Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 15.

Scott in Adversity.

With the year 1825 came a financial crisis, and Constable began to tremble for his solvency. From the date of his baronetcy Sir Walter had launched out into a considerable increase of expenditure. He got plans on a rather large scale in 1821 for the increase of Abbotsford, which were all carried out. To meet his expenses in this and other ways he received Constable’s bills for “four unnamed works of fiction,” of which he had not written a line, but which came to exist in time, and were called Peveril of the Peak, Quentin Durward, St. Ronan’s Well, and Redgauntlet. Again, in the very year before the crash, 1825, he married his eldest son, the heir to the title, to a young lady who was herself an heiress, Miss Jobson of Lochore, when Abbotsford and its estates were settled, with the reserve of 10,000l., which Sir Walter took power to charge on the property for purposes of business. Immediately afterwards he purchased a captaincy in the King’s Hussars for his son, which cost him 3500l. Nor were the obligations he incurred on his own account, or that of his family, the only ones by which he was burdened. He was always incurring expenses, often heavy expenses, for other people. Thus, when Mr. Terry, the actor, became joint lessee and manager of the Adelphi Theatre, London, Scott became his surety for 1250l., while James Ballantyne became his surety for 500l. more, and both these sums had to be paid by Sir Walter after Terry’s failure in 1828. Such obligations as these, however, would have been nothing when compared with Sir Walter’s means, had all his bills on Constable been duly honoured, and had not the printing firm of Ballantyne and Co. been so deeply involved with Constable’s house that it necessarily became insolvent when he stopped. Taken altogether, I believe that Sir Walter earned during his own lifetime at least 140,000l. by his literary work alone, probably more; while even on his land and building combined he did not apparently spend more than half that sum. Then he had a certain income, about 1000l. a year, from his own and Lady Scott’s private property, as well as 1300l. a year as Clerk of Session, and 300l. more as Sheriff of Selkirk. Thus even his loss of the price of several novels by Constable’s failure would not seriously have compromised Scott’s position, but for his share in the printing-house which fell with Constable, and the obligations of which amounted to 117,000l.

As Scott had always forestalled his income — spending the purchase-money of his poems and novels before they were written — such a failure as this, at the age of fifty-five, when all the freshness of his youth was gone out of him, when he saw his son’s prospects blighted as well as his own, and knew perfectly that James Ballantyne, unassisted by him, could never hope to pay any fraction of the debt worth mentioning, would have been paralysing, had he not been a man of iron nerve, and of a pride and courage hardly ever equalled. Domestic calamity, too, was not far off. For two years he had been watching the failure of his wife’s health with increasing anxiety, and as calamities seldom come single, her illness took a most serious form at the very time when the blow fell, and she died within four months of the failure. Nay, Scott was himself unwell at the critical moment, and was taking sedatives which discomposed his brain. Twelve days before the final failure — which was announced to him on the 17th January, 1826 — he enters in his diary, “Much alarmed. I had walked till twelve with Skene and Russell, and then sat down to my work. To my horror and surprise I could neither write nor spell, but put down one word for another, and wrote nonsense. I was much overpowered at the same time and could not conceive the reason. I fell asleep, however, in my chair, and slept for two hours. On my waking my head was clearer, and I began to recollect that last night I had taken the anodyne left for the purpose by Clarkson, and being disturbed in the course of the night, I had not slept it off.” In fact the hyoscyamus had, combined with his anxieties, given him a slight attack of what is now called aphasia, that brain disease the most striking symptom of which is that one word is mistaken for another. And this was Scott’s preparation for his failure, and the bold resolve which followed it, to work for his creditors as he had worked for himself, and to pay off, if possible, the whole 117,000l. by his own literary exertions.

