Living on “parritch,” as he tells Miss Baillie (for his national spirit rejected arrowroot), Scott had yet energy enough to plan a dramatic piece for Terry, “The Doom of Devorgoil.” But in April he announced to John Ballantyne “a good subject” for a novel, and on May 6, John, after a visit to Abbotsford with Constable, proclaimed to James Ballantyne the advent of “Rob Roy.”
The anecdote about the title is well known. Constable suggested it, and Scott was at first wisely reluctant to “write up to a title.” Names like Rob Roy, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, and so forth, tell the reader too much, and, Scott imagined, often excite hopes which cannot be fulfilled. However, in the geniality of an after-dinner hour in the gardens of Abbotsford, Scott allowed Constable to be sponsor. Many things had lately brought Rob into his mind. In 1812 Scott had acquired Rob Roy’s gun—“a long Spanish-barrelled piece, with his initials R. M. C.,” C standing for Campbell, a name assumed in compliment to the Argyll family.
Rob’s spleuchan had also been presented by Mr. Train to Sir Walter, in 1816, and may have directed his thoughts to this popular freebooter. Though Rob flourished in the ’15, he was really a character very near Scott, whose friend Invernahyle had fought Rob with broadsword and target—a courteous combat like that between Ajax and Hector.
At Tullibody Scott had met, in 1793, a gentleman who once visited Rob, and arranged to pay him blackmail.
Mr. William Adam had mentioned to Scott in 1816 the use of the word “curlie-wurlies” for highly decorated architecture, and recognised the phrase, next year, in the mouth of Andrew Fairservice.
In the meeting at Abbotsford (May 2, 1817) Scott was very communicative, sketched Bailie Nicol Jarvie, and improvised a dialogue between Rob and the magistrate. A week later he quoted to Southey, Swift’s lines—
which probably suggested Andrew Fairservice’s final estimate of Scott’s hero,—“over bad for blessing, and ower gude for banning.”
These are the trifles which show the bent of Scott’s mind at this period. The summer of 1817 he spent in working at the “Annual Register” and at the “Border Antiquities.” When the courts rose, he visited Rob’s cave at the head of Loch Lomond; and this visit seems to have been gossiped about, as literary people, hearing of the new novel, expected the cave to be a very prominent feature. He also went to Glasgow, and refreshed his memory of the cathedral; nor did he neglect old books, such as “A Tour through Great Britain, by a Gentleman” (4th Edition, 1748). This yielded him the Bailie’s account of Glasgow commerce “in Musselburgh stuffs and Edinburgh shalloons,” and the phrase “sortable cargoes.”
Hence, too, Scott took the description of the rise of Glasgow. Thus Scott was taking pains with his preparations. The book was not written in post-haste. Announced to Constable early in May, the last sheet was not corrected till about December 21, when Scott wrote to Ballantyne:—
“Rob Roy” was published on the last day of 1817. The toughness of the job was caused by constant pain, and by struggles with “the lassitude of opium.” So seldom sentimental, so rarely given to expressing his melancholy moods in verse, Scott, while composing “Rob Roy,” wrote the beautiful poem “The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill,” in which, for this once, “pity of self through all makes broken moan.”
Some stress may be laid on the state of Sir Walter’s health at this moment, because a living critic has tried to show that, in his case, “every pang of the stomach paralyses the brain;” that he “never had a fit of the cramp without spoiling a chapter.”—[Mr. Ruskin’s “Fiction Fair and Foul,” “Nineteenth Century,” 1880, p. 955.]—“Rob Roy” is a sufficient answer to these theories. The mind of Scott was no slave to his body.
The success of the story is pleasantly proved by a sentence in a review of the day: “It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel, for which the public curiosity was so much upon the alert as to require this immense importation to satisfy.”
