Great Scott!

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There is a greater accretion of literary anecdote attached to the old John Murray premises at No. 50 Albemarle Street than perhaps to any other building. At times, when working there in the 1970s and ’80s, I felt the place might finally disappear beneath these parasitic lianas and leaves, with me buried inside, but among them there was always one orchid which I treasured, dating from April 1815, when Scott and Byron met there for the first time. A very young John Murray III was a witness and recalled much later how ‘It was a curious sight to see the two greatest poets of the age – both lame – stumping downstairs side by side.’

I am not sure whether, when I first went up and down the same staircase, I had actually read a Scott novel, but it was about then that I began, tipped off to go for those set in Scotland, within about a hundred years of Scott’s birth in 1771 – which was good advice. So I read Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, Rob Roy and the rest which fell within those boundaries. In spite of the verbosity, the Scots dialect, the antiquarianism, the stilted speech of his English characters, the insipidity of too many of his women, I admired how wonderfully well they combined attachment to the old ways and the old days and a recognition that change is the essence of history. Nationalism, terrorism, state violence, religious fanaticism are all made vivid, as are the Clansmen, the Covenanters, the Jacobites.

The object here is not to make their case, however, but instead to praise the journal which Scott started to keep at the end of 1825 until more or less the time of his death in 1832. Thomas Moore came to stay with Scott that October and brought with him the extraordinary diary which Byron had kept in Ravenna in January and February 1821. It was this that gave Sir Walter the necessary momentum, and that momentum must have been reinforced when he was asked very shortly after to review Pepys’s diary,

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About the contributor

Roger Hudson means to read more Scott and to encourage others to do the same.

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Comments & Reviews

  1. Anthony Bainbridge says:

    Having only recently joined the Foxed community (alas for all those missed years!) I have only just found Roger Hudson’s piece on Sir Walter Scott’s’ Journal. I discovered Scott as a teenager 60 years ago and have never for long put him aside. Rather like a tippler wondering whether it might be time for a wee dram, twice a year or thereabouts I will, as I put it to myself, ‘feel another Scott coming on’, and reach for the familiar green-bound volumes. Of course, I’ve read all the best-loved novels many a time, and several are falling apart through repeated handling. But the joy never wanes. And as Roger says, the ‘Gurnal’ is an endless pleasure. Not just that, but a constant reminder of what a great man he was.

    Even his devoted followers, a dwindling band I fear (the average age of those who attend meetings of the Edinburgh SWS Club is usually well over a certain age) agree that some of his titles will rarely if ever be read again. The new Edinburgh Edition is alas priced for libraries, not for the common reader. Still, the real classics – Waverly, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Heart of Midlothian – are never out of print, for which we must be grateful. But Scott is rarely listed among the great novelists of the 19th century, especially by English readers, in spite of the fact that he created the genre and was quickly followed by others – Manzoni, Fennimore Cooper and Dumas, to name only three beyond these islands – who recognised a new strand of literary creativity and followed suit.

    But it’s the nobility of the man which comes over, particularly in the Journal but also in his ability to identify so completely with prince and pauper, city sophisticates and country bumpkins, Highland warriors and humble housekeepers. And yes, in the great Scotch novels you have to deal with the Scottish locutions and broad accents; but as a teenager I never found that to be a stumbling block, nor do I now. So – it’s now time to read Old Mortality again.

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