There is nothing in its way in the whole of English biography more impressive than the stoical extracts from Scott’s diary which note the descent of this blow. Here is the anticipation of the previous day: “Edinburgh, January 16th. — Came through cold roads to as cold news. Hurst and Robinson have suffered a bill to come back upon Constable, which, I suppose, infers the ruin of both houses. We shall soon see. Dined with the Skenes.” And here is the record itself: “January 17th. — James Ballantyne this morning, good honest fellow, with a visage as black as the crook. He hopes no salvation; has, indeed, taken measures to stop. It is hard, after having fought such a battle. I have apologized for not attending the Royal Society Club, who have a gaudeamus on this day, and seemed to count much on my being the præses. My old acquaintance Miss Elizabeth Clerk, sister of Willie, died suddenly. I cannot choose but wish it had been Sir W. S., and yet the feeling is unmanly. I have Anne, my wife, and Charles to look after. I felt rather sneaking as I came home from the Parliament-house — felt as if I were liable monstrari digito in no very pleasant way. But this must be borne cum coeteris; and, thank God, however uncomfortable, I do not feel despondent.”1 On the following day, the 18th January, the day after the blow, he records a bad night, a wish that the next two days were over, but that “the worst is over,” and on the same day he set about making notes for the magnum opus, as he called it — the complete edition of all the novels, with a new introduction and notes. On the 19th January, two days after the failure, he calmly resumed the composition of Woodstock— the novel on which he was then engaged — and completed, he says, “about twenty printed pages of it;” to which he adds that he had “a painful scene after dinner and another after supper, endeavouring to convince these poor creatures” [his wife and daughter] “that they must not look for miracles, but consider the misfortune as certain, and only to be lessened by patience and labour.” On the 21st January, after a number of business details, he quotes from Job, “Naked we entered the world and naked we leave it; blessed be the name of the Lord.” On the 22nd he says, “I feel neither dishonoured nor broken down by the bad, now truly bad, news I have received. I have walked my last in the domains I have planted — sat the last time in the halls I have built. But death would have taken them from me, if misfortune had spared them. My poor people whom I loved so well! There is just another die to turn up against me in this run of ill-luck, i. e. if I should break my magic wand in the fall from this elephant, and lose my popularity with my fortune. Then Woodstock and Boney” [his life of Napoleon] “may both go to the paper-maker, and I may take to smoking cigars and drinking grog, or turn devotee and intoxicate the brain another way.”2 He adds that when he sets to work doggedly, he is exactly the same man he ever was, “neither low-spirited nor distrait,” nay, that adversity is to him “a tonic and bracer.”

The heaviest blow was, I think, the blow to his pride. Very early he begins to note painfully the different way in which different friends greet him, to remark that some smile as if to say, “think nothing about it, my lad, it is quite out of our thoughts;” that others adopt an affected gravity, “such as one sees and despises at a funeral,” and the best-bred “just shook hands and went on.” He writes to Mr. Morritt with a proud indifference, clearly to some extent simulated:—“My womenkind will be the greater sufferers, yet even they look cheerily forward; and, for myself, the blowing off of my hat on a stormy day has given me more uneasiness.”3 To Lady Davy he writes truly enough:—“I beg my humblest compliments to Sir Humphrey, and tell him, Ill Luck, that direful chemist, never put into his crucible a more indissoluble piece of stuff than your affectionate cousin and sincere well-wisher, Walter Scott.”4 When his Letters of Malachi Malagrowther came out he writes:—“I am glad of this bruilzie, as far as I am concerned; people will not dare talk of me as an object of pity — no more ‘poor-manning.’ Who asks how many punds Scots the old champion had in his pocket when

‘He set a bugle to his mouth,

And blew so loud and shrill,

The trees in greenwood shook thereat,

Sae loud rang every hill.’

This sounds conceited enough, yet is not far from truth.”5 His dread of pity is just the same when his wife dies:—“Will it be better,” he writes, “when left to my own feelings, I see the whole world pipe and dance around me? I think it will. Their sympathy intrudes on my present affliction.” Again, on returning for the first time from Edinburgh to Abbotsford after Lady Scott’s funeral:—“I again took possession of the family bedroom and my widowed couch. This was a sore trial, but it was necessary not to blink such a resolution. Indeed I do not like to have it thought that there is any way in which I can be beaten.” And again:—“I have a secret pride — I fancy it will be so most truly termed — which impels me to mix with my distresses strange snatches of mirth, ‘which have no mirth in them.’"6

But though pride was part of Scott’s strength, pride alone never enabled any man to struggle so vigorously and so unremittingly as he did to meet the obligations he had incurred. When he was in Ireland in the previous year, a poor woman who had offered to sell him gooseberries, but whose offer had not been accepted, remarked, on seeing his daughter give some pence to a beggar, that they might as well give her an alms too, as she was “an old struggler.” Sir Walter was struck with the expression, and said that it deserved to become classical, as a name for those who take arms against a sea of troubles, instead of yielding to the waves. It was certainly a name the full meaning of which he himself deserved. His house in Edinburgh was sold, and he had to go into a certain Mrs. Brown’s lodgings, when he was discharging his duties as Clerk of Session. His wife was dead. His estate was conveyed to trustees for the benefit of his creditors till such time as he should pay off Ballantyne and Co’s. debt, which of course in his lifetime he never did. Yet between January, 1826, and January, 1828, he earned for his creditors very nearly 40,000l. Woodstock sold for 8228l., “a matchless sale,” as Sir Walter remarked, “for less than three months’ work.” The first two editions of The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, on which Mr. Lockhart says that Scott had spent the unremitting labour of about two years — labour involving a far greater strain on eyes and brain than his imaginative work ever caused him — sold for 18,000l. Had Sir Walter’s health lasted, he would have redeemed his obligations on behalf of Ballantyne and Co. within eight or nine years at most from the time of his failure. But what is more remarkable still, is that after his health failed he struggled on with little more than half a brain, but a whole will, to work while it was yet day, though the evening was dropping fast. Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous were really the compositions of a paralytic patient.