Ten thousand copies of a three-volume novel are certainly a ponderous cargo, and Constable printed no fewer in his first edition. Scott was assured of his own triumph in February 1819, when a dramatised version of his novel was acted in Edinburgh by the company of Mr. William Murray, a descendant of the traitor Murray of Broughton. Mr. Charles Mackay made a capital Bailie, and the piece remains a favourite with Scotch audiences. It is plain, from the reviews, that in one respect “Rob Roy” rather disappointed the world. They had expected Rob to be a much more imposing and majestic cateran, and complained that his foot was set too late on his native heather. They found too much of the drover and intriguer, too little of the traditional driver of the spoil. This was what Scott foresaw when he objected to “writing up to a title.” In fact, he did not write up to, it, and, as the “Scots Magazine” said, “shaped his story in such a manner as to throw busybodies out in their chase, with a slight degree of malicious finesse.” “All the expeditions to the wonderful cave have been thrown away, for the said cave is not once, we think, mentioned from beginning to end.”
“Rob Roy” equals “Waverley” in its pictures of Highland and Lowland society and character. Scott had clearly set himself to state his opinions about the Highlands as they were under the patriarchal system of government. The Highlanders were then a people, not lawless, indeed, but all their law was the will of their chief. Bailie Nicol Jarvie makes a statement of their economic and military condition as accurate as it is humorous. The modern “Highland Question” may be studied as well in the Bailie’s words as in volumes of history and wildernesses of blue-books. A people patriarchal and military as the Arabs of the desert were suddenly dragged into modern commercial and industrial society. All old bonds were snapped in a moment; emigration (at first opposed by some of the chiefs) and the French wars depleted the country of its “lang-leggit callants, gaun wanting the breeks.” Cattle took the place of men, sheep of cattle, deer of sheep, and, in the long peace, a population grew up again—a population destitute of employment even more than of old, because war and robbery had ceased to be outlets for its energy. Some chiefs, as Dr. Johnson said, treated their lands as an attorney treats his row of cheap houses in a town. Hence the Highland Question,—a question in which Scott’s sympathies were with the Highlanders. “Rob Roy,” naturally, is no mere “novel with a purpose,” no economic tract in disguise. Among Scott’s novels it stands alone as regards its pictures of passionate love. The love of Diana Vernon is no less passionate for its admirable restraint. Here Scott displays, without affectation, a truly Greek reserve in his art. The deep and strong affection of Diana Vernon would not have been otherwise handled by him who drew the not more immortal picture of Antigone. Unlike modern novelists, Sir Walter deals neither in analysis nor in rapturous effusions. We can, unfortunately, imagine but too easily how some writers would peep and pry into the concealed emotions of that maiden heart; how others would revel in tears, kisses, and caresses. In place of all these Scott writes:—
|She extended her hand, but I clasped her to my bosom. She sighed as she extricated herself from the embrace which she permitted, escaped to the door which led to her own apartment, and I saw her no more.|
Months pass, in a mist of danger and intrigue, before the lovers meet again in the dusk and the solitude.
“Mr. Francis Osbaldistone,” cries the girl’s voice through the moonlight, “should not whistle his favourite airs when he wishes to remain undiscovered.”
And Diana Vernon—for she, wrapped in a horseman’s cloak, was the last speaker—whistled in playful mimicry the second part of the tune, which was on my lips when they came up.
Surely there was never, in story or in song, a lady so loving and so light of heart, save Rosalind alone. Her face touches Frank’s, as she says goodbye for ever “It was a moment never to be forgotten, inexpressibly bitter, yet mixed with a sensation of pleasure so deeply soothing and affecting as at once to unlock all the floodgates of the heart.”
She rides into the night, her lover knows the hysterica passio of poor Lear, but “I had scarce given vent to my feelings in this paroxysm ere I was ashamed of my weakness.”
These were men and women who knew how to love, and how to live. All men who read “Rob Roy” are innocent rivals of Frank Osbaldistone. Di Vernon holds her place in our hearts with Rosalind, and these airy affections, like the actual emotions which they mimic, are not matters for words. This lady, so gay, so brave, so witty and fearless, so tender and true, who “endured trials which might have dignified the history of a martyr, . . . who spent the day in darkness and the night in vigil, and never breathed a murmur of weakness or complaint,” is as immortal in men’s memories as the actual heroine of the White Rose, Flora Macdonald. Her place is with Helen and Antigone, with Rosalind and Imogen, the deathless daughters of dreams. She brightens the world as she passes, and our own hearts tell us all the story when Osbaldistone says, “You know how I lamented her.”
