Tuesday, March 10, 2015

quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon: more Guy Mannering

I feel the terrors of a child who has in heedless sport put in motion some powerful piece of machinery; and, while he beholds wheels revolving, chains clashing, cylinders rolling around him, is equally astonished at the tremendous powers which his weak agency has called into action, and terrified for the consequences which he is compelled to await, without the possibility of averting them.
The above is the ending of a letter from Julia Mannering to her bosom friend, Matilda Marchmont. It could also stand as notice from Walter Scott, author of Guy Mannering, that the machinery of the novel's plot has built up a good head of steam and is about to go crashing through the landscape of western Scotland. Guy Mannering is a very plotty romance (by which I mean 19th-century adventure-with-heroes) novel; you can see the influence Scott had on Dickens.

To illustrate, I'll give you a summary of the events of, say, the first half of the book:
  • Guy Mannering, young Oxford student on vacation in Scotland, is benighted at Ellangowan manor on the night where Lady Ellangown gives birth to a son, Harry. Mannering was raised in part by a vicar who practiced astrology, and so Mannering thinks it would be a good lark to cast young Harry's horoscope. See my previous post about astrology in Guy Mannering.
  • Mannering returns to Oxford, then invisibly joins the English army and goes off to India. Five years after the opening scenes, young Harry goes missing; he's believed murdered by smugglers.
  • Seventeen more years pass:
    Our narration is now about to make a large stride, and omit a space of nearly seventeen years; during which nothing occurred of any particular consequence with respect to the story we have undertaken to tell. The gap is a wide one; yet if the reader's experience in life enables him to look back on so many years, the space will scarce appear longer in his recollection than the time consumed in turning these pages.
    Lord Ellangowan is in financial disgrace and his estate is being auctioned off. His teenaged daughter Lucy is being very brave about it all. Enter Guy Mannering, now wealthy and retired from the army, a heroic veteran of all sorts of heroic action in India. He rents an estate up the way from Ellangowan, which is sold to a young punk (a lawyer, of all things) who made a lot of money abetting the smuggling trade.
  • Before Mannering and his daughter (the above-quoted Julia) move into their rented estate, Julia is pursued by one Mr Brown, a young officer who served under Mannering in India. To nobody's surprise, Brown is in fact Harry Ellangowan, who was kidnapped and raised in Holland. Brown is pitching woo to Julia. Mannering, unaware of Brown's true identity, disapproves.
  • Mannering, after moving into his rented estate, has a violent run-in with smugglers. One smuggler--the very one who kidnapped Harry Ellangowan/Mr Brown seventeen years ago--is shot dead.
  • Mr Brown has taken a long and interesting (to Walter Scott, at any rate) walking tour of Scotland, during which he has run foul of smugglers and had all of his possessions stolen. He is saved by one Meg Merrilies, a gypsy who recognizes Brown as Harry Ellangowan now fully grown. Meg gives Harry a purse full of his own family jewels and a lot of cash. Later, Brown has an unfortunate tangle with Mr Hazelwood, the son of a wealthy neighbor of the Mannerings. During their scuffle, Hazelwood's fowling piece goes off and the shot wounds Hazelwood. Brown flees, and is now wanted for attempted murder. This scene, which causes Julia Mannering to write the passage which begins this post, is, I must admit, highly unlikely.
  • Gilbert Glossin, Esquire, the corrupt lawyer who purchased Ellangowan estate 150 pages back, is now one of the magistrates of the county, and he has decided to diligently pursue the arrest of Mr Brown, in order to gain the favor of the local lords, who have always (rightfully, we are told) despised and shunned him. Glossin puts two-and-two together: Mr Brown is Harry Ellangowan, returned to Scotland. If Harry/Brown becomes known, then Glossin will have no right to Ellangowan estate, as Harry is the true heir and the original auction was illegal. Glossin conspires with his smuggler friends to have Harry/Brown removed from Scotland. "Oh, don't kill him, not if you don't have to," he tells the smugglers. "Leave that to us," the smugglers reply.
  • You can see, of course, where all of this will end, who will marry whom, who will get his comeuppence, etc. The usual exciting stuff.
Like I say, it's a very plotty romance novel, and as the immense chunks of plot swing and collide I am constantly put in mind of Dickens, whose novels all work in this same way: a small group of people are involved in some intrigue, are separated for years, and then brought back together by a series of coincidences while the consequences of their meeting become increasingly dire. Good stuff. This is exactly the sort of structure I am incapable of creating as a novelist.

