Walter Scott’s 1820 novel, The Abbot, has fared rather better with critics than with the reading public. I am one amateur critic who also likes it, although I would not place it in the foreground of Scott’s work. But putting to one side for now the question of its ugly anti-Catholic bias (along with a sympathy for some aspects of Catholicism, there is also clear and narrow-minded sectarian prejudice), I was struck, on re-reading it, by the character of Jasper Dryfesdale, one of the most interesting fictional portraits I have yet encountered.
Various critics have lauded The Abbot for its brilliant depiction of Mary Queen of Scots, and also for the main protagonists, Roland Avenel and Catherine Seyton. They are, all three of them excellently conceived and almost perfectly executed. But I am yet to find one commentator who has even mentioned Dryfesdale.
Yet consider, for a moment, this character. He is based on the historical Jasper Dryfesdale, who really was a servant of the Laird of Lochleven. He threatened to murder Mary’s servant, William Douglas, who – like Roland in Scott’s novel – had helped Queen Mary to escape. Dryfesdale also declared that he would “plant a dagger in Mary’s own heart”. Not an amiable gentleman.
But from that concise if chilling description, Scott’s art has produced a striking, deep and consistent portrait. This self-righteous man is made the grim and sullen steward of the castle wherein the rightful Queen is imprisoned. When the Queen offends his mistress, the Lady of Lochleven (from the House of Douglas), he procures what he believes to be poison, and mixes it with the refreshment she and her small retinue are given. He does not blink at murder: he is maintaining his fidelity to the House of Douglas.
In chapter 32, when Dryfesdale learns that Mary is unwell, he believes that the poison has done its work, and declares the whole story to the Lady of Lochleven. She is shocked. Much as she hated the Queen, she would never have killed her (at least not while she was an involuntary guest within her walls). When Dryfesdale refers to Mary as “this woman of Moab” (the sort of rhetoric which was used by Protestants), the Lady castigates him for his crime and rebukes him: “Speak of her with reverence … she is a king’s daughter.” His self-defence is a masterpiece of psychological insight:
“I rave not,” replied the steward. “That which was written of me a million of years ere I saw the light, must be executed by me. She hath that in her veins that, I fear me, will soon stop the springs of life.” “Cruel villain,” exclaimed the Lady, “thou hast not poisoned her?” “And if I had,” said Dryfesdale, “what does it so greatly merit? Men bane vermin—why not rid them of their enemies so?.”
By the way, note Scott’s powerful, indeed the stubbornly powerful alliteration: Men Bane Vermin. Those final “n”s, each preceded by a different vowel, fall with the thud of an undertaker’s hammer.
Such is Dryfesdale’s philosophy: others do it, and besides, it was foreordained. I acted only as I had to. Because I had no free will in the matter, I am not responsible. I am guiltless. The arguments are developed and embellished as only Scott can. Equally excellent is Scott’s depiction of the Lady of Lochleven. A selfish, deceitful and wilfully blind creature in many ways, she yet has a sense of honour and is genuinely outraged:
“Villain! and you mixed it (the poison) with the food of this imprisoned Lady, to the dishonour of thy master’s house? … It was a work of hell … Away, wretched man, let us see if aid be yet too late!”
Such is Dryfesdale’s bizarre but consistent code of honour that, when the Lady declares that he is arrested, he obediently takes himself off to the prison. When his lady tells him that she knows he will no attempt to escape, he states, in pure Scott:
“Not were the walls of the turret of egg-shells, and the lake sheeted ice,” said Dryfesdale. “I am well taught, and strong in belief, that man does nought of himself; he is but the foam on the billow, which rises, bubbles, and bursts, not by its own effort, but by the mightier impulse of fate which urges him. Yet, Lady, if I may advise, amid this zeal for the life of the Jezebel of Scotland, forget not what is due to thine own honour, and keep the matter secret as you may.”
So, even if Dryfesdale acknowledges that murder would dishonour the house of Douglas, the solution is simply to tell no one. He answers all Lady Douglas’ questions truthfully; when she asks whether the poison is swift or slow working, he replies without an ounce of shame: “Slow … The hag asked me which I chose—I told her I loved a slow and sure revenge. ‘Revenge,’ said I, ‘is the highest-flavoured draught which man tastes upon earth, and he should sip it by little and little—not drain it up greedily at once.”
When the Lady asks God’s forgiveness for having had Dryfesdale in her service, he excuses her:
“You might not choose, Lady,” answered the steward. “Long ere this castle was builded—ay, long ere the islet which sustains it reared its head above the blue water, I was destined to be your faithful slave, and you to be my ungrateful mistress.”
Dryfesdale genuinely believes that his obsession of slaying his personal enemies were not his ideas, rather, the thoughts were “borne in upon me that I was to be avenged on them.” Then, when there is no one available to travel to the mainland to obtain the order for his execution, he faithfully undertakes the task himself.
Dryfesdale is fearless: “He that looks on death, Lady,” answered Dryfesdale, “as that which he may not shun, and which has its own fixed and certain hour, is ever prepared for it. He that is hanged in May will eat no flaunes in midsummer—so there is the moan made for the old serving-man …?” Flaunes are pancakes, if you please.
Lady Douglas is startled: “Holdest thou thy own life so lightly?” ..
“Else I had reckoned more of that of others,” said the predestinarian—“What is death?—it is but ceasing to live—And what is living?—a weary return of light and darkness, sleeping and waking, being hungered and eating. Your dead man needs neither candle nor can, neither fire nor feather-bed; and the joiner’s chest serves him for an eternal frieze-jerkin.”
“Wretched man! believest thou not that after death comes the judgment?”
“Lady,” answered Dryfesdale, “as my mistress, I may not dispute your words; but, as spiritually speaking, you are still but a burner of bricks in Egypt, ignorant of the freedom of the saints; for, as was well shown to me by that gifted man, Nicolaus Schoefferbach, who was martyred by the bloody Bishop of Munster, he cannot sin who doth but execute that which is predestined, since—”
It is a rather matter of fact attitude to life and death; so bleak that it is almost heroic, but it lacks the love of life and the living which makes the voluntary surrender of life an act of praiseworthy courage. “No greater love has a man than this, that he lays down his life for his friend,” taught the Lord. He was not speaking of a person who considers friends as matters of indifference, as Dryfesdale does.
Dryfesdale is no coward, but neither is he really brave. He is indifferent. Believing that life is foreordained in all its particulars, he has lost his love of it.
What an extraordinary character Scott has created. Truly, those critics who say that Scott has no psychology can only recognise it when it comes with a self-advertising lecture. Scott shows rather than preaches.
But I think the most important point about Dryfesdale is that there is a little of him in all of us: at least the tendency. Dryfesdale is that part of us which when it feels down forgets that it has ever been up. It is that part of us which excuses our negative emotions, which forgives our crimes by looking on those of others, the paradox being that the Dryfesdale in us, which is so quick to justify itself by pointing to what other people do, doesn’t really care a toss for those others, either. It only cares for the satisfaction of its own negative emotions.
Joseph Azize, 30 January 2017