Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Editor’s Introduction

“‘St. Ronan’s Well’ is not so much my favourite as certain of its predecessors,” Lady Louisa Stuart wrote to Scott on March 26, 1824. “Yet still I see the author’s hand in it, et c’est tout dire. Meg Dods, the meeting” (vol. i. chap. ix.), “and the last scene between Clara and her brother, are marked with the true stamp, not to be matched or mistaken. Is the Siege of Ptolemais really on the anvil?” she goes on, speaking of the projected Crusading Tales, and obviously anxious to part company with “St. Ronan’s Well.” All judgments have not agreed with Lady Louisa’s. There is a literary legend or fable according to which a number of distinguished men, all admirers of Scott, wrote down separately the name of their favourite Waverley novel, and all, when the papers were compared, had written “St. Ronan’s.” Sydney Smith, writing to Constable on Dec. 28, 1823, described the new story as “far the best that has appeared for some time. Every now and then there is some mistaken or overcharged humour — but much excellent delineation of character, the story very well told, and the whole very interesting. Lady Binks, the old landlady, and Touchwood are all very good. Mrs. Blower particularly so. So are MacTurk and Lady Penelope. I wish he would give his people better names; Sir Bingo Binks is quite ridiculous. . . . The curtain should have dropped on finding Clara’s glove. Some of the serious scenes with Clara and her brother are very fine: the knife scene masterly. In her light and gay moments Clara is very vulgar; but Sir Walter always fails in well-bred men and women, and yet who has seen more of both? and who, in the ordinary intercourse of society, is better bred? Upon the whole, I call this a very successful exhibition.”

We have seldom found Sydney Smith giving higher praise, and nobody can deny the justice of the censure with which it is qualified. Scott himself explains, in his Introduction, how, in his quest of novelty, he invaded modern life, and the domain of Miss Austen. Unhappily he proved by example the truth of his own opinion that he could do “the big bow-wow strain” very well, but that it was not his celebrare domestica facta. Unlike George Sand, Sir Walter had humour abundantly, but, as the French writer said of herself, he was wholly destitute of esprit.

We need not linger over definition of these qualities; but we must recognise, in Scott, the absence of lightness of touch, of delicacy in the small sword-play of conversation. In fencing, all should be done, the masters tell us, with the fingers. Scott works not even with the wrist, but with the whole arm. The two-handed sword, the old claymore, are his weapons, not the rapier. This was plain enough in the word-combats of Queen Mary and her lady gaoler in Loch Leven. Much more conspicuous is the “swashing blow” in the repartee of “St. Ronan’s.” The insults lavished on Lady Binks are violent and cruel; even Clara Mowbray taunts her. Now Lady Binks is in the same parlous case as the postmistress who dreed penance “for ante-nup,” as Meg Dods says in an interrupted harangue, and we know that, to the author’s mind, Clara Mowbray had no right to throw stones. All these jeers are offensive to generous feeling, and in the mouth of Clara are intolerable. Lockhart remarked in Scott a singular bluntness of the sense of smell and of taste. He could drink corked wine without a suspicion that there was anything wrong with it. This curious obtuseness of a physical sense, in one whose eyesight was so keen, who, “aye was the first to find the hare” in coursing, seems to correspond with his want of lightness in the invention of badinage. He tells us that, for a long while at least, he had been unacquainted with the kind of society, the idle, useless underbred society, of watering-places. Are we to believe that the company at Gilsland, for instance, where he met and wooed Miss Charpentier, was like the company at St. Ronan’s? Lockhart vouches for the snobbishness, “the mean admiration of mean things,” the devotion to the slimmest appearances of rank. All this is credible enough, but, if there existed a society as dull and base as that which we meet in the pages of “Mr. Soapy Sponge,” and Surtees’s other novels, assuredly it was no theme for the great and generous spirit of Sir Walter. The worst kind of manners always prevail among people whom moderns call “the second-rate smart,” and these are drawn in “St. Ronan’s Well.” But we may believe that, even there, manners are no longer quite so hideous as in the little Tweedside watering-place. The extinction of duelling has destroyed, or nearly destroyed, the swaggering style of truculence; people could not behave as Mowbray and Sir Bingo behave to Tyrrel, in the after-dinner scene. The Man of Peace, the great MacTurk, with his harangues translated from the language of Ossian, is no longer needed, and no longer possible. Supposing manners to be correctly described in “St. Ronan’s,” the pessimist himself must admit that manners have improved. But it is not without regret that we see a genius born for chivalry labouring in this unworthy and alien matter.