I thought I'd quote more of the novel in this post, but apparently I'm not doing that. It's a good book, even if I point out the ridiculous nature of the plot. I don't read for plot, so I am not put off by the ridiculousness. But here, here's a bit from the middle of the book, where Scott gives us a couple of chapters that describe, in some detail, all of the manly arts of hunting as were popular in Scotland in the mid-late eighteenth century:
Without noticing the occupations of an intervening day or two, which, as they consisted of the ordinary silvan amusements of shooting and coursing, have nothing sufficiently interesting to detain the reader, we pass to one in some degree peculiar to Scotland, which may be called a sort of salmon-hunting. This chase, in which the fish is pursued and struck with barbed spears, or a sort of long-shafted trident, called a waster, is much practised at the mouth of the Esk and in the other salmon rivers of Scotland. The sport is followed by day and night, but most commonly in the latter, when the fish are discovered by means of torches, or fire-grates, filled with blazing fragments of tar-barrels, which shed a strong though partial light upon the water. On the present occasion the principal party were embarked in a crazy boat upon a part of the river which was enlarged and deepened by the restraint of a mill-wear, while others, like the ancient Bacchanals in their gambols, ran along the banks, brandishing their torches and spears, and pursuing the salmon, some of which endeavoured to escape up the stream, while others, shrouding themselves under roots of trees, fragments of stones, and large rocks, attempted to conceal themselves from the researches of the fishermen. These the party in the boat detected by the slightest indications; the twinkling of a fin, the rising of an airbell, was sufficient to point out to these adroit sportsmen in what direction to use their weapon.

The scene was inexpressibly animating to those accustomed to it; but, as Brown was not practised to use the spear, he soon tired of making efforts which were attended with no other consequences than jarring his arms against the rocks at the bottom of the river, upon which, instead of the devoted salmon, he often bestowed his blow. Nor did he relish, though he concealed feelings which would not have been understood, being quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon, as they lay flapping about in the boat, which they moistened with their blood. He therefore requested to be put ashore...
I think we'll all go ashore at this point, but first I note that one of the fishermen, a certain Gabriel, is of course one of the smugglers involved in Harry's original kidnapping. There is so much looping back with every character in this book that I sometimes feel I'm reading Graham Swift's Waterland.

5 comments:

  1. Two chapters of hunting and fishing, that's perfect.

    The plot of Waverley is less plotty; the plot of the following novel is more like what you describe here except much worse, more compressed and trivial. Bout of course Scott is working out how to tell this kind of story as fiction. No one else had ever done it. Pure experimentation.

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    1. The historical lore of hunting and fishing appeals to me also, and I note that some lower-class figures seem to take the stage at various points--unusual. I will have read Scott. Some day. Not this day.

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    2. Loads of lower-class figures in Guy Mannering. Mostly they are presented as eccentric characters, though I'm not sure there is any sort of "normal" proposed by the author even if the whole cast can be quickly and easily sorted into a variety of types. Mannering himself is an upright, hard-working, morally spotless, highly intelligent sort of stiff. He's much less fun as a responsible adult than he is at the start of the book, writing horoscopes as a lark. But there's no reason not to read Scott, or at least this novel. Good stuff, I say.

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  2. For a long time, one of Scott's most famous characters was a beggar, Edie Ochiltree from The Antiquary, a genuinely great character in a mediocre novel. A surprising part of the idea that the novel was a means to create sympathy for the poor (or the Jews, see Ivanhoe) lies with Scott.

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    1. Scott wrote so many books, that I have no idea which I'll read next. Probably Waverly.But you can really see him working with the ideas of structure and form in Mannering; it's sort of a kitchen-sink approach to the novel. There are excerpts from Mannering's letters to a friend where he talks about conversations he had with Scotland's greatest philosophers (dinner with Hume, anyone? though Hume was actually dead by the time Mannering made his trip to Edinburg), and that sort of thing. "What else can I put in here?" Scott thinks, casting an eye round his study. He's trying to create verisimilitude. A lot of his ideas are common narrative tactics today; just not all of them in the same book.

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