Thursday, March 12, 2015

composed of the most vulgar materials: Walter Scott visits Edinburgh

Colonel Mannering, after threading a dark lane or two, reached the High Street, then clanging with the voices of oyster-women and the bells of pye-men; for it had, as his guide assured him, just' chappit eight upon the Tron.' It was long since Mannering had been in the street of a crowded metropolis, which, with its noise and clamour, its sounds of trade, of revelry, and of license, its variety of lights, and the eternally changing bustle of its hundred groups, offers, by night especially, a spectacle which, though composed of the most vulgar materials when they are separately considered, has, when they are combined, a striking and powerful effect on the imagination. The extraordinary height of the houses was marked by lights, which, glimmering irregularly along their front, ascended so high among the attics that they seemed at length to twinkle in the middle sky. This coup d'aeil, which still subsists in a certain degree, was then more imposing, owing to the uninterrupted range of buildings on each side, which, broken only at the space where the North Bridge joins the main street, formed a superb and uniform place, extending from the front of the Lucken-booths to the head of the Canongate, and corresponding in breadth and length to the uncommon height of the buildings on either side.
Walter Scott provides his reader with a trip to Edinburgh and descriptions of local color: the streets, the houses, the high-jinks in the taverns, a middle-class funeral, etc. Why? Because he can, that's why. Mannering is sent on a trip to the City to settle business that could have been done via post, in two pages of narrative, because Walter Scott wants to talk about the view of the Firth of Forth from Lawyer Pleydell's library. He also wants to remind the reader that Scotland was home to many of the great philosophical and literary minds of the 18th and 19th centuries (lunch with David Hume*, John Clerk, Adam Smith and others, though alas all off-screen).

I was originally going to put Scott's description of Edinburgh against bits from John Ruskin's lectures about that city's architecture ("Of all the cities in the British Islands, Edinburgh is the one which presents most advantages for the display of a noble building; and which, on the other hand, sustains most injury in the erection of a commonplace or unworthy one."), but I have decided not to. The reader is encouraged to imagine such a juxtaposition, however.

This morning it occurred to me that Guy Mannering is, in some important ways, a book about fatherhood, or at least about father figures and the treatment of children. So again, a clear precursor to Dickens. I might write more about that. Or, I might not. I'm sure that twenty-three seconds spent on google or JSTOR would reveal a great wealth of scholarly writing about this subject that would make any contribution of mine redundant.

*In a chronological slip-up (a constant danger for writers of historical fiction), Scott has Mannering dine with Hume sometime in the early 1780s, by which time Hume was already dead. I sympathize with Scott, for a variety of reasons.

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