The English critics delighted to accuse Scott of having committed literary suicide. He had only stepped off the path to which he presently returned. He was unfitted to write the domestic novel, and even in “St. Ronan’s” he introduces events of romantic improbability. These enable him to depict scenes of the most passionate tragedy, as in the meeting of Clara and Tyrrel. They who have loved so blindly and so kindly should never have met, or never parted. It is like a tragic rendering of the scene where Diana Vernon and Osbaldistone encounter each other on the moonlit moor. The wild words of Clara, “Is it so, and was it even yourself whom I saw even now? . . . And, all things considered, I do carry on the farce of life wonderfully well,”— all this passage, with the silence of the man, is on the highest level of poetic invention, and Clara ranks with Ophelia. To her strain of madness we may ascribe, perhaps, what Sydney Smith calls the vulgarity of her lighter moments. But here the genius of Shakspeare is faultless, where Scott’s is most faulty and most mistaken.

Much confusion is caused in “St. Ronan’s Well” by Scott’s concession to the delicacy of James Ballantyne. What has shaken Clara’s brain? Not her sham marriage, for that was innocent, and might be legally annulled. Lockhart writes (vii. 208): “Sir Walter had shown a remarkable degree of good-nature in the composition of this novel. When the end came in view, James Ballantyne suddenly took vast alarm about a particular feature in the heroine’s history. In the original conception, and in the book as actually written and printed, Miss Mowbray’s mock marriage had not halted at the profane ceremony of the church; and the delicate printer shrank from the idea of obtruding on the fastidious public the possibility of any personal contamination having occurred to a high-born damsel of the nineteenth century.” Scott answered: “You would never have quarrelled with it had the thing happened to a girl in gingham — the silk petticoat can make little difference.” “James reclaimed with double energy, and called Constable to the rescue; and, after some pause, the author very reluctantly consented to cancel and re-write about twenty-four pages, which was enough to obliterate, to a certain extent, the dreaded scandal — and, in a similar degree, as he always persisted, to perplex and weaken the course of his narrative, and the dark effect of its catastrophe.”

From a communication printed in the “Athenæum” of Feb. 4, 1893, extracts from the original proof-sheets, it seems that Lockhart forgot the original plan of the novel. The mock marriage did halt at the church door, but Clara’s virtue had yielded to her real lover, Tyrrel, before the ceremony. Hannah Irwin had deliberately made opportunities for the lovers’ meeting, and at last, as she says, in a cancelled passage, “the devil and Hannah Irwin prevailed.” There followed remorse, and a determination not to meet again before the Church made them one, and, on the head of this, the mock marriage shook Clara’s reason. This was the original plan; it declares itself in the scene between Tyrrel and Clara (vol. i. chap, ix.): “Wherefore should not sorrow be the end of sin and folly?” The reviewer in the “Monthly Review” (1824) says “there is a hint of some deeper cause of grief (see the confession to the brother), but it is highly problematical.” For all this the delicacy of James Ballantyne is to blame — his delicacy, and Scott’s concessions to a respectable man and a bad critic.