In the central interest, which, for once, is the interest of love, “Rob Roy” attains the nobility, the reserve, the grave dignity of the highest art. It is not easy to believe that Frank Osbaldistone is worthy of his lady; but here no man is a fair judge. In the four novels—“Waverley,” “Guy Mannering,” “The Antiquary,” and “Rob Roy”—which we have studied, the hero has always been a young poet. Waverley versified; so did Mannering; Lovel “had attempted a few lyrical pieces;” and, in Osbaldistone’s rhymes, Scott parodied his own
blast of that dread horn|
On Fontarabian echoes borne.
All the heroes, then, have been poets, and Osbaldistone’s youth may have been suggested by Scott’s memories of his own, and of the father who “feared that he would never be better than a gangrel scrapegut.” Like Henry Morton, in “Old Mortality,” Frank Osbaldistone is on the political side taken by Scott’s judgment, not by his emotions. To make Di Vernon convert him to Jacobitism would have been to repeat the story of Waverley. Still, he would have been more sympathetic if he had been converted. He certainly does not lack spirit, as a sportsman, or “on an occasion,” as Sir William Hope says in “The Scots’ Fencing Master,” when he encounters Rashleigh in the college gardens. Frank, in short, is all that a hero should be, and is glorified by his affection.
Of the other characters, perhaps Rob Roy is too sympathetically drawn. The materials for a judgment are afforded by Scott’s own admirable historical introduction. The Rob Roy who so calmly “played booty,” and kept a foot in either camp, certainly falls below the heroic. His language has been criticised in late years, and it has been insisted that the Highlanders never talked Lowland Scotch. But Scott has anticipated these cavils in the eighteenth chapter of the second volume. Certainly no Lowlander knew the Highlanders better than he did, and his ear for dialect was as keen as his musical ear was confessedly obtuse. Scott had the best means of knowing whether Helen MacGregor would be likely to soar into heroics as she is apt to do. In fact, here “we may trust the artist.”
The novel is as rich as any in subordinate characters full of life and humour. Morris is one of the few utter cowards in Scott. He has none of the passionate impulses towards courage of the hapless hero in “The Fair Maid of Perth.” The various Osbaldistones are nicely discriminated by Diana Vernon, in one of those “Beatrix moods” which Scott did not always admire, when they were displayed by “Lady Anne” and other girls of flesh and blood. Rashleigh is of a nature unusual in Scott. He is, perhaps, Sir Walter’s nearest approach, for malignant egotism, to an Iago. Of Bailie Nicol Jarvie commendation were impertinent. All Scotland arose, called him hers, laughed at and applauded her civic child. Concerning Andrew Fairservice, the first edition tells us what the final edition leaves us to guess—that Tresham “may recollect him as gardener at Osbaldistone Hall.” Andrew was not a friend who could be shaken off. Diana may have ruled the hall, but Andrew must have remained absolute in the gardens, with “something to maw that he would like to see mawn, or something to saw that he would like to see sawn, or something to ripe that he would like to see ripen, and sae he e’en daikered on wi’ the family frae year’s end to year’s end,” and life’s end. His master “needed some carefu’ body to look after him.”
Only Shakspeare and Scott could have given us medicines to make us like this cowardly, conceited “jimp honest” fellow, Andrew Fairservice, who just escapes being a hypocrite by dint of some sincere old Covenanting leaven in his veins. We make bold to say that the creator of Parolles and Lucie, and many another lax and lovable knave, would, had he been a Scot, have drawn Andrew Fairservice thus, and not otherwise.
