The Antiquary: A Treasure-house of Details, But an Indifferent Whole

I finally finished reading Scott’s  The Antiquary, the first of my commitments for the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge. As some of you will have recognized, my title for this post is actually a line from Henry James’s review of Middlemarch. I have quoted that line often, usually as evidence of James’s failure (or refusal) to acknowledge or appreciate the extraordinary and beautiful convergence of idea and form in that great novel, but also to make the point that James’s idea of wholeness was simply quite different from Eliot’s, partly by design. He had to make his own way, after all. I am quite prepared to blame my own failure to appreciate The Antiquary as a “whole” on my own failure of understanding, my own inability to grasp the motivating or unifying idea of this odd novel. After all, I’ve read it only once, and that with difficulty. I’ll be happy to improve my reading, if only retrospectively, with the help of other people’s insights into its particular merits. (Amateur Reader–I’m counting on you here!)

I settled on The Antiquary for this project because it came highly recommended. Here’s an excerpt from one of Virginia Woolf’s letters:

I don’t know [Scott] accurately and minutely as you do, but only in a warm, scattered, amourous way. Now you have put an edge on my love, and if it weren’t that I must read MSS…I should plunge–you urge me almost beyond endurance to plunge once more–yes, I say to myself, I shall read the Monastery again and then I shall go back to Midlothian. I can’t read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favourites).

Then there’s this famous passage from Eliot’s “The Natural History of German Life”:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage, or tells the story of “The Two Drovers,”–when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of “Poor Susan,”–when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway into the first wood he ever saw,–when Hornung paints a group of chimney-sweepers,–more is done towards linking the higher classes with the lower, towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we should have false ideas about evanescent fashions–about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it isserious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour in the life of our more heavily-laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of the true one.

Eventually, I’ve always known, I probably had to get to Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage myself, and Woolf’s endorsement seemed to clinch the deal.

As it turns out, Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage is well worth a visit, if only for this exchange:

“Ay, ay,” answered Luckie Mucklebackit, “I see you hae gotten a’ your braws on; ye’re looking about for Steenie now—but he’s no at hame the night; and ye’ll no do for Steenie, lass—a feckless thing like you’s no fit to mainteen a man.”

“Steenie will no do for me,” retorted Jenny, with a toss of her head that might have become a higher-born damsel; “I maun hae a man that can mainteen his wife.”

“Ou ay, hinny—thae’s your landward and burrows-town notions. My certie!—fisherwives ken better—they keep the man, and keep the house, and keep the siller too, lass.”

“A wheen poor drudges ye are,” answered the nymph of the land to the nymph of the sea. “As sune as the keel o’ the coble touches the sand, deil a bit mair will the lazy fisher loons work, but the wives maun kilt their coats, and wade into the surf to tak the fish ashore. And then the man casts aff the wat and puts on the dry, and sits down wi’ his pipe and his gill-stoup ahint the ingle, like ony auld houdie, and neer a turn will he do till the coble’s afloat again! And the wife she maun get the scull on her back, and awa wi’ the fish to the next burrows-town, and scauld and ban wi’ilka wife that will scauld and ban wi’her till it’s sauld—and that’s the gait fisher-wives live, puir slaving bodies.”

“Slaves?—gae wa’, lass!—ca’ the head o’ the house slaves? little ye ken about it, lass. Show me a word my Saunders daur speak, or a turn he daur do about the house, without it be just to tak his meat, and his drink, and his diversion, like ony o’ the weans. He has mair sense than to ca’ anything about the bigging his ain, frae the rooftree down to a crackit trencher on the bink. He kens weel eneugh wha feeds him, and cleeds him, and keeps a’ tight, thack and rape, when his coble is jowing awa in the Firth, puir fallow. Na, na, lass!—them that sell the goods guide the purse—them that guide the purse rule the house. Show me ane o’ yer bits o’ farmer-bodies that wad let their wife drive the stock to the market, and ca’ in the debts. Na, na.”

“Aweel, aweel, Maggie, ilka land has its ain lauch.”