It was in September, 1830, that the first of these tales was begun. As early as the 15th February of that year he had had his first true paralytic seizure. He had been discharging his duties as clerk of session as usual, and received in the afternoon a visit from a lady friend of his, Miss Young, who was submitting to him some manuscript memoirs of her father, when the stroke came. It was but slight. He struggled against it with his usual iron power of will, and actually managed to stagger out of the room where the lady was sitting with him, into the drawing-room where his daughter was, but there he fell his full length on the floor. He was cupped, and fully recovered his speech during the course of the day, but Mr. Lockhart thinks that never, after this attack, did his style recover its full lucidity and terseness. A cloudiness in words and a cloudiness of arrangement began to be visible. In the course of the year he retired from his duties of clerk of session, and his publishers hoped that, by engaging him on the new and complete edition of his works, they might detach him from the attempt at imaginative creation for which he was now so much less fit. But Sir Walter’s will survived his judgment. When, in the previous year, Ballantyne had been disabled from attending to business by his wife’s illness (which ended in her death), Scott had written in his diary, “It is his (Ballantyne’s) nature to indulge apprehensions of the worst which incapacitate him for labour. I cannot help regarding this amiable weakness of the mind with something too nearly allied to contempt,” and assuredly he was guilty of no such weakness himself. Not only did he row much harder against the stream of fortune than he had ever rowed with it, but, what required still more resolution, he fought on against the growing conviction that his imagination would not kindle, as it used to do, to its old heat.

When he dictated to Laidlaw — for at this time he could hardly write himself for rheumatism in the hand — he would frequently pause and look round him, like a man “mocked with shadows.” Then he bestirred himself with a great effort, rallied his force, and the style again flowed clear and bright, but not for long. The clouds would gather again, and the mental blank recur. This soon became visible to his publishers, who wrote discouragingly of the new novel — to Scott’s own great distress and irritation. The oddest feature in the matter was that his letters to them were full of the old terseness, and force, and caustic turns. On business he was as clear and keen as in his best days. It was only at his highest task, the task of creative work, that his cunning began to fail him. Here, for instance, are a few sentences written to Cadell, his publisher, touching this very point — the discouragement which James Ballantyne had been pouring on the new novel. Ballantyne, he says, finds fault with the subject, when what he really should have found fault with was the failing power of the author:—“James is, with many other kindly critics, perhaps in the predicament of an honest drunkard, when crop-sick the next morning, who does not ascribe the malady to the wine he has drunk, but to having tasted some particular dish at dinner which disagreed with his stomach. . . . I have lost, it is plain, the power of interesting the country, and ought, injustice to all parties, to retire while I have some credit. But this is an important step, and I will not be obstinate about it if it be necessary. . . . Frankly, I cannot think of flinging aside the half-finished volume, as if it were a corked bottle of wine. . . . I may, perhaps, take a trip to the Continent for a year or two, if I find Othello’s occupation gone, or rather Othello’s reputation.”7 And again, in a very able letter written on the 12th of December, 1830, to Cadell, he takes a view of the situation with as much calmness and imperturbability as if he were an outside spectator. “There were many circumstances in the matter which you and J. B. (James Ballantyne) could not be aware of, and which, if you were aware of, might have influenced your judgment, which had, and yet have, a most powerful effect upon mine. The deaths of both my father and mother have been preceded by a paralytic shock. My father survived it for nearly two years — a melancholy respite, and not to be desired. I was alarmed with Miss Young’s morning visit, when, as you know, I lost my speech. The medical people said it was from the stomach, which might be, but while there is a doubt upon a point so alarming, you will not wonder that the subject, or to use Hare’s lingo, the shot, should be a little anxious.” He relates how he had followed all the strict medical régime prescribed to him with scrupulous regularity, and then begun his work again with as much attention as he could. “And having taken pains with my story, I find it is not relished, nor indeed tolerated, by those who have no interest in condemning it, but a strong interest in putting even a face” (? force) “upon their consciences. Was not this, in the circumstances, a damper to an invalid already afraid that the sharp edge might be taken off his intellect, though he was not himself sensible of that?” In fact, no more masterly discussion of the question whether his mind were failing or not, and what he ought to do in the interval of doubt, can be conceived, than these letters give us. At this time the debt of Ballantyne and Co. had been reduced by repeated dividends — all the fruits of Scott’s literary work — more than one half. On the 17th of December, 1830, the liabilities stood at 54,000l., having been reduced 63,000l. within five years. And Sir Walter, encouraged by this great result of his labour, resumed the suspended novel.

