February 4, 2007

Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor

This novel, like Wuthering Heights, is on my list of "alternates" to consider for my 19th-century fiction course--it would replace Waverley, which I have persisted in teaching for over a decade, despite its inevitable status as least-popular-book-on-the-reading-list. I thought I'd review Bride in particular because not only is it relatively short (OK, by 19thC standards) but its tragic plot and gloomy drama seem likely to have more crowd appeal. I did, mostly, enjoy reading through it this time: it's relatively fast moving (again, by 19thC standards) and there's plenty of thematically interesting material to work with, especially about fate vs. individual choice or agency, women and power, aesthetics, and also some of the same historical and historiographcial problems explored by Waverley. But--though this may be because I have not worked with Bride carefully at this point--Waverley just seems much more useful for demonstrating what Scott means to the history of the novel...plus (though I usually have trouble convincing all but a few students of this) Waverley is a very funny novel, and except for the tedious Caleb, Bride is pretty slim on humour.

Thinking about Scott while also beginning Linda Holeman's The Linnet Bird has helped me clarify a bit what I mean when I say I find a book "thin." Holeman's novel, while entertaining so far, does not give a rich sense of why, historically, its people are as they are: what are the social, economic, intellectual, and other structures that shape (if not necessarily determine) the options they have and the ways they understand them? Both Scott and George Eliot are particularly good at presenting their stories of past times so that you understand that a plot just like this particular one would not unfold in the same way, not just with different characters, but at a different historical moment. Other Victorian novelists have been described as writing 'histories of the present,' because they perceive their own time with a similar commitment to understanding its complexity and contingency. My dissatisfaction with Quindlen's Black and Blue can be traced to a deficiency in its historical sense as well, I think: though unlike The Linnet Bird it is not deliberately a historical novel, it might have done much more to explore violence against women as a phenomenon manifested in a particular way at a particular time. What are the forces and systems that enable a husband's violence, a wife's shame and submission, in that place at that time, so that at some other point along the way things would have developed differently? What are the ideas of masculinity or femininity that are at stake? Many more specific questions would fill in this list (for instance, questions about the significance of Fran's job). Quindlen focuses much more on the psychological, individual factors--on personalities--than on these broader issues, but her novel thus stands more as a case study than a social analysis, taken from a late 20th-century context it does not attempt to understand. In that sense it is written for its own time (contemporary readers will fill in that context based on their own sense of how things work today) rather than to offer insights (rather than snapshots) for later generations of readers. Is it fear of exposition (of the dreaded 'telling,' instead of 'showing') that limits how much explanation authors writing for a general readership are willing to include? In Waverley, Scott apologizes for his lengthy accounts of history and politics but protests in his defense that his story will not be intelligible without them. In the deeper sense--that is, beyond the simple action of the plot--every story relies on that kind of context, and I appreciate novelists able to integrate it in some engaging way, thus offering the reader a fuller picture of what the world looks like from their perspective. (I'd say this is one of McEwan's accomplishments in Saturday.)

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