Friday, June 16, 2017

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott



John Buchan devotes six pages in his biography of Sir Walter Scott to a review of Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel: "Lovers of Scott will always dispute which is his best novel, but all will put Guy Mannering among the first three."

That was more or less my impression, as I read. Guy Mannering is a very successful work, showcasing Scott doing what he did best, and doing it at the height of his powers. As Buchan points out, Scott's first novel, Waverly, was the result of ten years' brooding - and as a novelist myself, I understand Buchan's opinion that getting Waverly out of his system liberated Scott as an artist, to invent with new gusto. There's an infectious high-spiritedness about this story - the author is enjoying himself, and so do the readers.

The story opens with a traveller going astray in the southwest of Scotland late at night, late in the eighteenth century. Young Guy Mannering arrives at Ellangowan, seat of the humble but very old Bertram family, on the same night as the birth of the new heir. Partly in fun, he takes the child's horoscope, which threatens danger to him at age five and twenty-one. And sure enough--five years later, the boy is kidnapped and vanishes without a trace.

Fifteen years after that, after a duel gone wrong, Colonel Mannering returns from India with his only child; the Ellangowan family is forced to sell their ancestral home for a song to their dishonest lawyer, the social-climbing Glossin, and young Captain Vanbeest Brown, determined to win Julia Mannering's hand despite her father's disapproval, follows the Mannerings into Scotland only to become hopelessly embroiled in Glossin's dealings with smugglers - to say nothing of the mysterious plans of Meg Merrilies, the titanic, and possibly insane, gipsy woman.

Not every single element in this book works. There are two perfunctory attempts at romantic subplots in which, together with the young ladies involved, the author evidently lost interest early on; a comic relief character who is reduced to a one-note gag, and some backstory set in India which is unconvincing, and rushed in the telling, especially compared to the quality of the main story. None of Walter Scott's admirers - and he counted John Buchan and GK Chesterton among them - would have suggested that Scott always hit his mark. "He was a chaotic and unequal writer," Chesterton observes, but, with equal truth: "We have learnt in our day to arrange our literary effects carefully, and the only point in which we fall short of Scott is in the incidental misfortune that we have nothing particular to arrange." Scott aims to shoot the moon. Of course, he doesn't always succeed. But when he does!

I think the thing I appreciate most about Guy Mannering is how it spans, and welds together, a number of different genres. This kind of thing is usually difficult to do well, but Scott makes it work. There's a wide streak of comedy-of-manners here, little different from the kind of thing you might expect to find in Anthony Trollope - the funeral scene in Edinburgh, for instance. Then there's a good bit of lightly fictionalised travel writing, the kind of thing Scott excelled at, since he spent much of his youth in the Border Country and knew its landscape, its people, and its pasttimes. And all this is used as the scaffolding for the romance of a lost heir, mysterious gipsies, dangerous smugglers, murder and robbery.

I'm a connoisseur of fine romance of this type, and in my youth I was frequently impatient with all the other stuff Scott insisted in mixing in with it. Today, I'm beginning to understand that you simply cannot be impatient when reading Scott. The power of those sudden gleams of romance ("They are coming," said she to Brown; "you are a dead man if ye had as mony lives as hairs") depend on the "slow bits" for their effect. They are like a bomb going off under the reader's feet. You never know when it's going to happen. You might have given up hoping that it might happen. And then, shazam. John Buchan defined romance on several occasions (including in his six pages on Guy Mannering) as being "strangeness flowering from the commonplace", and the commonplace is necessary to ground the strangeness: to make it believable, and to give it real emotional heft when it does happen. That's why the backstory in India (a hectic muddle featuring a duel, a raid, a capture, and a death of shock all on the same day) seems so unsatisfying: as romantic as it is, it seems completely unhinged from normality. It has nothing to ground it. But for the majority of the book, the romantic bits do seem thoroughly tethered to reality - and that's the main reason why the book works as well as it does.

Not that there aren't other reasons. There are plenty of characters to love. Meg Merrilies is unforgettable, Dandie Dinmont makes you want to cheer and feel that everything will be alright every time he appears, Gilbert Glossin is a terrific, sympathetic, yet oh-so-evil villain, and many of the others are excellent too.

Oh, and there's the hilarious moment that a quotation from Sheridan's The Critic turns up. It's an audacious, fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek moment (which sadly only makes sense if you've actually read The Critic, which YOU SHOULD).

Needless to say, I thoroughly recommend Guy Mannering. It's a book that will definitely reward your patience.

Find Guy Mannering on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Poem: In the Huon Valley by James McAuley

At the moment, I don't have a vintage novel to review: I'm working my way through another Walter Scott, Guy Mannering. It's one I've never read before, but it's been fun so far. I have my suspicions about this Captain Brown character. I think we may have met him before *eyebrow waggle*.

