Many readers do not like Anne of Geierstein (1829). Schoolchildren who were obliged to read it are said to have been turned many readers off Walter Scott’s novels altogether. I can vouch from my own experience that even reading Scott at age 20 for a course, there was so much I missed that I can hardly believe how blind and tone deaf I was.
Yet it is the fact, and it’s also the fact that the experience of reading Anne in my 50s is rather different now that I cherish Scott’s writing, and have come to know his voice. For Scott devotees, reading Anne is perhaps to be compared to passing an evening with an old teacher to whom one is sincerely devoted, but is now in his autumn. Your affection is not at all diminished, although you see that he has passed the height of his powers. You patiently and gladly listen to him simply because it is him, even if he speaks just to keep himself occupied. You are grateful to hear him at all. There are flashes of his former intellectual glory, and of course his good feeling and his sense of duty and honour are intact. Echoes of the past constantly recur, and there are brilliant moments, but the fire which once burnt with an even flame now only intermittently flares up from the embers. It is sad to witness the decay of his once formidable powers.
And so it was for me when I read Anne of Geierstein, and again when I reviewed it. When I came to the good parts, my heart stirred with the hope that the novel would continue in that stride, and bear through to a triumphant ending. But overall, I fear, it has to be accounted only a mediocre achievement, albeit with passages and sometimes pages of brilliance.
Scott paints a broad canvas: Europe is groaning with the birth of a new system of government and a new consciousness among the people. The old world, with both its quaint and its harsh features (exemplified in King Rene and Duke Charles, respectively) is dying. The former order in England has passed, and the attempts made by our heroes (John Philipson and Arthur, his son) to restore the fortunes of the overthrown royal family meet with failure, albeit a selfless and high-minded failure.
The narrative climax is the defeat and slaying of Charles the Bold (1433-1477) at the hands of the Swiss at the Battle of Nancy. In this respect, it forms a sort of continuation to the more successful Quentin Durward. Again, an Englishman at Charles’ court of Burgundy, but this time he approaches through Switzerland, and he brings with him his son, who will eventually marry Anne. In that respect, it has a happy ending, even if the cause for which they came to Europe is doomed. Bells toll solemnly for the funeral, and then joyously for the wedding. It’s a tried and true combination.
However, the political side of the story outweighs the romance. I cannot help but feel that, in his sketch of mid-15th century Europe, Scott is trying to point to some analogy with contemporary Europe, which was still unsettled, and would, in 1830, break out into civil unrest: revolutions in France and elsewhere, and large scale popular demands for change in Switzerland. He seems to be taking the part of moderate democrats, and advising the nobility of Europe to graciously cede their political pre-eminence to the sensible men while there was a chance, or to risk losing their lives. After the French Revolutionary period, which was still keenly alive in Scott’s memory, and considering the bloodshed to come, this was wise advice.
While the subject matter is strong, Scott cannot hold himself back from adding some touches of German Gothic, a genre which had strongly appealed to him in his youth. The result is an artistic confusion. In particular, the character Anne, the eponymous heroine, is neither flesh nor fowl, being part Swiss woman, part celestial angel, and, finally, too perfect to be real. At her first appearance she struck me as somewhat conceited and superior. I started to feel some interest when she began to be painted in supernatural tints, wondering where this could go. And when that glamour was exploded as a pretence, her character imploded. Scott had been trying too hard. Anne is neither a real person nor a creature of romance, and so the demands upon our imaginative sympathy are inconsistent.
A clue is found in the subtitle of the volume: The Daughter of the Mist. This harks back to the “Children of the Mist” in A Legend of the Wars of Montrose, those uncompromising outlaws, with a sort of preternatural penumbra about their names. In both novels, the old order is ineluctably passing away, and nothing can save it.
If Anne of Geierstein (“the Vulture Stone/Tower”) has something of the mist about her, the dreaded “secret tribunal”, the Vehme Gericht, is shrouded in shadow. Yet, I found that the story only exerted a visceral hold when it came to this section. Unfortunately, it is not organically united to the rest of the story in any consistent way. I would rather the tribunal had played a larger role. Had it, then the scene involving the trial of John Philipson would have been better integrated into the novel as a whole.
Scott’s fascination with nobility is once again in evidence: the Philipsons turn out to be not English merchants, but the Earl of Oxford and his son. Arnold Biederman, Anne’s uncle, is in fact the Count of Geierstein, but in his zeal for the egalitarian polity of the Swiss cantons, he has renounced the title. The hidden nobility of the heroes is a frequent theme in 19th century English literature: it is as if no one else could be virtuous but the aristocracy. It is a flaw, because it undermines the very exaltation of plain British virtue which Scott affects. It is as if to be a good man you have to be a noble or else be content to only embody some virtues.
Another aspect of his idiosyncrasy is the way that Scot would choose as his subject an area of history almost no one knows anything about, outside of Switzerland. Even among Scott’s acquaintances, the choice raised some eyebrows. In theory, this chapter of Swiss history is interesting, and the story of Charles the Bald has some fascinating elements. There is no reason why the tale would not work, should it not be well executed. But it was not well executed, and probably would never be, for this is not Scott’s story. There is this strange point, which novelists seem unwilling to grasp, that it is their own personal story which they tell the best, and no other.