The Antiquary of the title, Jonathan Oldbuck, is a tedious windbag: imagine Waverley‘s Baron of Bradwardine turned protagonist and given free run of the novel, and you have some idea. Of course, he has moments of dignity and a heart of gold, the latter manifested particularly through his steadfast loyalty to his friend and long-time antagonist Sir Arthur Wardour but also through his inexplicable, immediate and unshakeable attachment to the young man Lovel whose mysterious identity becomes the creaky hinge of a fearsomely predictable long-lost-heir plot. Appreciating Oldbuck’s virtues means enduring his endlessly reiterated benevolent misogyny, something I’m sure we are supposed to grin and bear because obviously he doesn’t really hate “womankind.” But he and Lovel and Sir Arthur and the dashing but dull Hector M’Intyre and the conniving German ‘adept’ Dousterswivel and even the surprisingly melodramatic Elspeth, are all just laboring cogs in the unwieldy plot of the novel. To be sure, there’s some intrinsic interest in the Antiquary’s monologues about historical relics, etymologies, and so forth (if you like that kind of thing, well, this is the kind of thing you’ll like), and though dramatizing pedantry is a risky aesthetic strategy, Scott’s dry humor bathes Oldbuck in an affectionate glow that almost (but not quite) redeems the concept. I enjoyed the walk to poor Steenie Mucklebackit’s funeral, for instance, when poor Hector rushes off to wrestle a seal to escape his uncle’s pronouncements on the “funeral rites of the ancient Scandinavians.” There are some other pretty funny bits: the sneezing ghost sequence, for instance, and the anticlimactic non-invasion of the French. There’s some pathos, too: the funeral itself is recounted with a wonderful balance between the parents’ grief and the communal rituals that recognize it and begin the process of healing it. The minister may have the improbable name of ‘Blattergowl,’ but his anxiety about approaching the stricken mother is strikingly rendered:

The minister next passed to the mother, moving along the floor as slowly, silently, and gradually, as if he had been afraid that the ground would, like unsafe ice, break beneath his feet, or that the first echo of a footstep was to dissolve some magic spell, and plunge the hut, with all its inmates, into a subterranean abyss.

But what greatness there is in the novel seems to me highly concentrated in the character of the ‘mendicant’ Edie Ochiltree. He strides through the novel with his own unique dignity and resonance, his rootlessness giving him a particularly mobility which enables him then to mediate between the many forces and systems at play. Edie seems privy to some kind of fundamental knowledge, as well: not a ‘wise fool’ (he’s too explicitly savvy for that), he nonetheless carries the moral force of someone who sees through the inessentials.  Here I’m indebted to Adam Roberts, who through the magic of Twitter picked up my puzzlement about The Antiquary and pointed me here, where he quotes G. K. Chesterton, as he says, “at length”:

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. “Can you find no way?” asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. “I’ll give you a farm . . . I’ll make you rich.” . . . “Our riches will soon be equal,” says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.

That’s beautiful. To be clearer, Chesterton’s idea is beautiful, and so too is Scott’s, seen through this filter that allows the clutter of the novel to fall away and leaves us this piece of pure gold. I’m pretty sure The Antiquary is not a great novel, maybe not even a good one: it’s just too clunky and uneven–dull, even, for long stretches. But it has some great moments! And we read these things not because they are easy, but because they are Scottish, and they are challenging.

2 Comments to The Antiquary: A Treasure-house of Details, But an Indifferent Whole

  1. June 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have much to add to this, not that I won’t try for the next day or two. I think you’ve got Edie Ochiltree just right, with Chesterton’s help – thanks, Adam! Much of the merit of the novel comes from that one character.

    I enjoyed Oldbuck well enough, but by the end, I was on Hector’s side – please, never mention the “phoca” again! A risky character. I wonder to what extent he was pinched from Uncly Toby. What makes him passable is his own recognition of his foolishness, or perhaps that he is only truly foolish about things that don’t really matter.

    I guess I will take a shot at a more or less unifying idea tomorrow. I put something up for today, but I avoid the novel itself as much as possible. This novel is a jumble.

  2. Jim Murtagh's Gravatar Jim Murtagh
    July 14, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    I just finished reading the Antiquary, after having to pay two bucks to get it through interlibrary loan.
    I think Sir Walter does pretty well nearly 200 years after it was written. I’m content to skip the parts that are hard to follow, and enjoyed the humanity of the characters he sketches. I’m working on re-reading some of the classics I read when I was young, the adage being one should read a great book three times, once when one is young, once in middle age, and once in old age.
    I’ve read Ivanhoe, about 5 years ago now, and enjoyed it tremendously. We were working on a crossword puzzle and ‘Edie’ was the answer to a clue about the Antiquary. I looked it up in the Reader’s Encyclopedia (ed.Benet, 1965) and decided to read it.
    j

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