Anyway, I look forward to reviewing that when I get the chance - hopefully next week! In the meantime, I want to share a poem - another of James McAuley's, since this year is his centenary.

James McAuley is perhaps most famous for the Ern Malley hoax, but he ended his life in Tasmania, as a professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Southwest of Hobart is the beautiful Huon Valley, the centre of Tasmania's apple and cherry industry, a green rolling valley bordering the Huon River. I've spent many happy months in the Huon Valley, and later this month I'll be heading back to participate in the Pilgrim Artists' Festival, where I'll be giving a workshop on fiction writing.


As I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and familiar scenery, it might be a good time to share James McAuley's poem about this lovely place...

In the Huon Valley

by James McAuley

Propped boughs are heavy with apples,
Springtime quite forgotten.
Pears ripen yellow. The wasp
Knows where windfalls lie rotten.

Juices grow rich with sun.
These autumn days are still:
The glassy river reflects
Elm-gold up the hill,

And big white plumes of rushes.
Life is full of returns;
It isn't true that one never
Profits, never learns:

Something is gathered in,
Worth the lifting and stacking;
Apples roll through the graders,
The sheds are noisy with packing.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French

After reading The Elder Edda, I wasn't quite ready to leave Iceland, and I decided the time was ripe for my long-intended re-read of Allen French's The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, which I'd read, once, about ten years ago and remembered liking very much.

The story follows a young boy named Rolf, the son of the landowner Hiarandi the Unlucky. When an act of mercy by Hiarandi leads to his being made an outlaw, and ultimately killed by a greedy neighbour, Rolf vows to prove that his father's killing was unlawful. But when he meets the son of his father's killer, Rolf can't help liking him. Will Rolf and Grani find a way to see past their own grudges, and lay the feud to rest?

One of the things I particularly remembered about this book was that it was somewhat more than just another standard vintage adventure story for boys. Set in medieval Iceland shortly after its conversion to Christianity, The Story of Rolf is written in a rather good imitation of actual Icelandic sagas. And this goes further than thees, thous, and the occasional lapse into present tense. It also includes a tense, laconic writing style, a very arm's-length treatment of the characters' thoughts and emotions, characters bursting into the occasional skaldic verse, some crazy and unexpected (yet totally fun) fantasy elements, and a subject matter (the tension between blood-feuding and Christian forgiveness) that is also to the forefront of one of the few Icelandic sagas I've actually read, The Saga of Burnt Njal.

Looking back, I'm stunned by how well this style works for this story. The Story of Rolf  was first published in 1924, so it comes after the worst of the Victorian literary excesses, but I can't imagine that writing historical fiction in a style so spare and laconic must have seemed like an obvious decision. And to be honest, French isn't unaffected by the literary fashions of his time. Still, he was trying something pretty unprecedented in his day, and the result is a story that fuses the best of the delicious drama that characterises vintage lit, with the best of Icelandic terseness, adventure, and sheer epic awesome. There's a depth to the characters' emotions and motivations that can be somewhat lacking in the old sagas, and yet the very straightforward storytelling style strengthens what could be a shortcoming in vintage fiction.

And there are so many things to love about the book. The plot operates at a slow, tense simmer that takes you through many twists and turns, but it's always building toward a specific goal, which is how this blood feud is ultimately resolved. And I loved the resolution. One of the marks of a truly great story is a resolution that lifts it beyond itself into something higher, and The Story of Rolf has one of these. I won't spoil it, but I will say that it left me with a lump in my throat.

And also that I loved the theme. Since finishing the story, I've been chewing on one particular aspect of it--just a minor aspect--that I think this book gets wonderfully right when it comes to the concept of forgiveness. It's common to assume that forgiveness is something unconditional and unilateral. In fact, forgiveness cannot be accomplished without repentance on the side of the wrongdoer. It is the victim's duty to be ready to offer forgiveness if it is sought, and that means killing anger and bitterness and resentment; but this does not mean treating a professed enemy in every respect as if he is your friend. One must be ready to forgive, but there is no true forgiveness possible for an unrepentant enemy. I won't say more, but I will say that I was stunned and encouraged by how well (and beautifully) The Story of Rolf discusses this truth.

There were lots of other things I loved about this story. I loved the female characters--this is, of course, a solidly manly adventure story for boys and so the female characters are definitely in supporting roles--but what characters they are, fearless, determined, and wise. I loved Frodi, the peaceful smith, who winds up with a string of nicknames referring to his undeniable awesome. I loved that epic deeds are done, and narrated with such dry understatement. And I loved the characters cropping up out of old sagas.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow isn't a perfect book. I would have liked to see Rolf himself have a greater character arc, for instance, and one plot device near the end was a little unbelievable. But overall, I loved this story. A brilliant bit of vintage young adult fiction.

Find The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

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