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Not so Merry England

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Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.

Ivanhoe was published in 1819: it was Scott’s first novel not set in Scotland, but it is by no means ‘late’; in fact, he had been writing novels for only five years, and it followed hard on the heels of the much admired ones (in academic circles at least) mentioned above. In addition to the English setting, Scott also moved back in time with Ivanhoe, to the end of the twelfth century, and the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion, the age not of the religious conflict that had made modern Scotland, as with his previous novels, but of chivalry.

The year is 1193, and in King Richard’s absence his worthless brother John, egged on by some unpleasant Norman barons, is plotting to usurp the throne. John holds a passage of arms at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where an unknown knight wins the contest. He turns out to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe, faithful retainer of King Richard, and estranged son of Cedric the Saxon. Wilfred loves Rowena, Cedric’s ward, who is destined for another. Beautiful Rowena, however, crowned Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament by Wilfred, attracts the attention of Maurice de Bracey, one of John’s Norman supporters, who decides to kidnap her and force her into marriage; the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert joins in this plan, deciding at the same time to kidnap the beautiful Jewess Rebe

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Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.

Ivanhoe was published in 1819: it was Scott’s first novel not set in Scotland, but it is by no means ‘late’; in fact, he had been writing novels for only five years, and it followed hard on the heels of the much admired ones (in academic circles at least) mentioned above. In addition to the English setting, Scott also moved back in time with Ivanhoe, to the end of the twelfth century, and the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion, the age not of the religious conflict that had made modern Scotland, as with his previous novels, but of chivalry. The year is 1193, and in King Richard’s absence his worthless brother John, egged on by some unpleasant Norman barons, is plotting to usurp the throne. John holds a passage of arms at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where an unknown knight wins the contest. He turns out to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe, faithful retainer of King Richard, and estranged son of Cedric the Saxon. Wilfred loves Rowena, Cedric’s ward, who is destined for another. Beautiful Rowena, however, crowned Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament by Wilfred, attracts the attention of Maurice de Bracey, one of John’s Norman supporters, who decides to kidnap her and force her into marriage; the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert joins in this plan, deciding at the same time to kidnap the beautiful Jewess Rebecca, who is also present at the tournament with her father Isaac of York, the banker who is financing John’s attempted coup d’état. The plan comes off. Isaac and the two maidens are ambushed in the forest by the Normans, disguised as Saxon outlaws, and imprisoned in the castle of Torquilstone. With them is Ivanhoe, severely wounded at the end of the tournament, but being cared for by Rebecca. The situation is finally saved by the appearance of Richard, disguised as the Black Knight, and a band of real Saxon outlaws, who turn out to be the most famous inhabitants of the greenwood in English history. All the prisoners are rescued, apart from Rebecca who is carried off by the Templar to a Templar house, where the Grand Master is in residence. This elderly fanatic sentences Rebecca to be burned at the stake for witchcraft, unless some champion can be found to rescue her. The plot is something of an assemblage of romantic set pieces. We have two lovely damsels, a court jester, knights in armour, wicked barons and cruel Templars, a scene of torture and a planned burning. There are castles, a tournament, feasting in halls, and Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and the merry men. This is Merry England, and because we have seen all this thanks to Hollywood, Scott’s loving and detailed descriptions of dress and custom really do not interest us overmuch. Yet before Hollywood, this novel must have captivated audiences: one can easily imagine a household gathered each evening for another chapter by the fireside. Nowadays, however, we know rather a lot about the Middle Ages, or think we do, thanks to books like The Name of the Rose; and we might suspect that Scott plays fast and loose with history. Indeed he does. He employs a double time-scale. On the one hand this is 1193, the year of Richard’s return from the Holy Land; but Cedric talks of his father having been witness to the events of 1066, which is simply not possible. Scott must have been aware of this anomaly, but he clearly does not take the world of medieval romance too seriously. In fact the scenes with Robin Hood, and also with Cedric and Richard, have a strained jocularity that reminds us that Scott was not primarily a writer of comedy. In particular the admiring attention and space given to the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst (alias Friar Tuck) are reminiscent of the English pantomime tradition. Why then bother with Ivanhoe? It has all the faults of bad historical fiction – yet even at its worst, it is charming and engrossing. But what commands