Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 3.

Love and Marriage.

One Sunday, about two years before his call to the bar, Scott offered his umbrella to a young lady of much beauty who was coming out of the Greyfriars Church during a shower; the umbrella was graciously accepted; and it was not an unprecedented consequence that Scott fell in love with the borrower, who turned out to be Margaret, daughter of Sir John and Lady Jane Stuart Belches, of Invernay. For near six years after this, Scott indulged the hope of marrying this lady, and it does not seem doubtful that the lady herself was in part responsible for this impression. Scott’s father, who thought his son’s prospects very inferior to those of Miss Stuart Belches, felt it his duty to warn the baronet of his son’s views, a warning which the old gentleman appears to have received with that grand unconcern characteristic of elderly persons in high position, as a hint intrinsically incredible, or at least unworthy of notice. But he took no alarm, and Scott’s attentions to Margaret Stuart Belches continued till close on the eve of her marriage, in 1796, to William Forbes (afterwards Sir William Forbes), of Pitsligo, a banker, who proved to be one of Sir Walter’s most generous and most delicate-minded friends, when his time of troubles came towards the end of both their lives. Whether Scott was in part mistaken as to the impression he had made on the young lady, or she was mistaken as to the impression he had made on herself, or whether other circumstances intervened to cause misunderstanding, or the grand indifference of Sir John gave way to active intervention when the question became a practical one, the world will now never know, but it does not seem very likely that a man of so much force as Scott, who certainly had at one time assured himself at least of the young lady’s strong regard, should have been easily displaced even by a rival of ability and of most generous and amiable character. An entry in the diary which Scott kept in 1827, after Constable’s and Ballantyne’s failure, and his wife’s death, seems to me to suggest that there may have been some misunderstanding between the young people, though I am not sure that the inference is justified. The passage completes the story of this passion — Scott’s first and only deep passion — so far as it can ever be known to us; and as it is a very pathetic and characteristic entry, and the attachment to which it refers had a great influence on Scott’s life, both in keeping him free from some of the most dangerous temptations of the young, during his youth, and in creating within him an interior world of dreams and recollections throughout his whole life, on which his imaginative nature was continually fed — I may as well give it. “He had taken,” says Mr. Lockhart, “for that winter 1827, the house No. 6, Shandwick Place, which he occupied by the month during the remainder of his servitude as a clerk of session. Very near this house, he was told a few days after he took possession, dwelt the aged mother of his first love; and he expressed to his friend Mrs. Skene, a wish that she should carry him to renew an acquaintance which seems to have been interrupted from the period of his youthful romance. Mrs. Skene complied with his desire, and she tells me that a very painful scene ensued.” His diary says — “November 7th. Began to settle myself this morning after the hurry of mind and even of body which I have lately undergone. I went to make a visit and fairly softened myself, like an old fool, with recalling old stories till I was fit for nothing but shedding tears and repeating verses for the whole night. This is sad work. The very grave gives up its dead, and time rolls back thirty years to add to my perplexities. I don’t care. I begin to grow case-hardened, and like a stag turning at bay, my naturally good temper grows fierce and dangerous. Yet what a romance to tell — and told I fear it will one day be. And then my three years of dreaming and my two years of wakening will be chronicled, doubtless. But the dead will feel no pain. — November 10th. At twelve o’clock I went again to poor Lady Jane to talk over old stories. I am not clear that it is a right or healthful indulgence to be ripping up old sores, but it seems to give her deep-rooted sorrow words, and that is a mental blood-letting. To me these things are now matter of calm and solemn recollection, never to be forgotten, yet scarce to be remembered with pain.”1 It was in 1797, after the break-up of his hopes in relation to this attachment, that Scott wrote the lines To a Violet, which Mr. F. T. Palgrave, in his thoughtful and striking introduction to Scott’s poems, rightly characterizes as one of the most beautiful of those poems. It is, however, far from one characteristic of Scott, indeed, so different in style from the best of his other poems, that Mr. Browning might well have said of Scott, as he once affirmed of himself, that for the purpose of one particular poem, he “who blows through bronze,” had “breathed through silver,”— had “curbed the liberal hand subservient proudly,”— and tamed his spirit to a key elsewhere unknown.