The first time I clearly noticed this was with Zora Neale Hurston. Her three “negro” books, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Dust Tracks on a Road, were marvellous. I felt that she could do no wrong. To my horror, the Moses and Swanee novels were pedestrian, although written later. So too, Jean Toomer did not realise that when he wrote “negro” books he could do well, but impatient at being categorised, he refused to write any more such books after his first success Cane. The result was a lifetime of literary failure and frustration. The same factor operates with Scott: when he leaves the shore of Britain, his work seems to fall off.
Scott’s Art and Craft
Now for some of the strengths of Scott’s writing. In what follows, I give the page number in my edition (Thomas Nelson and Sons) followed by the chapter number, e.g. (61/4) means p. 61 in my edition, which is in chapter 4 of all editions.
Scott’s tasteful use of rare words is delightful. For example Arthur Philipson declares: “Nor do I speak to gratify that misproud and ignorant young man” (61/4) “Misproud” is a wonderful way of saying that he is proud, but not with a fitting pride in a job well done. It is a misplaced pride. It would be better for us if we used that word more often to distinguish true from false pride.
Another strength is Scott’s nuanced but overall sympathetic depiction of Catholicism. He could not leave the old faith alone. This novel has a hero: Arthur Philipson (Earl Arthur de Vere), and Arthur is a Catholic who, soon after we meet him, is addressing fervent prayers to Our Lady of Einsiedeln for his life: “… let not one who has lived his life like a man, though a sinful one, meet death like a timid hare!” (29/2).
De Vere is Catholic, but he is also resolutely English! When Arthur does survive, and meets his father, who had feared him to be dead, Scott writes: “It might have been therefore expected that the father and son would have rushed into each other’s arms, and such probably was the scene which Arnold Biederman expected to have witnessed. But the English traveller, in common with many of his countrymen, covered keen and quick feelings with much appearance of coldness and reserve, and thought it a weakness to give unlimited sway even to the appearance of the most amiable and most natural emotions. Eminently handsome in youth, his countenance, still fine in his more advanced years, had an expression which intimated an unwillingness either to yield to passion or encourage confidence. …” (43-44/4)
This expresses Scott’s idea of a hero (physically “eminently handsome” and emotionally controlled). That he can also be Catholic is significant. Also noteworthy is this comment: “Meat and Mass never hindered work.” (476/30) In other words, you always have time to worship God and to eat. Hazlitt also praised Scott for his (relative) freedom from prejudice.
Another aspect of that ideal Englishmen is shown in the comment he puts in Queen Margaret’s mouth concerning Arthur Philipson and his countrymen: “They are come from a country … in which men are trained from infancy to prefer their duty to their pleasure.” (506/32) This may even express the basis of Scott’s morality. Consider this passage in which the Earl speaks to Queen Margaret, who represents the lost cause for which is striving:
“Philipson the Earl of Oxford: the exiled Earl of Oxford as we may now term him, distinguished in those changeful times by the steadiness with which he had always maintained his loyalty to the line of Lancaster, saw the imprudence of indulging his sovereign in her weakness. “Royal mistress,” he said, “life’s journey is that of a brief winter’s day, and its course will run on, whether we avail ourselves of its progress or no. My sovereign is, I trust, too much mistress of herself to suffer lamentation for what is passed to deprive her of the power of using the present time. … Let me know then, madam, for what reason your Majesty hath come hither, disguised and in danger? Surely it was not merely to weep over this young man that the high-minded Queen Margaret left her father’s court, disguised herself in mean attire, and came from a place of safety to one of doubt at least, if not of danger?” (386/24)
To be contrasted with the Earl is Duke Charles, formerly his colleague in arms, who explicitly and wrongly identifies the public good with his own, and justifies war on that ground: (403/25)
Finally, I will close with some lapidary gems: “The headstrong fool! … he resembles the poor lunatic, who went to the summit of the mountain that he might meet the rain half way.” (486/30)
“I have heard my father say that the readiest mode to corrupt a Christian man is to bestow upon vice the pity and the praise which are due only to virtue.”
“A head which listens to folly in youth will hardly be honourable in old age.” 461/29
Having said all that, why then, would this novel mean more to me than many other mediocre novels? Because in it I hear Scott’s voice. I have an affection for the voice of this writer whose work has so greatly impressed me as an education in itself, and as encapsulating the best of a world now gone.
One last word: for those who think that Scott had no psychological insight, consider this:
“…(my nurse) was wont to say, that any sudden and causeless change of a man’s nature, as from licence to sobriety, from temperance to indulgence, from avarice to extravagance, from prodigality to love of money, or the like, indicates an immediate change of his fortunes—that some great alteration of circumstances, either for good or evil (and for evil most likely, since we live in an evil world), is impending over him whose disposition is so much altered.” (572/36)
Joseph Azize, 28 February 2017