The critics of the hour censured, as they were certain to censure, the construction, and especially the conclusion, of “Rob Roy.” No doubt the critics were right. In both Scott and Shakspeare there is often seen a perfect disregard of the denouement. Any moderately intelligent person can remark on the huddled-up ends and hasty marriages in many of Shakspeare’s comedies; Moliere has been charged with the same offence; and, if blame there be, Scott is almost always to blame. Thackeray is little better. There must be some reason that explains why men of genius go wrong where every newspaper critic, every milliner’s girl acquainted with circulating libraries, can detect the offence.
In the closing remarks of “Old Mortality” Scott expresses himself humorously on this matter of the dénouement. His schoolmaster author takes his proofsheets to Miss Martha Buskbody, who was the literary set in Gandercleugh, having read through the whole stock of three circulating libraries. Miss Buskbody criticises the Dominic as Lady Louisa Stuart habitually criticised Sir Walter. “Your plan of omitting a formal conclusion will never do!” The Dominie replies, “Really, madam, you must be aware that every volume of a narrative turns less and less interesting as the author draws to a conclusion,—just like your tea, which, though excellent hyson, is necessarily weaker and more insipid in the last cup.” He compares the orthodox happy ending to “the luscious lump of half-dissolved sugar” usually found at the bottom of the cup. This topic might be discussed, and indeed has been discussed, endlessly. In our actual lives it is probable that most of us have found ourselves living for a year, or a month, or a week, in a chapter or half a volume of a novel, and these have been our least happy experiences. But we have also found that the romance vanishes away like a ghost, dwindles out, closes with ragged ends, has no dénouement. Then the question presents itself, As art is imitation, should not novels, as a rule, close thus? The experiment has frequently been tried, especially by the modern geniuses who do not conceal their belief that their art is altogether finer than Scott’s, or, perhaps, than Shakspeare’s.
In his practice, and in his Dominie’s critical remarks, Sir Walter appears inclined to agree with them. He was just as well aware as his reviewers, or as Lady Louisa Stuart, that the conclusion of “Rob Roy” is “huddled up,” that the sudden demise of all the young Baldistones is a high-handed measure. He knew that, in real life, Frank and Di Vernon would never have met again after that farewell on the moonlit road. But he yielded to Miss Buskbody’s demand for “a glimpse of sunshine in the last chapter;” he understood the human liking for the final lump of sugar. After all, fiction is not, any more than any other art, a mere imitation of life: it is an arrangement, a selection. Scott was too kind, too humane, to disappoint us, the crowd of human beings who find much of our happiness in dreams. He could not keep up his own interest in his characters after he had developed them; he could take pleasure in giving them life,—he had little pleasure in ushering them into an earthly paradise; so that part of his business he did carelessly, as his only rivals in literature have also done it.
The critics censured, not unjustly, the “machinery” of the story,—these mysterious “assets” of Osbaldistone and Tresham, whose absence was to precipitate the Rising of 1715. The “Edinburgh Review” lost its heart (Jeffrey’s heart was always being lost) to Di Vernon. But it pronounces that “a king with legs of marble, or a youth with an ivory shoulder,” heroes of the “Arabian Nights” and of Pindar, was probable, compared with the wit and accomplishments of Diana. This is hypercriticism. Diana’s education, under Rashleigh, had been elaborate; her acquaintance with Shakspeare, her main strength, is unusual in women, but not beyond the limits of belief. Here she is in agreeable contrast to Rose Bradwardine, who had never heard of “Romeo and Juliet.” In any case, Diana compels belief as well as wins affection, while we are fortunate enough to be in her delightful company.
As long as we believe in her, it is not of moment to consider whether her charms are incompatible with probability.
“Rob Roy” was finished in spite of “a very bad touch of the cramp for about three weeks in November, which, with its natural attendants of dulness and, weakness, made me unable to get our matters forward till last week,” says Scott to Constable. “But,” adds the unconquerable author, “I am resting myself here a few days before commencing my new labours, which will be untrodden ground, and, I think, pretty likely to succeed.” The “new labours” were “The Heart of Mid-Lothian.”