“The violet in her greenwood bower,

Where birchen boughs with hazels mingle,

May boast itself the fairest flower

In glen, or copse, or forest dingle.

“Though fair her gems of azure hue,

Beneath the dewdrop’s weight reclining,

I’ve seen an eye of lovelier blue,

More sweet through watery lustre shining.

“The summer sun that dew shall dry,

Ere yet the day be past its morrow;

Nor longer in my false love’s eye

Remain’d the tear of parting sorrow.”

These lines obviously betray a feeling of resentment, which may or may not have been justified; but they are perhaps the most delicate produced by his pen. The pride which was always so notable a feature in Scott, probably sustained him through the keen, inward pain which it is very certain from a great many of his own words that he must have suffered in this uprooting of his most passionate hopes. And it was in part probably the same pride which led him to form, within the year, a new tie — his engagement to Mademoiselle Charpentier, or Miss Carpenter as she was usually called — the daughter of a French royalist of Lyons who had died early in the revolution. She had come after her father’s death to England, chiefly, it seems, because in the Marquis of Downshire, who was an old friend of the family, her mother knew that she should find a protector for her children. Miss Carpenter was a lively beauty, probably of no great depth of character. The few letters given of hers in Mr. Lockhart’s life of Scott, give the impression of an amiable, petted girl, of somewhat thin and espiègle character, who was rather charmed at the depth and intensity of Scott’s nature, and at the expectations which he seemed to form of what love should mean, than capable of realizing them. Evidently she had no inconsiderable pleasure in display; but she made on the whole a very good wife, only one to be protected by him from every care, and not one to share Scott’s deeper anxieties, or to participate in his dreams. Yet Mrs. Scott was not devoid of spirit and self-control. For instance, when Mr. Jeffrey, having reviewed Marmion in the Edinburgh in that depreciating and omniscient tone which was then considered the evidence of critical acumen, dined with Scott on the very day on which the review had appeared, Mrs. Scott behaved to him through the whole evening with the greatest politeness, but fired this parting shot in her broken English, as he took his leave — “Well, good night, Mr. Jeffrey — dey tell me you have abused Scott in de Review, and I hope Mr. Constable has paid you very well for writing it.” It is hinted that Mrs. Scott was, at the time of Scott’s greatest fame, far more exhilarated by it than her husband with his strong sense and sure self-measurement ever was. Mr. Lockhart records that Mrs. Grant of Laggan once said of them, “Mr. Scott always seems to me like a glass, through which the rays of admiration pass without sensibly affecting it; but the bit of paper that lies beside it will presently be in a blaze, and no wonder.” The bit of paper, however, never was in a blaze that I know of; and possibly Mrs. Grant’s remark may have had a little feminine spite in it. At all events, it was not till the rays of misfortune, instead of admiration, fell upon Scott’s life, that the delicate tissue paper shrivelled up; nor does it seem that, even then, it was the trouble, so much as a serious malady that had fixed on Lady Scott before Sir Walter’s troubles began, which really scorched up her life. That she did not feel with the depth and intensity of her husband, or in the same key of feeling, is clear. After the failure, and during the preparations for abandoning the house in Edinburgh, Scott records in his diary:—“It is with a sense of pain that I leave behind a parcel of trumpery prints and little ornaments, once the pride of Lady Scott’s heart, but which she saw consigned with indifference to the chance of an auction. Things that have had their day of importance with me, I cannot forget, though the merest trifles; but I am glad that she, with bad health, and enough to vex her, has not the same useless mode of associating recollections with this unpleasant business.”2

Poor Lady Scott! It was rather like a bird of paradise mating with an eagle. Yet the result was happy on the whole; for she had a thoroughly kindly nature, and a true heart. Within ten days before her death, Scott enters in his diary:—“Still welcoming me with a smile, and asserting she is better.” She was not the ideal wife for Scott; but she loved him, sunned herself in his prosperity, and tried to bear his adversity cheerfully. In her last illness she would always reproach her husband and children for their melancholy faces, even when that melancholy was, as she well knew, due to the approaching shadow of her own death.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 183–4.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 273.

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