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.

4 comments:

Joseph J said...

Wow that whole paragraph on 'strangeness flowering from the commonplace' captures exactly why Buffy the Vampire Slayer works so well! ... no wait, where are you going?... I mean, Shakespeare! ... Wuthering Heights! ... um, Till We Have Faces?...

I remember the exact moment I fell for Sir Walter Scott. It was love at first sight. I opened an old compact edition of Kenilworth to an illustration of a lady standing dramatically above a kneeling man with the quote beneath it, "Thou doubly false, thou doubly forsworn!" I didn't know what forsworn meant, which only contributed to the mystery. And Kenilworth did not disappoint. I don't remember any details except that it was a wonderful mess. To me that picture will always capture the magic of historical romance.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

I experienced similar feelings flipping through the pictures in Cassell's history of England and an old library-copy of Jane Austen. I have always found old engravings in antique volumes to be marvelously inspirational!

Lizbeth said...

What was the quotation?

Suzannah said...

Joseph, haha...I will admit to having seen some BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, in my distant and misspent youth. ;) But I think Buchan and Scott knew exactly what they were doing there.

Lizbeth, the quotation from THE CRITIC can be found at the heading of Chapter XXI, though if you haven't read GUY MANNERING, it could constitute something of a spoiler ;).

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...