Review 1610: The Talisman

The Talisman is one of Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels set during the Crusades. In terms of how much it’s based in actual history, I would say not much. For one thing, Scott has bought the myth of the Knights Templar being evil and makes the Templar Grand Master the villain of this novel. However, my 1907 edition of the novel is being marketed as a boys’ adventure story, so its roots are more in the tradition of the old-fashioned romance, in the medieval sense of the word, than based in actual history. I know very little about the Crusades but enough to have spotted several things that were wrong. However, I also don’t know what sources Scott may have been using for his historical background.

On the crusade with Richard the Lion Heart, Sir Kenneth is a poor Scottish knight of no illustrious family who has fallen in love with Edith Plantagenet, a lady far above his station. King Richard being ill, Sir Kenneth travels to see a holy man and healer whom the court ladies are visiting. While he is there, Edith gives him a sign of her favor.

He returns to the Christian camp bringing Saladin’s doctor with him to cure Richard. Richard is quickly cured and almost immediately gets involved in a dispute about his banner. The jealous Austrian Duke has placed his banner next to Richard’s and Richard is furious. He removes the Duke’s banner quite rudely and orders Sir Kenneth to guard his own.

Sir Kenneth is guarding the banner when he receives a message from Lady Edith asking him to come to her immediately. At first, he refuses, but then he thinks this may be his only chance to see her, and he will be gone only a few minutes. He decides to leave his dog to guard the banner. But when he arrives, he finds out that Queen Berengaria has summoned him in Edith’s name as part of a bet and a joke. Kenneth returns to his post to find the banner gone and his dog wounded. Now he’s in big trouble for disobeying orders.

Aside from this silly plot, there is also the one where King Richard’s Christian rivals are plotting against him. Eventually, they send an assassin after him.

This novel is a farrago of nonsense that just gets sillier as it goes on, and it is also written very floridly, combining archaic-sounding speeches with the flowery, elaborate speech of the East. Interestingly enough, Scott was heavily criticized for inventing a Plantagenet (Edith) but not for the more egregious historical errors in this novel. It is not Scott at his best.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Day 1010: The Antiquary

Cover for The AntiquaryThe Antiquary was considered Scott’s gothic novel, but I felt it was more a romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The only gothic elements involve trickery and a ruined abbey. This novel was Scott’s favorite, as well. It is not mine, but it does have a good deal of humor.

The antiquary is Mr. Oldbuck, loquacious to a fault, a man who likes to lecture others on the history of every object that he sees and every subject in conversation. He befriends a young man he meets on a journey, Mr. Lovel, who arrives in the area on undisclosed business.

Mr. Oldbuck has a friend, Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur handles his money poorly and is in the thrall of a German conman, Herr Dousterswivel, who is trying to further deplete him. Mr. Lovel has formerly met Miss Wardour and proposed to her, but she has turned him down because of his lack of birth.

There are several plot lines in The Antiquary—the machinations of the German, the state of Mr. Lovel’s romance, and a terrible secret of the house of Glenallen that begins to emerge upon the death of the countess.

The dialogue for this novel is in Scottish dialect except for the well-born characters, and there is a good deal of humor around the characters of Mr. Oldbuck and of the rustics.  A beggar named Edie Ochiltree acts as a deux ex machina so often that I began to think the novel should have been called The Beggar. I enjoyed this novel, just not as much as I  have some others of Scott’s.

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Day 980: Guy Mannering

Cover for Guy ManneringGuy Mannering is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, set in Scotland and featuring Scottish dialect and folklore. It is a romping adventure, with smugglers, hidden caves, a kidnapped child, a gypsy queen, a hidden identity, and murder.

The novel begins in the 1760’s with a visit by Mannering as a young man to Ellangowan, an estate on the southwest cost of Scotland. Mannering arrives there on a rambling tour in time for the birth of Harry Bertram, the son of the Laird of Ellangowan. Mannering is an amateur astrologer, and he casts the baby’s horoscope, revealing that he will encounter dangers at the ages of 5 and 21. Then Mannering disappears from the story for 21 years.

The tragedy of the household occurs when Harry is five. He disappears after being the inadvertent witness to the murder of a customs officer. The family assumes he has been murdered. His foolish father being overwrought by grief, the estate is plundered by his agent Glossin, and Bertram is bankrupted.

Mannering comes back on the scene after many years as an army officer in India. He arrives in time to witness the sale of the Bertram estate to Glossin. It cannot be saved from its debtors without a male heir, and there is only Lucy Bertram, born the day her brother disappeared. In his fury at Glossin, Bertram has a fit and dies, leaving Lucy without home or money. Since Mannering’s daughter will be joining him in a nearby manor, he offers Lucy a home.

Mannering has his own troubles with his daughter Julia. In India, he had reason to believe that a young officer, Vanbeest Brown, was courting his wife, so he challenged him to a duel and wounded him. But Brown was actually courting Mannering’s daughter, and her guardian has caught her meeting secretly with him. Mannering summons Julia to join him, but Brown soon follows.

It is when Brown arrives in the locality that the plot heats up, for he begins finding things familiar, and he meets a mysterious gypsy woman named Meg Merrilies who makes some mysterious pronouncements. Of course, it soon obvious that Brown is the long-lost heir to Ellangowan. But he has the enmity of local villains, who are afraid he can accuse them of murder and malfeasance against him, as well as circumstances that appear to convict him of a crime. Moreover, he doesn’t know who he is, and once he knows, how will he prove it?

This is an entertaining adventure novel about the wild borderlands of Scotland. It has some fine villains, upright heroes, and an amusing couple of comic characters, one being the farmer Dandy Dinmont, a terrier breeder, whose name has since been taken for a breed of terriers.

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Day Six: Waverly

Cover for WaverlyI have been trying to offer a mix here, not just mystery mystery mystery, and so far I have just reviewed books I’ve liked. But I plan to also review books I didn’t like. This book isn’t one of them; I’m just warning you.

I had a hard time even getting interested in reading anything by Sir Walter Scott after having been forced to plow through the dreaded and deadly dull Ivanhoe in high school. I tried rereading it again some years ago because sometimes things you find dull in high school are more interesting when you’re older, but it wasn’t. I have often wondered what criteria high schools use when picking the English curriculum, when there are much more vibrant classics available. I can only suppose that they thought a tale of knights, derring-do (whatever that is), and Richard the Lionheart would interest high school students. When you read Ivanhoe, it’s hard to imagine that at one time Scott’s books were waited for with bated breath by the whole family.

But most of us probably haven’t tried to read his Scottish novels, or the Waverly novels, as they are called. This review is about the novel called Waverly, presumably the one the others are named after. It was written in 1814 but is set in 1745. Scott’s Scots dialects are a little difficult—a glossary would be nice—and he can occasionally be a bit long-winded, but his Scottish novels are much more interesting and amusing than Ivanhoe.

Waverly is a dreamy, wealthy youth brought up in England who has been neglected by his father and raised by his uncle, a man of Jacobite sympathies. A romantic man of undetermined principles, he cannot decide what to do with himself, so he is sent off by his uncle to join the army.

On leave from a regiment stationed in Lowland Scotland, he goes to visit an old friend of his uncle. He makes a visit to the Highlands out of curiosity and ends up embroiled in the Jacobite conspiracy. He is charged with desertion and treason, mostly because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Part of Scott’s intent, I believe, was to show the British of the times that the Highland Scots were not just a bunch of savages and to depict them realistically.

The book is entertaining and humorous at times, and also occasionally a little ponderous. Waverly is a hapless hero who finds himself drawn into one fix after another, which perhaps makes him a more modern protagonist than you would expect.