St. Ronan's Well
St. Ronan's Well
Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
With Introductory Essay and Notes
by Andrew Lang
Dana Estes and Company
Publishers ... Boston
The Standard Edition
of the Novels and Poems of Sir Walter Scott. Limited to one thousandnumbered and registered sets, of which this is
By Estes and Lauriat
ST. RONAN'S WELL
|Meg Dods (p. 13)||Frontispiece|
|The Meeting in the Wood||137|
|Preparing for the Duel||198|
|Reappearance of Tyrrel||127|
|Clara entering Tyrrel's Room||307|
“‘St. Ronan's Well’ is not so much my favourite as certain of itspredecessors,” Lady Louisa Stuart wrote to Scott on March 26, 1824. “Yetstill I see the author's hand in it, et c'est tout dire. Meg Dods, themeeting” (vol. i. chap. ix.), “and the last scene between Clara and herbrother, are marked with the true stamp, not to be matched or mistaken.Is the Siege of Ptolemais really on the anvil?” she goes on, speaking ofthe projected Crusading Tales, and obviously anxious to part companywith “St. Ronan's Well.” All judgments have not agreed with LadyLouisa's. There is a literary legend or fable according to which anumber of distinguished men, all admirers of Scott, wrote downseparately the name of their favourite Waverley novel, and all, when thepapers were compared, had written “St. Ronan's.” Sydney Smith, writingto Constable on Dec. 28, 1823, described the new story as “far the bestthat has appeared for some time. Every now and then there is somemistaken or overcharged humour—but much excellent delineation ofcharacter, the story very well told, and the whole very interesting.Lady Binks, the old landlady, and Touchwood are all very good. Mrs.Blower particularly so. So are MacTurk and Lady Penelope. I wish hewould give his people better names; Sir Bingo Binks is quiteridiculous.... The curtain should have dropped on finding Clara's[Pg x]glove. Some of the serious scenes with Clara and her brother are veryfine: the knife scene masterly. In her light and gay moments Clara isvery vulgar; but Sir Walter always fails in well-bred men and women, andyet who has seen more of both? and who, in the ordinary intercourse ofsociety, is better bred? Upon the whole, I call this a very successfulexhibition.”
We have seldom found Sydney Smith giving higher praise, and nobody candeny the justice of the censure with which it is qualified. Scotthimself explains, in his Introduction, how, in his quest of novelty, heinvaded modern life, and the domain of Miss Austen. Unhappily he provedby example the truth of his own opinion that he could do “the bigbow-wow strain” very well, but that it was not his celebrare domesticafacta. Unlike George Sand, Sir Walter had humour abundantly, but, asthe French writer said of herself, he was wholly destitute of esprit.
We need not linger over definition of these qualities; but we mustrecognise, in Scott, the absence of lightness of touch, of delicacy inthe small sword-play of conversation. In fencing, all should be done,the masters tell us, with the fingers. Scott works not even with thewrist, but with the whole arm. The two-handed sword, the old claymore,are his weapons, not the rapier. This was plain enough in theword-combats of Queen Mary and her lady gaoler in Loch Leven. Much moreconspicuous is the “swashing blow” in the repartee of “St. Ronan's.” Theinsults lavished on Lady Binks are violent and cruel; even Clara Mowbraytaunts her. Now Lady Binks is in the same parlous case as thepostmistress who dreed penance “for ante-nup,” as Meg Dods says in aninterrupted harangue, and we know that, to the author's mind, ClaraMowbray had no right to throw stones. All these jeers are offensive togenerous feeling, and in the mouth of Clara[Pg xi] are intolerable. Lockhartremarked in Scott a singular bluntness of the sense of smell and oftaste. He could drink corked wine without a suspicion that there wasanything wrong with it. This curious obtuseness of a physical sense, inone whose eyesight was so keen, who, “aye was the first to find thehare” in coursing, seems to correspond with his want of lightness in theinvention of badinage. He tells us that, for a long while at least, hehad been unacquainted with the kind of society, the idle, uselessunderbred society, of watering-places. Are we to believe that thecompany at Gilsland, for instance, where he met and wooed MissCharpentier, was like the company at St. Ronan's? Lockhart vouches forthe snobbishness, “the mean admiration of mean things,” the devotion tothe slimmest appearances of rank. All this is credible enough, but, ifthere existed a society as dull and base as that which we meet in thepages of “Mr. Soapy Sponge,” and Surtees's other novels, assuredly itwas no theme for the great and generous spirit of Sir Walter. The worstkind of manners always prevail among people whom moderns call “thesecond-rate smart,” and these are drawn in “St. Ronan's Well.” But wemay believe that, even there, manners are no longer quite so hideous asin the little Tweedside watering-place. The extinction of duelling hasdestroyed, or nearly destroyed, the swaggering style of truculence;people could not behave as Mowbray and Sir Bingo behave to Tyrrel, inthe after-dinner scene. The Man of Peace, the great MacTurk, with hisharangues translated from the language of Ossian, is no longer needed,and no longer possible. Supposing manners to be correctly described in“St. Ronan's,” the pessimist himself must admit that manners haveimproved. But it is not without regret that we see a genius born forchivalry labouring in this unworthy and alien matter.[Pg xii]
The English critics delighted to accuse Scott of having committedliterary suicide. He had only stepped off the path to which he presentlyreturned. He was unfitted to write the domestic novel, and even in “St.Ronan's” he introduces events of romantic improbability. These enablehim to depict scenes of the most passionate tragedy, as in the meetingof Clara and Tyrrel. They who have loved so blindly and so kindly shouldnever have met, or never parted. It is like a tragic rendering of thescene where Diana Vernon and Osbaldistone encounter each other on themoonlit moor. The wild words of Clara, “Is it so, and was it evenyourself whom I saw even now?... And, all things considered, I do carryon the farce of life wonderfully well,”—all this passage, with thesilence of the man, is on the highest level of poetic invention, andClara ranks with Ophelia. To her strain of madness we may ascribe,perhaps, what Sydney Smith calls the vulgarity of her lighter moments.But here the genius of Shakspeare is faultless, where Scott's is mostfaulty and most mistaken.
