St. Ronan's Well
Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
With Introductory Essay and Notes
by Andrew Lang
ST. RONAN'S WELL.
“‘St. Ronan's Well’ is not so much my favourite as certain of its predecessors,” Lady Louisa Stuart wrote to Scott on March 26, 1824. “Yet still I see the author's hand in it,
We have seldom found Sydney Smith giving higher praise, and nobody can deny the justice of the censure with which it is qualified. Scott himself explains, in his Introduction, how, in his quest of novelty, he invaded modern life, and the domain of Miss Austen. Unhappily he proved by example the truth of his own opinion that he could do “the big bow-wow strain” very well, but that it was not his
We need not linger over definition of these qualities; but we must recognise, in Scott, the absence of lightness of touch, of delicacy in the small sword-play of conversation. In fencing, all should be done, the masters tell us, with the fingers. Scott works not even with the wrist, but with the whole arm. The two-handed sword, the old claymore, are his weapons, not the rapier. This was plain enough in the word-combats of Queen Mary and her lady gaoler in Loch Leven. Much more conspicuous is the “swashing blow” in the repartee of “St. Ronan's.” The insults lavished on Lady Binks are violent and cruel; even Clara Mowbray taunts her. Now Lady Binks is in the same parlous case as the postmistress who dreed penance “for ante-nup,” as Meg Dods says in an interrupted harangue, and we know that, to the author's mind, Clara Mowbray had no right to throw stones. All these jeers are offensive to generous feeling, and in the mouth of Clara are intolerable. Lockhart remarked in Scott a singular bluntness of the sense of smell and of taste. He could drink corked wine without a suspicion that there was anything wrong with it. This curious obtuseness of a physical sense, in one whose eyesight was so keen, who, “aye was the first to find the hare” in coursing, seems to correspond with his want of lightness in the invention of
The English critics delighted to accuse Scott of having committed literary suicide. He had only stepped off the path to which he presently returned. He was unfitted to write the domestic novel, and even in “St. Ronan's” he introduces events of romantic improbability. These enable him to depict scenes of the most passionate tragedy, as in the meeting of Clara and Tyrrel. They who have loved so blindly and so kindly should never have met, or never parted. It is like a tragic rendering of the scene where Diana Vernon and Osbaldistone encounter each other on the moonlit moor. The wild words of Clara, “Is it so, and was it even yourself whom I saw even now?... And, all things considered, I do carry on the farce of life wonderfully well,”—all this passage, with the silence of the man, is on the highest level of poetic invention, and Clara ranks with Ophelia. To her strain of madness we may ascribe, perhaps, what Sydney Smith calls the vulgarity of her lighter moments. But here the genius of Shakspeare is faultless, where Scott's is most faulty and most mistaken.
Much confusion is caused in “St. Ronan's Well” by Scott's concession to the delicacy of James Ballantyne. What has shaken Clara's brain? Not her sham marriage, for that was innocent, and might be legally annulled. Lockhart writes (vii. 208): “Sir Walter had shown a remarkable degree of good-nature in the composition of this novel. When the end came in view, James Ballantyne suddenly took vast alarm about a particular feature in the heroine's history. In the original conception, and in the book as actually written and printed, Miss Mowbray's mock marriage had not halted at the profane ceremony of the church; and the delicate printer shrank from the idea of obtruding on the fastidious public the possibility of any personal contamination having occurred to a high-born damsel of the nineteenth century.” Scott answered: “You would never have quarrelled with it had the thing happened to a girl in gingham—the silk petticoat can make little difference.” “James reclaimed with double energy, and called Constable to the rescue; and, after some pause, the author very reluctantly consented to cancel and re-write about twenty-four pages, which was enough to obliterate, to a certain extent, the dreaded scandal—and, in a similar degree, as he always persisted, to perplex and weaken the course of his narrative, and the dark effect of its catastrophe.”
From a communication printed in the “Athen?um” of Feb. 4, 1893, extracts from the original proof-sheets, it seems that Lockhart forgot the original plan of the novel. The mock marriage
The origin of “St. Ronan's Well” has been described by Lockhart in a familiar passage. As Laidlaw, Scott, and Lockhart were riding along the brow of the triple-peaked Eildon Hills, Scott mentioned “the row” that was going on in Paris about “Quentin Durward.” “I can't but think I could make better play still with something German,” he said. Laidlaw grumbled at this: “You are always best, like Helen MacGregor, when your foot is on your native