One well educated person I know considers The Bride of Lammermoor to have been Sir Walter Scott’s greatest novel. I think it is a great novel, and an underestimated one, but I would not rate it as highly as some of the others. First published in 1819, it enjoyed popularity, not unmixed with dissatisfaction at the darkness of the tale, and the fate of the lovers.
It does have some gloomy notes, and there is no redemption in the ordinary way, but it is extraordinarily deep, and is, besides, the best treatment of the nature of fate and destiny I have come across. It reads well, and has many interesting features, especially in its depiction of Scottish life in the early eighteenth century. But, I think its great strength is its depiction of character, and the thesis, which Scott works out implicitly, that character is fate. This saying of Heraclitus is nowhere quoted in the novel, yet it was almost certainly in Scott’s head.
Excepting the first chapter (which I shall deal with in a future post), the plot is simpler and more clearly presented than in any other Scott novel which immediately comes to mind. However, that first chapter is a pitfall. One person to whom I recently recommended the book could not read it because he found the first chapter off-putting. It is brilliant, and some parts of it are sublime, but I venture to say that it is indeed over-long.
That aside, the plot is simply that of the doomed love of Edgar Ravenswood and Lucy Ashton. It is a love which, for many good reasons, should not be, yet it is. Ravenswood is warned by clearly supernatural omens, yet he persists. It is brilliantly interwoven with the description of corruption in Scotland, which is summed up in the adage: “Show me the man and I will show you the law” (chapter 2). To that extent, it is an eloquent attack upon the injustice which acts as a subsidiary engine in driving the narrative.
Scott’s powers of observation are remarkable, and give strong evidence of his natural sense of wonder: “Music, when the performers are concealed, affects us with a pleasure mingled with surprise, and reminds us of the natural concert of birds among the leafy bowers” (chapter 3). Remember that Scott was writing long before there was recorded music.
Of all the novelists I have read (at least the English novelists), only Scott, I would say, is an education in himself. For example, one often reads that the phrase “a word to the wise” is a shortened form of “a word to the wise is sufficient.” However, Scott gives the fuller form: “A word is more to him that hath wisdom than a sermon to a fool” (chapter 8). His insights are endless: “… the next mortification after being unhappy is the being loaded with undesired commiseration” (chapter 9). Very true, and who could have put it in more elegant English?
A propos of Lady Ashton, Scott writes: “… those who are prejudiced in favour of a new acquaintance can, for a time at least, discover excellencies in his very faults, and perfections in his deficiencies” (chapter 22).
Scott was surely writing from experience when he wrote this insightful exchange:
“Innocence,” said the Lord Keeper, “is also confident, and sometimes, though very excusably, presumptuously so.”
“I do not understand,” said Ravenswood, “how a consciousness of innocence can be, in any case, accounted presumptuous.”
“Imprudent, at least, it may be called,” said Sir William Ashton, “since it is apt to lead us into the mistake of supposing that sufficiently evident to others, of which, in fact, we are only conscious ourselves. I have known a rogue, for this very reason, make a better defence than an innocent man could have done in the same circumstances of suspicion. Having no consciousness of innocence to support him, such a fellow applies himself to all the advantages which the law will afford him, and sometimes … succeeds in compelling the judges to receive him as innocent” (chapter 17)
Scott’s sense of humour was before its time. He ends chapter 7 with this comment, included because it is typical of a quaint old-fashioned character: “I durst never let a woman ken of the entrance to (the secret chamber), or your honour will allow that it was not have been a secret chamber lang.” When old Caleb Balderstone is congratulating himself on having got people out of the way so that there were fewer mouths to feed, he wryly comments: “… and Bucklaw’s gane (gone), that could have eaten a horse behind the saddle” (chapter 18).
There is this curious, and I think, wise comment about the value of education in forming within a person the power of discernment: “Bucklaw, with many qualities which would have made him a man of worth and judgment in more favourable circumstances, had been so utterly neglected in point of education, that he was apt to think and feel according to the ideas of the companions of his pleasures” (chapter 10). Again, Scott has pinpointed our suggestibility, here, our propensity to be influenced by our acquaintances. After the tragedy has played its part out, Bucklaw separates himself from his “friend”, Captain Craigengelt.