The origin of “St. Ronan’s Well” has been described by Lockhart in a familiar passage. As Laidlaw, Scott, and Lockhart were riding along the brow of the triple-peaked Eildon Hills, Scott mentioned “the row” that was going on in Paris about “Quentin Durward.” “I can’t but think I could make better play still with something German,” he said. Laidlaw grumbled at this: “You are always best, like Helen MacGregor, when your foot is on your native heath; and I have often thought that if you were to write a novel, and lay the scene here in the very year you were writing it, you would exceed yourself.” “Hame’s hame,” quoth Scott, smiling, “be it ever sae hamely,” and Laidlaw bade him “stick to Melrose in 1823.” It was now that Scott spoke of the village tragedy, the romance of every house, of every cottage, and told a tale of some horrors in the hamlet that lies beyond Melrose, on the north side of Tweed. Laidlaw and Lockhart believed that this conversation suggested “St. Ronan’s Well,” the scene of which has been claimed as their own by the people of Innerleithen. This little town is beautifully situated where the hills of Tweed are steepest, and least resemble the bosses verdâtres of Prosper Mérimée. It is now a manufacturing town, like its neighbours, and contributes its quota to the pollution of “the glittering and resolute streams of Tweed.” The pilgrim will scarce rival Tyrrel’s feat of catching a clean-run salmon in summer, but the scenes are extremely pleasing, and indeed, from this point to Dryburgh, the beautiful and fabled river is at its loveliest. It is possible that a little inn farther up the water, “The Crook,” on the border of the moorland, and near Tala Linn, where the Covenanters held a famous assembly, may have suggested the name of the “Cleikum.” Lockhart describes the prosperity which soon flowed into Innerleithen, and the St. Ronan’s Games, at which the Ettrick Shepherd presided gleefully. They are still held, or were held very lately, but there will never come again such another Shepherd, or such contests with the Flying Tailor of Ettrick.

Apart from the tragedy of Clara, doubtless the better parts of “St. Ronan’s Well” are the Scotch characters. Even our generation remembers many a Meg Dods, and he who writes has vividly in his recollection just such tartness, such goodness of heart, such ungoverned eloquence and vigour of rebuke as made Meg famous, successful on the stage, and welcome to her countrymen. These people, Mrs. Blower and Meg, are Shakspearean, they live with Dame Quickly and Shallow, in the hearts of Scots, but to the English general they are possibly caviare. In the gallant and irascible MacTurk we have the waning Highlander: he resembles the Captain of Knockdunder in “The Heart of Mid Lothian,” or an exaggerated and ill-educated Hector of “The Antiquary.” Concerning the women of the tale, it may be said that Lady Binks has great qualities, and appears to have been drawn “with an eye on the object,” as Wordsworth says, and from the life. Lady Penelope seems more exaggerated now than she probably did at the time, for the fashion of affectation changes. The Winterblossoms and Quacklebens are accurate enough in themselves, but are seen through a Blackwoodian atmosphere, as it were, through a mist of the temporary and boisterous Scotch humour of the day. The author occasionally stoops to a pun, and, like that which Hood made in the hearing of Thackeray, the pun is not good. Indeed the novel, in its view of the decay of the Border, the ruined Laird, the frivolous foolish society of the Well, taking the place of sturdy William of Deloraine, and farmers like Scott’s grandfather, makes a picture of decadence as melancholy as “Redgauntlet.” “Not here, O Apollo, are haunts meet for thee!” Strangely enough, among the features of the time, Scott mentions reckless borrowings, “accommodation,” “Banks of Air.” His own business was based on a “Bank of Air,” “wind-capital,” as Cadell, Constable’s partner, calls it, and the bubble was just about to burst, though Scott had no apprehension of financial ruin. A horrid power is visible in Scott’s second picture of la mauvaise pauvre, the hag who despises and curses the givers of “handfuls of coals and of rice;” his first he drew in the witches of “The Bride of Lammermoor.” He has himself indicated his desire to press hard on the vice of gambling, as in “The Fortunes of Nigel.” Ruinous at all times and in every shape, gambling, in Scott’s lifetime, during the Regency, had crippled or destroyed many an historical Scottish family. With this in his mind he drew the portrait of Mowbray of St. Ronan’s. His picture of duelling is not more seductive; he himself had lost his friend, Sir Alexander Boswell, in a duel; on other occasions this institution had brought discomfort into his life, and though he was ready to fight General Gourgaud with Napoleon’s pistols, he cannot have approved of the practices of the MacTurks and Bingo Binkses. A maniac, as his correspondence shows, challenged Sir Walter, insisting that he was pointed at and ridiculed in the character of MacTurk. (Abbotsford MSS.) It is interesting to have the picture of contemporary manners from Scott’s hand — Meg Dods remains among his immortal portraits; but a novel in which the absurd will of fiction and the conventional Nabob are necessary machinery can never be ranked so high as even “The Monastery” and “Peveril.” In Scotland, however, it was infinitely more successful than its admirable successor “Redgauntlet.”

ANDREW LANG. December 1893.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/ronan/introduction1.html

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