But with the beginning of 1831 came new alarms. On January 5th Sir Walter enters in his diary — “Very indifferent, with more awkward feelings than I can well bear up against. My voice sunk and my head strangely confused.” Still he struggled on. On the 31st January he went alone to Edinburgh to sign his will, and stayed at his bookseller’s (Cadell’s) house in Athol Crescent. A great snow-storm set in which kept him in Edinburgh and in Mr. Cadell’s house till the 9th February. One day while the snow was still falling heavily, Ballantyne reminded him that a motto was wanting for one of the chapters of Count Robert of Paris. He went to the window, looked out for a moment, and then wrote —

“The storm increases; ’tis no sunny shower,

Foster’d in the moist breast of March or April,

Or such as parchèd summer cools his lips with.

Heaven’s windows are flung wide; the inmost deeps

Call, in hoarse greeting, one upon another;

On comes the flood, in all its foaming horrors,

And where’s the dike shall stop it?

The Deluge: a Poem.

Clearly this failing imagination of Sir Walter’s was still a great deal more vivid than that of most men, with brains as sound as it ever pleased Providence to make them. But his troubles were not yet even numbered. The “storm increased,” and it was, as he said, “no sunny shower.” His lame leg became so painful that he had to get a mechanical apparatus to relieve him of some of the burden of supporting it. Then, on the 21st March, he was hissed at Jedburgh, as I have before said, for his vehement opposition to Reform. In April he had another stroke of paralysis which he now himself recognized as one. Still he struggled on at his novel. Under the date of May 6, 7, 8, he makes this entry in his diary:—“Here is a precious job. I have a formal remonstrance from those critical people, Ballantyne and Cadell, against the last volume of Count Robert, which is within a sheet of being finished. I suspect their opinion will be found to coincide with that of the public; at least it is not very different from my own. The blow is a stunning one, I suppose, for I scarcely feel it. It is singular, but it comes with as little surprise as if I had a remedy ready; yet God knows I am at sea in the dark, and the vessel leaky, I think, into the bargain. I cannot conceive that I have tied a knot with my tongue which my teeth cannot untie. We shall see. I have suffered terribly, that is the truth, rather in body than mind, and I often wish I could lie down and sleep without waking. But I will fight it out if I can.”8 The medical men with one accord tried to make him give up his novel-writing. But he smiled and put them by. He took up Count Robert of Paris again, and tried to recast it. On the 18th May he insisted on attending the election for Roxburghshire, to be held at Jedburgh, and in spite of the unmannerly reception he had met with in March, no dissuasion would keep him at home. He was saluted in the town with groans and blasphemies, and Sir Walter had to escape from Jedburgh by a back way to avoid personal violence. The cries of “Burk Sir Walter,” with which he was saluted on this occasion, haunted him throughout his illness and on his dying bed. At the Selkirk election it was Sir Walter’s duty as Sheriff to preside, and his family therefore made no attempt to dissuade him from his attendance. There he was so well known and loved, that in spite of his Tory views, he was not insulted, and the only man who made any attempt to hustle the Tory electors, was seized by Sir Walter with his own hand, as he got out of his carriage, and committed to prison without resistance till the election day was over.

A seton which had been ordered for his head, gave him some relief, and of course the first result was that he turned immediately to his novel-writing again, and began Castle Dangerous in July, 1831 — the last July but one which he was to see at all. He even made a little journey in company with Mr. Lockhart, in order to see the scene of the story he wished to tell, and on his return set to work with all his old vigour to finish his tale, and put the concluding touches to Count Robert of Paris. But his temper was no longer what it had been. He quarrelled with Ballantyne, partly for his depreciatory criticism of Count Robert of Paris, partly for his growing tendency to a mystic and strait-laced sort of dissent and his increasing Liberalism. Even Mr. Laidlaw and Scott’s children had much to bear. But he struggled on even to the end, and did not consent to try the experiment of a voyage and visit to Italy till his immediate work was done. Well might Lord Chief Baron Shepherd apply to Scott Cicero’s description of some contemporary of his own, who “had borne adversity wisely, who had not been broken by fortune, and who, amidst the buffets of fate, had maintained his dignity.” There was in Sir Walter, I think, at least as much of the Stoic as the Christian. But Stoic or Christian, he was a hero of the old, indomitable type. Even the last fragments of his imaginative power were all turned to account by that unconquerable will, amidst the discouragement of friends, and the still more disheartening doubts of his own mind. Like the headland stemming a rough sea, he was gradually worn away, but never crushed.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 197.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 203–4.

3 Ibid., viii. 235.

4 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 238.

5 viii. 277.

6 viii. 347, 371, 381.

7 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, x. 11, 12.

8 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, x. 65–6.

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