Fate and Destiny
In telling this story, Scott not only makes one wonder about fate, and how we can be so stubborn when we ought to know better, but he also offers some interesting answers. Taking his cue from Shakespeare in Macbeth, to which he refers, he has a “wise woman” who is later burned at the stake, make predictions which come true. Prophecy presents an interesting dilemma: Scott and Shakespeare both admitted the possibility of true prediction, but both spurned it. The way their stories unfold, they clearly believed that knowledge of the future robs a person of his power to choose. True foresight effectively makes us slaves of the prophecy. However, our human dignity should cause us to be free to choose to act in accordance with reason, even if doing so falsifies the prediction: what is more, both Shakespeare and Scott implicitly say, one can act otherwise than as predicted, but to do so, one must rise above one’s character.
There is a paradox. Some prophecies are true, yet we can and often should defy them. That we do not do so, is due to our character. Our character, therefore, is the basis of the prediction. But it is not all there is: our character also includes the possibility of opening to supernatural grace. Further, we should mistrust prophecies, real though they are: the curtain to the future is invariably lifted by evil powers to hypnotise us with our doom.
Here, Edgar Ravenswood, the anti-hero is also dashing and impressive. Middle-class English parents, smitten with his image, named their children “Edgar” then gave them the middle name “Ravenswood”. Although he is stubborn, he is honourable, and abandons his quest for revenge so that he might marry Lucy. This is noble. Yet, his sternness and intractability bring his own death upon him. He knows of the prophecy, yet he tempts fate, and so perishes. At the end of the book he makes this memorable speech: “Hear what I have sacrificed for you …ere you sanction what has been done in your name. The honour of an ancient family, the urgent advice of my best friends, have been in vain used to sway my resolution; neither the arguments of reason nor the portents of superstition have shaken my fidelity. The very dead have arisen to warn me, and their warning has been despised” (chapter 33).
Had Edgar been more prudent, he may have outfoxed fate, but then he would not have been who he was. And the paradox is that it is possible to be other than we are. All religion assumes this possibility.
Perhaps the theme of the novel is stated when blind Alice, who of course perceives more clearly than anyone, cries: “When did a Ravenswood seek the house of his enemy, but with the purpose of revenge? – and hither are you come, Edgar Ravenswood, either in fatal in anger, or in still more fatal love?” (chapter 19). His love shall be yet more murderous than his anger because his wrath would only destroy his target and himself: his love will envelop the innocent Lucy, too, and her family.
At the end of that chapter, she sums up the situation: “If you remain an hour under Sir William Ashton’s roof without the resolution to marry his daughter, you are a villain – if with the purpose of allying yourself with him, you are an infatuated and predestined fool.” In other words, all he could do was walk away from the situation.
This, I think, is critical: if we are to have conscious control of our lives, then we have to learn when to abandon a bad prospect. If we do not, then we are predestined to an evil fate: and love is not enough to save us, because love, at least as we know it, lies under fate (hence Alice speaks of “infatuation”). Unless we can forsake our inclinations and even our obsessions, we cannot, to that extent, be free.
Scott tells us that, on the evening of his father’s funeral, Ravenswood had pledged revenge against Sir William Ashton. However, after he, Ravenswood, had saved the lives of Ashton and his daughter, and then grew to love the young lady, he changed his mind, and “cancelled in his memory the vows of vengeance.” It was not enough. He sombrely adds: “But they (the vows to take vengeance) had been heard and registered in the book of fate” (chapter 17).
But we do not have to give way before the vicissitudes of life. When Ravenswood finds himself back at the Ravenswood Castle, now owned by Sir William, he becomes abstracted gazing at the changes made. His host calls to him, but Edgar does not attend. He calls again, and this “reminded him that he acted a weak, perhaps even a ridiculous part, in suffering himself to be overcome by the circumstances in which he found himself. He compelled himself, therefore, to enter into conversation …” (chapter 18).