attention is the characterization and with it certain arresting ideas. The character of Prince John, a man who has the gift of alienating those supporters whom he most wishes to bind to himself, is interesting enough; likewise too, Richard, a hero, an adventurer, but a man who does not care as much as he should about his kingly duty. Ivanhoe himself, of whom we hardly see enough, is more than a typical hero; he, alone of Scott’s heroes, is genuinely sexy, simply because we see him through the eyes of Rebecca the Jewess, who loves him, and who, more than these others, carries the weight of the novel’s fascination. The Jewess and her father Isaac are Scott’s personal contribution to the tale. They do not need to be there, and their presence is constantly stressed as something extraordinary and oriental; Rebecca wears a turban and kaftan, is strikingly beautiful, and heavily bejewelled. She dominates the novel, as every reader has immediately intuited. The Jewish characters are far more interesting than the Gentiles, simply because they are Jews, exotic outsiders. Rebecca is the centre of attention wherever she goes, and not just because she is ravishing: this culminates with the extraordinarily powerful scene of her trial by the Grand Master. ‘“To invoke your pity”, said the lovely Jewess, with a voice somewhat tremulous with emotion, “would, I am aware, be as useless as I should hold it mean.”’ This speech, where Rebecca finally speaks for herself without stooping to the level of her tormentors, effectively signals her moral superiority over them and reveals the depths of their hypocrisy, cruelty and moral worthlessness. There is no other condemnation of anti-Semitism that can match it. But it is more than that – it is a condemnation of Christianity, and it shows us that the chivalry that is the ostensible subject of the novel is hollow. Rebecca is braver and more heroic than any Christian knight. She herself tells the Templar Bois-Guilbert so: ‘I am myself a woman, tenderly nurtured, naturally fearful of danger, and impatient of pain – yet, when we enter those fatal lists, thou to fight and I to suffer, I feel the strong assurance within me, that my courage shall mount higher than thine.’ However, if Rebecca is heroic, her father Isaac of York is the exact opposite. The epigraphs of several of the chapters show that Scott had Shylock in mind when writing about Isaac, and Isaac is a classic stage Jew in the Shylock tradition, constantly cringing before his Christian persecutors – and they all persecute him, without exception. Every character in the book, even the noble Ivanhoe, is an anti-Semite of sorts – it is purely a question of degree. Isaac is in fact a comic character, everyone’s butt, though this is not the sort of comedy people will be comfortable with today. However, Scott, though never sparing Isaac, makes two important points. Isaac, unlike Shylock, loves his daughter more than his money; and Isaac is the way he is because of the treatment he has received at Christian hands. Bois-Guilbert talks of a ‘degraded nation. . . conversant with ingots and shekels’, and Rebecca retorts: ‘Thou has spoken [of ] the Jew as the persecution of such as thou has made him.’ And indeed the real woe of the Jews, apart from having to dwell among Christians, is the fact that they are ‘no longer their own governors, and denizens of their own free independent state, [but] must crouch before strangers’, as Rebecca puts it. She makes the point a second time at her trial: ‘Alas! We have no country!’ At the end of the novel Rebecca and her father leave England, ‘a land of war and blood’, to go to live among the Muslims in Spain. So much for the myth of Merry England, then: the implication that the infidel were more civilized must have been quite a hard fact for a Christian and English audience to absorb in 1819. The book is full of returnees from Palestine; there is no question of Rebecca and Isaac going to Palestine, but that is the natural trajectory that the novel sets up. Isaac represents the Jewish past, Rebecca the Jewish future, and the novel is, before its time perhaps,a Zionist tract, making a case for a national home for the Jews. Rebecca’s emigration is clearly a loss to England, and Rowena, the official heroine of the novel, tries to dissuade her from leaving, but without success. England, supposedly merry and chivalrous, does not deserve women such as Rebecca. Instead we have to make do with a world of appearances: with Rowena, beautiful and blonde, whose wedding to Ivanhoe in York Minster is ‘graced with all the splendour that she [the Church] of Rome knows how to apply with such brilliant effect’. As for Ivanhoe, he was ‘too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings [i.e. of love] towards a Jewess’. Rowena herself forgives her enemies ‘as a Christian’ – ‘That means she does not forgive him at all,’ the jester remarks. The Christians are further represented by a bunch of venal, fat, drunken clerics. Dignified, holy (she is the only character who prays), beautiful and courageous, Rebecca does well to leave them, and her passing leaves us with the feeling that we have been dwelling in a shallow and shabby world in the pages of Ivanhoe. Scott’s great romance of the Middle Ages, and the period of history in which the English national character supposedly emerged, is in fact a subversive and modern novel about our national delusions. It gives us the history we want, and shows us at the same time that we are deceived.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Alexander Lucie-Smith 2010


About the contributor

Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest and writer.

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