Friday, October 30, 2015

Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott

A few months back, I was reading Rolf Boldrewood's Australian classic Robbery Under Arms to my sisters, when one of the characters made a comment which caught my attention at once:
"What the dickens," says Clifford, "can you want, going away with this familiar of yours at this hour of the night? You're like the fellow in Scott's novel (Anne of Geierstein) that I was reading over again yesterday - the mysterious stranger that's called for at midnight by the Avenger of Blood, departs with him and is never seen more."
Well, of course that sounded promising, so I went off and added Anne of Geierstein on Goodreads. Lo and behold, Lady Bibliphile at once contributed a comment to the effect that it was one of her favourite Scott novels, and that she had stumbled across it herself in a different Victorian novel wherein all the characters were reading (and revelling in it) in secret.

That bumped it pretty quickly to the top of my to-read list.

The Plot

The time: the 1400s, shortly after the Wars of the Roses have settled Edward IV on the throne of England. The place: the mountains of Switzerland. The principal actors: a couple of travelling English merchants, father and son. The scene: during a storm, in a rugged mountain ravine presided over by the ancient fortress of Geierstein!

Lost in the storm, Arthur Philipson and his father are rescued and taken to safety by an enchanting mountain maiden, Anne of Geierstein, whose noble family have either fallen on hard times or voluntarily given up their title in preference for a life of liberty and equality among the hardy Swiss peasantry. As war threatens between the impoverished but proud Swiss cantons, and the powerful and autocratic Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Philipson the elder warns his young son that their secret mission must claim their full obedience: there can be no time for writing love-poetry to young Anne of Geierstein, nor for duelling her haughty cousin Rudolf.

The Philipsons join Anne, her noble uncle the Landamman of Unterwalden, and a retinue of bold Swiss youths as they set out on a diplomatic mission to Charles's court. But war threatens and mysteries pile upon mysteries. Not all the young Swiss are determined to keep peace with the Duke of Burgundy. Villainous robber barons attempt to bar their way. Who is the mysterious and sinister Black Priest of St Paul's? Does Anne of Geierstein's ghost really wander the forest while she sleeps? And what is the secret mission entrusted to the English merchants?

Romance and History

As you can tell, if you've ever read a Walter Scott novel before, this book was typical in so many ways. In a Scott novel, the mysterious and beautiful heroine always pops up just at the right moment to give the hero directions or assistance, whether it's in a wayside castle, a midnight forest, or even a noisome dungeon--to an extent which would seem ridiculously coincidental in any other author's hands but in Scott's bears the romantic magic of fairytale. This is one of those books in which every. last. person. is someone terribly important in disguise. In which a traveller might settle down for a night's sleep in a wayside inn and find himself suddenly in the middle of the meeting of a dangerous secret society. In which yes, an Avenger of Blood might call at midnight for a mysterious stranger.

In other words, the book bears the unmistakeable print of Romance, according to John Buchan's definition--"strangeness flowering from the commonplace". Modern readers might be tempted to scoff at the sheer tallness of the tale--the coincidences and improbabilities that rule the plot--but it would be a shame to be that kind of person. The improbabilities are the whole point. The whole appeal of the thing lies in the fact that these things so rarely happen--but could. We are treading close to fairytale here, where only the improbable can be permitted.

But for all the appeal of its romantic plot and setting, I found Anne of Geierstein a little dissatisfactory. Both John Buchan and Andrew Lang mention that Anne of Geierstein was written toward the end of Scott's life when he was struggling to write enough novels to pay off his debts. He seems to have found it difficult to get inspired to write Anne: progress was slow and painful, and he forced himself through it. The result is certainly an entertaining story and a genuine Scott, but comes across somewhat flat and forced compared to Scott's best tales--Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, The Fortunes of Nigel. This time around, I found myself particularly noticing Scott's rolling, overwrought, polysyllabic prose--eg, "So saying, he betook himself to the place appointed, which was an apartment in the large tower that protected the eastern gateway, in which were deposited the rack, with various other instruments of torture, which the cruel and rapacious Governor was in the habit of applying to such prisoners from whom he was desirous of extorting either booty or information"--I know this is the kind of thing Scott wrote, but in this book it seemed particularly laborious to me.

This is doubly sad because the book is somewhat of a sequel to Quentin Durward, one of my very favourite Scott novels. That book focused on the historical rivalry between Charles the Bold and Louis XI of France, painting utterly wonderful, hilarious, and unforgettable portraits of both. My biggest disappointment in Anne of Geierstein was the fact that Louis XI never appears onstage at all. But perhaps it's for the best: Louis XI was so good in Quentin Durward that it would have been sad to see him sung off-key, so to speak.

All the same, Scott still does some amazing stuff with the history in this novel. He works closely from eyewitness accounts in describing the final months of Charles of Burgundy's life. He weaves fascinating tidbits of Germanic legend about the secret Vehmic courts into the plot. He draws subtle and convincing portraits of historical figures you might never have heard of before, but who you can't help understanding and sympathising with at once.

I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of perhaps the book's most central historical figure, Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Scott does a brilliant job of depicting the irascible, pig-headed and ambitious duke. Somehow, he acknowledges his cruelty and violence at the same time that he shows us his charisma and even nobility. Even in a creative slump, Walter Scott excelled at creating subtle, complex, three-dimensional portraits of real historical figures.

Find Anne of Geierstein at Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Jamie W. said...

I think the ones like this are the true test of whether a reader is appreciating Scott for what he really does best. If you enjoy Ivanhoe or Rob Roy, you're at the least a lover of Romance (in the adventurous sense) who has a good deal of patience. But if you also enjoy Anne of Geierstein and A Legend of Montrose, then you're truly appreciating not just the thrills, but the sense of history, insight into character, and wisdom about life that really characterize Scott. What else would keep the reader going through sentences like the one you quote?

(Or the one--I think it was in A Legend of Montrose--in which he described at some length the scenic view which his hero could have seen, had he been interested, but he was worrying about something else, so he wasn't, so he didn't.)

And yet it was a good book. It shows what a great writer he was in so many ways that his readers are willing to forgive him so much. (And oh, those prefaces and footnotes!)

Suzannah said...

Well, thank you, Jamie, that makes me feel very discerning. :) As a matter of fact I've come down with a tremendous urge to read simply enormous quantities of Scott, for the first time in years and years.

I skipped most of the prefaces and footnotes in ANNE, because I was reading the Project Gutenberg ebook and simply didn't have the patience to flip back and forth. But you're right, one really shouldn't. :D They're so good!

Joseph Jalsevac said...

I just read the first page of Quentin Durward again and it reminded me of the fact that language can taste good. Maybe I'll have a crack at the Fortunes of Nigel.

Jamie W. said...

The Fortunes of Nigel is not so good as Quentin Durward, in my opinion, but it's still good. Nigel is frustratingly irresponsible at times, but like so many of Scott's heroes, his character arc involves learning to be a decent steady ordinary person--not something you'll find in every historical adventure!

Suzannah said...

I have to admit, I don't remember anything about THE FORTUNES OF NIGEL except that it was terribly entertaining, had to do with James I, and I laughed like anything over the passage where Nigel gets all dolled up to go to court. :D


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