The climax of the story is developed around this “prophecy” uttered by Thomas the Rhymer, “whose tongue couldna be fause” (whose tongue could not be false):
When the last laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride,
And woo a dead maiden to be his bride,
He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow.
And his name shall be lost for evermoe! (chapter 18)
Thomas’ prophecy turns out to be true, although the maiden dies after he has wooed her, not before, and Ravenswood and his horse are drowned in the quicksand called “the Kelpie’s flow” (a Kelpie is a water-spirit).
And what is our fate in any given case? At first sight, it is not so easy to say. Scott avers that: “… Lady Ashton was of opinion that her destinies would be fully and most favourably accomplished (by having Lucy marry a wealthy country gentleman)” (chapter 22). But this is clearly presented as a self-serving self-deception.
But the story gives us a clue: when there is any friction between duty and desire, always choose duty. Your fate, that is, your character, is drawing you onto the rocks of desire. This too, is how Heraclitus understood the doctrine of fate. His actual words were “Man’s character is his daimon”. Kirk, Raven and Schofield explain this as follows:
“Daimōn here means simply a man’s personal destiny; it is determined by his own character, over which he has some control, and not by external and often capricious powers … for Heraclitus, as for Solon, who had already reacted against the moral helplessness of the heroic mentality, there was a real point in intelligent and prudent behaviour.” The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed, 211-212
Another theme in the novel is innocence. I have already mentioned how innocent Lucy was sucked into the vortex of fate, and her father’s insightful disquisition on how the guilty are often more artful than the innocent. But perhaps the final word on this is the final line of the novel. Of the cruel and vindictive Sir Margaret Ashton, whose character was as responsible as Ravenswood’s fate for the tragedy, Scott writes: “A splendid marble monument records her name, titles, and virtues, while her victims remain undistinguished by tomb or epithet.” This may be the most powerful closing line I have ever read because of its truth and simplicity, shorn of any sentimentality.
It is not that the innocent alone will suffer. Scott is aware that the crafty may undo themselves. He says of Ashton that: “like many cunning persons, he over-reached himself deplorably” (chapter 21).
Scott had an ambivalent attitude to the supernatural. On the one hand he certainly believed in it, and professed to have seen a ghost, himself. Old Dame Gourlay, the “wise woman”, is portrayed as a bona fide witch, who makes true predictions in colourful language: “D’ye see her (Lady Ashton) yonder … as she prances on her grey gelding out at the kirkyard? – there’s mair o’ utter devilry in that woman, as brave and fair-fashioned as she rides yonder, than in a’ the Scotch witches that ever flew by moonlight ower North-Berwick Law” (chapter 34). It is a stunning picture. A “law” is a conical mound in Scottish, and that particular mound is striking. A kirkyard is a churchyard, and “mair” is “more”. The old ladies’ exchange about predictions in chapter 23 is spell-binding.
But Scott believed that more often than not, people were imposed upon, and often willingly so. In other words, he was aware of the power of suggestibility. In a footnote to this novel, he writes that an old woman worked so many cures with a charm that she was suspected of witchcraft. When she was investigated, it transpired that her only charm was this verse, which referred to the payment she demanded, a loaf of bread and a silver penny: “My loaf in my lap, my penny in my purse / Thou art ne’er the better, and I’m ne’er the worse” (chapter 24). Scott delighted in such amusing tales.
His attitude is well illustrated by the closing lines of chapter 2: “The peasant …. even yet affirms, that on this fatal night the Master of Ravenswood, by the bitter exclamations of his despair, evoked some evil fiend, under whose malignant influence the future tissue of incidents was woven. Alas! what fiend can suggest more desperate counsels than those adopted under the guidance of our own violent and unresisted passions?”
And Scott masterfully shows how the passion of infatuation can be as destructive as that of revenge.
In short, it is an excellent good read, but lacks the dramatic intensity of Ivanhoe, and even of Rob Roy, although that novel is not so grandly moving, I think as Ivanhoe.
I give the chapter from which quotations are taken, as each edition of the book has different pagination.