The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 15, 2013

August 15, 1771

There is a sense in which Sir Walter Scott (August 15, 1771 to September 21, 1832) invented history. By this I mean that his novels, the first widely popular historical novels, gave an arena to the populace which had not existed before. Royalty always had history, they WERE history for millenia. in so far as historians wrote it then. But most folk, and certainly the middle classes, the most of folks, had little sense of their forebears, and in a world which saw change as merely differing families wielding the sceptre, the change we think of as historical change, was not missed, because nobody knew things had been different in the past. Part of this amnesia about the past, was the effect of the world as envisaged by the medieval European church: the verities, the four corners of the world, the rules, did NOT change. What did change was covered in the theological texts. The important stuff did not change, so no history. Why note something, if it will just repeat tomorrow. 

This situation changed shortly after Scott was born: 1776 saw the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the reality of this past was not exciting to the middle class. Romanticism was the logical successor of 18th century rationalism. After the demolition of theology as a serious intellectual enterprise, by the type Gurdjieff  would label "smart-alecks", the vista of huge swaths of idle time in people's heads, would have produced a panic but events conspired to fill this void with --- fiction. Novels, autobiographies, gaping at the marvels of nature, worrying about your inner life, -- all these originated about this time. The first of these genres, having no models of inanity to follow, had at least the virtues of originality.
So we still remember the author of Ivanhoe,Rob Roy, and many other historical novels. The stuff of dreaming, and with Sir Walter Scott, we can dream about the long ago past, too. Of course Scott did not just write fiction; he pointed out that "Cats are mysterious folk."

The context of this comment is provided us by a guest of Walter Scott's, the American author, Washington Irving.

And we can drift into the past ourselves with this description of Irving and Scott, as Irving recalled in his long essay, Abbotsford, titled after Scott's home. This is 1817, and not fiction, at least most people would not call it that.

After dinner we adjourned to the drawing room, which served also for study and library. Against the wall on one side was a long writing-table, with drawers; surmounted by a small cabinet of polished wood, with folding doors richly studded with brass ornaments, within which Scott kept his most valuable papers. Above the cabinet, in a kind of niche, was a complete corslet of glittering steel, with a closed helmet, and flanked by gauntlets and battle-axes. Around were hung trophies and relics of various kinds: ...a Highland broadsword from Flodden Field; ... and above all, a gun which had belonged to Rob Roy, and bore his initials, R. M. G., an object of peculiar interest to me at the time, as it was understood Scott was actually engaged in printing a novel founded on the story of that famous outlaw.

On each side of the cabinet were book-cases, well stored with works of romantic fiction in various languages, many of them rare and antiquated. This, however, was merely his cottage library, the principal part of his books being at Edinburgh.

From this little cabinet of curiosities Scott drew forth a manuscript picked up on the field of Waterloo, containing copies of several songs popular at the time in France. The paper was dabbled with blood—“the very life blood, very possibly,” said Scot't, "of some gay young ofiicer, who had cherished these songs as a keepsake from some lady-love in Paris."

...The evening passed away delightfully in this quaint-looking apartment, half study, half drawing-room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of “Arthur,” with a fine, deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed ‘with witches and Warlocks,' to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a rich treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such a place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture.

While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin, ... had taken his seat in a chair beside the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

“Ah,” said he, “these cats are a very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar ” ....

“Our grimalkin here,” added Scott, “sometimes reminds me of the story,[of the King of the Cats, an old folk tale] by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea that he may be a great prince incognito and may some time or other come to the throne.” .

In this way Scott would make the habits and peculiarities of even the dumb animals about him subjects for humorous remark or whimsical story.

Our evening was enlivened also by an occasional song from Sophia Scott, at the request of her father. She never wanted to be asked twice, but complied frankly and cheerfully. Her songs were all Scotch, sung without any accompaniment, in a simple manner, but with great spirit and expression, and in their native dialects, which gave them an additional charm.

We were not there, but is it not endearingly enticing to imagine if we had been there, it would have been like Irving recalled. But who knows?

No comments: