We’ll begin the new year, on Scotiana, with our reading of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, one of the most famous Waverley novels. The French and English audio files will be available for download as well. That’ll take some doing but Janice and I are very enthusiastic about sharing with you our reading of this great Scottish author!
But first, and to give things a bit of atmosphere, let us go back to Abbotsford, Sir Walter’s beautiful mansion. That will make us journey back to the time of the great writer. Can’t you see him, leaning at his desk, in his quiet study, surrounded by his books and dear souvenirs? If you can’t I invite you to have a closer look at the contents of his desk as Janice is doing in the following picture
And to help us trigger our imagination, let us open again A Day with Scott. In this little old book I had mentioned in my last post, May Byron seems to have catched the sense of the place particularly well. I still don’t know when this book was published, but I will check that soon in our Sir Walter Scott Bibliographical History. For biographical purposes we’ll also make some incursions in Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. The author of this very interesting biography happens to be Sir Walter’s son-in-law, so he must know better.
Indeed, I have in my library a very old one-volume edition of this book. It was published in 1845 if I’ve not been mistaken by the roman date appearing on the title page and which reads MDCCCXLV…
In the frontispiece of the book there is a picture of Sir Walter with one of his dogs …
But let us see what May Byron has to say about Sir Walter’s writing place :
Everything in Scott’s room betokened a most sympathetic humanity. Just inside his desk, carefully set in certain order, lay a collection of little relics, so placed that they might catch his eye, every morning before he began work. Little old-fashioned toilet-boxes that had once lain upon his mother’s dressing table, – the silver candlestick which he had bought for her with his first earnings, – little packets of children’s curls, each named in her delicate Italian hand : and many other touching mementoes of those long passed away….
Hour by hour, line by line, stanza by stanza, the poet wrote steadily on : he was never charged with hurrying or scamping his work. The early dawn is not, one would suppose, the period most conducive to the divine afflatus : “thoughts that breathe and words that burn” are rarely associated with the chilly morning twilight. But Scott’s genius was of a singularly sane character, robust and well-controlled as the man himself. “When at his desk,” says Lockhart, “the truth is that he did little more, as far as regarded poetry, than write down the lines which he had fashioned in his mind” already, while pursuing out-of-door vocations.
A quiet place to write indeed, though there must have been many comings and goings in the house. We must not forget that Sir Walter lived at Abbotsford with his family and servants, that he used to entertain his many friends at home and that he also was a very busy man, working as a sheriff in nearby Selkirk. One special mention here for Tom Purdie, the faithful and irreplaceable servant who took so well care of the domain and of his master. “I wrought till two o’clock till I was almost nervous with correcting and scribbling” wrote Sir Walter in his Journal, “I then walkd or rather was dragd through the snow by Tom Purdie while Skene accompanied. What a blessing there is in a man like Tom whom no familiarity can spoil, whom you may scold and praise and joke with, knowing the quality of the man is unalterable in his love and reverence to his master. Use an ordinary servant in the same way and he will be your master in a month.”
Something seems to be lacking in our picture ! Have you guessed what it is? The dogs, of course ! For Sir Walter would no be Sir Walter without his dogs. He cherished them and there was always one or two of them lying at his feet or walking on his heels…
But let us read again May Byron …
Meanwhile, as close as the pile of books would permit, a couple of splendid dogs lay waiting and watching for their master’s frequent glance and word, – for alike in work and conversation, Scott would often pause to speak to his dogs as though to friends and rational beings – which indeed they were. Maida, the great-iron-grey staghound, grave and stately, was hardly ever separated from his side; and as for the greyhounds, setters, and terriers of the establishment, they were practically innumerable. Scott had been accustomed, as a child, to be sent out upon the Border hills in charge of a shepherd; and he declared that “the habit of lying in the turf there among the sheep and the lambs had given his mind a peculiar tenderness for animals which it had ever retained.” This mutual attraction between the “Wizard of the North’ and his canine friends, often finds expression in his poems and romances. The staghound Maida was the “Bevis” of Woodstock. Lufra, in The Lady of the Lake, “the fleetest hound in all the North,” whose action precipitates the finale : the great dog Roswal, the companion of Sir Kenneth in The Talisman, – and several others, will recur to the memory at once.
Indeed, Sir Walter has often been pictured with one or two of his dogs at his side.
I’ve often wondered how a man like Sir Walter Scott can have posed for so many long hours with his dogs, keeping still and quiet …But I let the master speak for himself and for the dogs. In his Journal, on 7 saturday 1826, Sir Walter has written something full of humour and tenderness about the question…
Sunday. Knight (1), a young artist, son of the performer, came to paint my picture at the request of Terry (2) – This is very far from being agreeable as I submitted to this distressing state of constraint last year (3) – to Newton (4) at request of Lockhart, Leslie (5) at request of My American friend (6), Wilkie for his picture of the King’s arrival at Holy Rood House (7) and some one beside. I am as tired of the operation as old Maida (8) who had been so often sketchd that he got up and went away with signs of Loathing whenever he saw an artist unfurl his paper and handle his brushes. But this young man is civil and modest and I have agreed he shall sit in the room while I work and take the best likeness he can without compelling me into forced attitudes or the yawning fatigues of an actual sitting. I think if he has talent he may do more my way than in the customary mode – at least I cannot have the hangdog look which the unfortunate Theseus has who is doomd to sit for what seems an eternity (9).
(1) Knight : John Prescott Knight (1803-1829)
(2) Daniel Terry (?1780-1829), the gentleman-actor. Scott first met him through the Ballantynes in 1810, and their similar tastes for old plays drew them together. Terry idolized Scott even to the extent of talking like him and imitating his handwriting. He “Terryfied” (that is, dramatized) some of the Waverley Novels, and helped to furnish Abbotsford. See Life iii.223 and, e.g., Letters, vii. 278
(3) Scott means 1824
(4) Gilbert Stewart Newton (1794-1835)
(5) C.R. Leslie, R. A., who painted Scott’s portrait in October 1824.
(6) George Ticknor (1791-1871), Professor of French and Spanish at Harvard, who had visited Edinburgh in 1819. The portrait was painted in 1824 and Scott ‘with a tact and amiability very characteristic of him, selected the young American painter, then making himself known in England’. Ticknor’s Life, i. 389
(7) The picture referred to, which now hangs in Holyrood, is a composite portrait, celebrating the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 when Scott himself arranged and managed the entire proceedings.
(8) His favourite deerhound, which died in 1824.
(9) An allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, vi. 617 quoted by Scott in the Entry for 14 June 1830.
Hum… my paperback copy of The Journal is falling into pieces and I think Janice’s book is no better… I must try and find a hardback copy very soon for this big volume (918 pages in the Canongate edition) has become a true bible for us…
Camp, Nimrod, Spice, Triton, Ginger, Maida…the most famous dogs who have shared the short span of their life with Sir Walter did not fail to leave him memories as only dogs can do and I know what I’m talking about. Not only did their master used to remember them with emotion in his Letters and in his Journal but he also made them live in his books, as we shall see later, following our reading of Walter Scott’s novels.
Here is Ginger as we can discover him in a beautiful picture at Abbotsford…
As for Maida, the favourite, she has been immortalized in the marble by Sir John Steel who represented the dog forever sitting at the side of his beloved master.The beautiful white statue of Sir Walter and Maida is definitely the most touching element of the Scott Monument, that huge gothic building which dominates Princes Street in Edinburgh. But, in the heart of the beautiful Scottish capital, Maida must share the limelight with Greyfriars Bobby, another famous Scottish dog whose moving story I will tell you in my next post.
My last words will be for Maida, as would have liked his master.
On the gravel path, as if keeping watch in front of the door of Abbotsford, we fall upon the statue of a dog tilting her head to her side as dogs use to do. On an inscribed plinth a latin phrase reads : “Maidae marmorea dormis sub imagine Maida / Ante fores domini sit tibi terra levis” which Walter Scott translated into the words :
“Beneath the sculptured form which late you wore
Sleep soundly, Maida, at your master’s door.