Much confusion is caused in “St. Ronan's Well” by Scott's concession tothe delicacy of James Ballantyne. What has shaken Clara's brain? Not hersham marriage, for that was innocent, and might be legally annulled.Lockhart writes (vii. 208): “Sir Walter had shown a remarkable degree ofgood-nature in the composition of this novel. When the end came in view,James Ballantyne suddenly took vast alarm about a particular feature inthe heroine's history. In the original conception, and in the book asactually written and printed, Miss Mowbray's mock marriage had nothalted at the profane ceremony of the church; and the delicate printershrank from the idea of obtruding on the fastidious public thepossibility of any personal contamination having occurred to a high-borndamsel of[Pg xiii] the nineteenth century.” Scott answered: “You would neverhave quarrelled with it had the thing happened to a girl in gingham—thesilk petticoat can make little difference.” “James reclaimed with doubleenergy, and called Constable to the rescue; and, after some pause, theauthor very reluctantly consented to cancel and re-write abouttwenty-four pages, which was enough to obliterate, to a certain extent,the dreaded scandal—and, in a similar degree, as he always persisted,to perplex and weaken the course of his narrative, and the dark effectof its catastrophe.”
From a communication printed in the “Athenæum” of Feb. 4, 1893, extractsfrom the original proof-sheets, it seems that Lockhart forgot theoriginal plan of the novel. The mock marriage did halt at the churchdoor, but Clara's virtue had yielded to her real lover, Tyrrel, beforethe ceremony. Hannah Irwin had deliberately made opportunities for thelovers' meeting, and at last, as she says, in a cancelled passage, “thedevil and Hannah Irwin prevailed.” There followed remorse, and adetermination not to meet again before the Church made them one, and, onthe head of this, the mock marriage shook Clara's reason. This was theoriginal plan; it declares itself in the scene between Tyrrel and Clara(vol. i. chap, ix.): “Wherefore should not sorrow be the end of sin andfolly?” The reviewer in the “Monthly Review” (1824) says “there is ahint of some deeper cause of grief (see the confession to the brother),but it is highly problematical.” For all this the delicacy of JamesBallantyne is to blame—his delicacy, and Scott's concessions to arespectable man and a bad critic.
The origin of “St. Ronan's Well” has been described by Lockhart in afamiliar passage. As Laidlaw, Scott, and Lockhart were riding along thebrow of the triple-peaked Eildon Hills, Scott mentioned “the row” that[Pg xiv]was going on in Paris about “Quentin Durward.” “I can't but think Icould make better play still with something German,” he said. Laidlawgrumbled at this: “You are always best, like Helen MacGregor, when yourfoot is on your native heath; and I have often thought that if you wereto write a novel, and lay the scene here in the very year you werewriting it, you would exceed yourself.” “Hame's hame,” quoth Scott,smiling, “be it ever sae hamely,” and Laidlaw bade him “stick to Melrosein 1823.” It was now that Scott spoke of the village tragedy, theromance of every house, of every cottage, and told a tale of somehorrors in the hamlet that lies beyond Melrose, on the north side ofTweed. Laidlaw and Lockhart believed that this conversation suggested“St. Ronan's Well,” the scene of which has been claimed as their own bythe people of Innerleithen. This little town is beautifully situatedwhere the hills of Tweed are steepest, and least resemble the bossesverdâtres of Prosper Mérimée. It is now a manufacturing town, like itsneighbours, and contributes its quota to the pollution of “theglittering and resolute streams of Tweed.” The pilgrim will scarce rivalTyrrel's feat of catching a clean-run salmon in summer, but the scenesare extremely pleasing, and indeed, from this point to Dryburgh, thebeautiful and fabled river is at its loveliest. It is possible that alittle inn farther up the water, “The Crook,” on the border of themoorland, and near Tala Linn, where the Covenanters held a famousassembly, may have suggested the name of the “Cleikum.” Lockhartdescribes the prosperity which soon flowed into Innerleithen, and theSt. Ronan's Games, at which the Ettrick Shepherd presided gleefully.They are still held, or were held very lately, but there will never comeagain such another Shepherd, or such contests with the Flying Tailor ofEttrick.[Pg xv]
Apart from the tragedy of Clara, doubtless the better parts of “St.Ronan's Well” are the Scotch characters. Even our generation remembersmany a Meg Dods, and he who writes has vividly in his recollection justsuch tartness, such goodness of heart, such ungoverned eloquence andvigour of rebuke as made Meg famous, successful on the stage, andwelcome to her countrymen. These people, Mrs. Blower and Meg, areShakspearean, they live with Dame Quickly and Shallow, in the hearts ofScots, but to the English general they are possibly caviare. In thegallant and irascible MacTurk we have the waning Highlander: heresembles the Captain of Knockdunder in “The Heart of Mid Lothian,” oran exaggerated and ill-educated Hector of “The Antiquary.” Concerningthe women of the tale, it may be said that Lady Binks has greatqualities, and appears to have been drawn “with an eye on