Friday, August 09, 2013

Enemy Books: The Scottish Chiefs

Part of a series of thus far fairly one-sided discourse on the merits and demerits of certain books which have the ill fortune to fall afoul of me.

My relationship to this novel is fairly ambiguous in that when I first read it, I was fairly taken by it though I had the uneasy feeling that it was a wee bit trashy in its melodrama.


Imperfectly Remembered Synopsis:

Surprisingly, it is set with the same characters and in the same time as the film that led Mel Gibson to prominence in his role as a roughly clad 13th century barbarian with powder-blue strips across his cheekbones — by which of course I mean Braveheart.

But the William Wallace of the author Jane Porter's imagination is rather an overgrown extrapolation (with extra muscles) of the ideal 18th-century hero, the pure and magnanimous enthusiast of the clear and civilized passions and no discernibly individual character.

Her plot and treatment of history still tip her into Romantic territory in my view. The literary nationalism, interest in medieval history and the fact that her hero is at home in the outdoors and the rough-and-tumble of military campaigning help position it. At the risk of perpetrating humbug, her book fits the age of the young Kosciuszko and George Washington but makes itself even more at home in the age of Byron and the French Revolution. The book was first published in 1810, so there is really not much need to estimate this chronology. Sir Walter Scott she is not, and still I for one am glad that her simpler ambitions steer her clear of the unfortunate proclivities of Scott's, e.g. prologues.

At the centrepoint of the book, the chief heroine is Helen of Mar. She is a noblewoman who meets the Scottish hero by way of being rescued by him from the clutches of the dastardly foe. Had Helen been born six hundred years later, on a continent across the seas, she would surely have been plucked off the railroad tracks of the Wild West, still struggling in a coil of restrictive rope in which the villain has fettered her, by some doughty cowboy or Army officer. She comes to idolize William Wallace as a freedom fighter — all the inglorious deeds of the historical William Wallace are expunged from the novel with a Victorian-esque disregard for truth when it impedes a good moral lecture — and then comes Love. Her beloved is pretty busy with the English and must besides possess some grain of Inscrutability to impress the reader, so his sentiments are unknown even though his chivalrous esteem for the fair damozel is indubitable.

Then, of course, the English are uncharacteristically successful. They manage to capture the Scottish hero, and I probably needn't reveal the ending and its squicky martyr-fest. The author's comfort is that Robert the Bruce still became King of Scotland and so The Cause prevailed, or so I remember.

As a yarn the tale isn't half bad, but it hits on archetypes (like a wicked stepmother, too) so well that one is tempted to call them clichés. Its world and in particular its characterization are not healthy or natural.

The reason for determining The Scottish Chiefs to be an Enemy Book is, however, its indigestible — dyspepsia-provoking, if you prefer — freight of sentiment, sugar and sap.

Completeness of Ordeal: Read at least 2 times, entirely.
Birthdate of Enmity: ca. 2003. Previous reading perhaps 3 or 4 years earlier.
Likelihood That Enmity Is Justified: 90%


Evidence for the Prosecution:
when at the age of twenty-two the enraptured lover was allowed to pledge that faith publicly at the altar, which he had so often vowed in secret to his Marion, he clasped her to his heart, and softly whispered: "Dearer than life! part of my being! blessed is this union, that mingles thy soul with mine, now, and forever!"

Edward's invasion of Scotland broke in upon their innocent joys. Wallace threw aside the wedding garment for the cuirass and the sword. But he was not permitted long to use either—Scotland submitted to her enemies; and he had no alternative but to bow to her oppressors, or to become an exile from man, amid the deep glens of his country.

The tower of Ellerslie was henceforth the lonely abode of himself and his bride.

Source: The Scottish Chiefs, Jane Porter []


Illustration: "Die Schicksahlskönigin erscheint Prinz Arthur," (c. 1769), Johann Heinrich Füssli
Ink and aquarell on card, 38.2 × 50 cm; via Wikimedia Commons

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