiefly due that the visit was so successful. It was then that George clad his substantial person for the first time in the Highland costume — to wit, in the Steuart Tartans — and was so much annoyed to find himself outvied by a wealthy alderman, Sir William Curtis, who had gone and done likewise, and, in his equally grand Steuart Tartans, seemed a kind of parody of the king. The day on which the king arrived, Tuesday, 14th of August, 1822, was also the day on which Scott’s most intimate friend, William Erskine, then Lord Kinnedder, died. Yet Scott went on board the royal yacht, was most graciously received by George, had his health drunk by the king in a bottle of Highland whiskey, and with a proper show of devoted loyalty entreated to be allowed to retain the glass out of which his Majesty had just drunk his health. The request was graciously acceded to, but let it be pleaded on Scott’s behalf, that on reaching home and finding there his friend Crabbe the poet, he sat down on the royal gift, and crushed it to atoms. One would hope that he was really thinking more even of Crabbe, and much more of Erskine, than of the royal favour for which he had appeared, and doubtless had really believed himself, so grateful. Sir Walter retained his regard for the king, such as it was, to the last, and even persuaded himself that George’s death would be a great political calamity for the nation. And really I cannot help thinking that Scott believed more in the king, than he did in his friend George Canning. Assuredly, greatly as he admired Canning, he condemned him more and more as Canning grew more liberal, and sometimes speaks of his veerings in that direction with positive asperity. George, on the other hand, who believed more in number one than in any other number, however large, became much more conservative after he became Regent than he was before, and as he grew more conservative Scott grew more conservative likewise, till he came to think this particular king almost a pillar of the Constitution. I suppose we ought to explain this little bit of fetish-worship in Scott much as we should the quaint practical adhesion to duelling which he gave as an old man, who had had all his life much more to do with the pen than the sword — that is, as an evidence of the tendency of an improved type to recur to that of the old wild stock on which it had been grafted. But certainly no feudal devotion of his ancestors to their chief was ever less justified by moral qualities than Scott’s loyal devotion to the fountain of honour as embodied in “our fat friend.” The whole relation to George was a grotesque thread in Scott’s life; and I cannot quite forgive him for the utterly conventional severity with which he threw over his first patron, the Queen, for sins which were certainly not grosser, if they were not much less gross, than those of his second patron, the husband who had set her the example which she faithfully, though at a distance, followed.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, vi. 229–30.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, vi. 13, 14.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29