He won an insight into the eternal disparities of father and son, and he learned to make allowances for the rigid, buttoned-up old gentleman whom he had come to comprehend as well as to love. The portrait of Saunders Fairford in Redgauntlet is a tribute, at once shrewd and affectionate, to the taskmaster of the young apprentice. When he was sixteen, he burst a blood-vessel in his bowels, and had to lie for weeks on his back in a room with open windows, his only resources chess, military history and the poets.
But after that he seemed to outgrow his early delicacy. His lameness did not embitter him, as it embittered Byron; there were heroes in his pantheon, like Boltfoot and John the Lamiter, who had had the same handicap. He could walk thirty miles in a day, and ride as long as a horse could carry him. A year or two later he defended himself with his stick against three assailants for an hour by the Tron clock, like Corporal Raddlebanes in Old Mortality. The diversions of his middle teens were many. In those days boys went to college at twelve, and at fifteen they were guests at grown-up dinner-parties.
A gentleman, however young, was expected to drink his share of wine, and to carry it well, and till this skill was attained there were apt to be disastrous experiments. Edinburgh society was not the best school of health, and Scott lived to censure the extravagances of his youth; but it is very certain that he never repented of them.
In March, , he wrote:. There were debating societies, where young men talked the sun down. And sometimes romance fluttered the pages even of his legal folios.
Another year he was sent north on business, to enforce execution against some refractory Maclarens, tenants of Stewart of Appin. At seventeen his future was determined. He was to follow the higher branch of the legal calling, and he began his law classes at the college. The two elder brothers had chosen the Army and the Navy, and, apart from his lameness, it was inevitable that he should pursue the third of the normal callings of a gentleman.
The three years which followed were a period of serious preparation. The two passed their final trials on July 11th, , and assumed the gown of the advocate. He learned to drink square, and, though he had a head like a rock, he used to complain in later life that these bouts were the source of some of his stomach troubles. He abandoned his former carelessness in dress, and became a point-device young man, able to talk to women without shyness.
Meantime on every holiday he was off to his beloved Border, to Kelso, to Jedburgh, to the Northumbrian side of the Cheviots, whence he wrote rollicking epistles to his friends.
We have a glimpse of him at home in George Square, where Jeffrey found him in a small den in the basement surrounded by dingy books, cabinets of curios, and rusty armour. He was a good boon-companion and a delightful comrade for the road, but he left on his friends also an impression of whinstone good sense. We find him at eighteen intervening to reconcile a foolish boy with his family, and when quarrels broke out over the wine he was the chief peacemaker.
Scott passed into manhood with a remarkable assortment of knowledge, for from the age of five his mind had never been idle. He was a sound lawyer, especially well versed in feudal niceties. Philosophy he had never touched; nor theology, except what he had picked up from his Calvinistic tutor. In history he was widely and curiously read, and his memory for detail enabled him to retain every fragment of out-of-the-way learning which had colour and drama. He had browsed over the whole field of English literature, and was a mine of Shakespearean lore. He was always of the opinion that a knowledge of Latin and Greek was the basis of every sound education.
It was a lack, no doubt, for some acquaintance with the Greek masterpieces, some tincture of the Greek spirit, might have trimmed that prolixity which was to be his besetting sin. But of Latin he had a full measure. He quotes constantly from Virgil and Horace, but that was the fashion of the age; more notable is the minute knowledge which he shows of Juvenal and Ovid, while he also can aptly cite Lucan, Catullus, Plautus, Terence, Livy and Tacitus.
Thomas Moore tells of a conversation he once had with him. I said that the want of this manly training showed itself in my poetry, which would, perhaps, have had a far more vigorous character if it had not been for the sort of boudoir education I had received.
It was dedicated to Lord Braxfield. See W. A Scots advocate in his first years at the Bar has commonly a superfluity of leisure. He walks the floor of the Parliament House waiting to be hired, and shares in what used to be one of the most friendly and jovial of societies. That floor, looked down upon by the grave periwigged judges of the past, has always been a breeding-ground of good stories, and in this gentle art Walter Scott shone among his contemporaries. But his legal career was not wholly occupied with the pleasantries of the Outer House.
He defended poor prisoners without a fee, and on circuit at Jedburgh had as clients local poachers and sheepstealers. He lost his case, but his argument greatly edified his brethren of the Covenant Close.
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It was a life which enlarged his knowledge of the human comedy and took him into odd by-paths. As he once told Lord Meadowbank,. Cockburn has a tale of a dinner given by an old drunken Selkirk attorney to Scott, Cranstoun and Will Erskine, when Scott as a toper nearly triumphed over the host. He learned more from his practice than the humours of humanity, for Scots law was one of the main educative influences in his life. Its complexity and exactness formed a valuable corrective to a riotous imagination.
It was the one form of science which he ever cultivated. Moreover, when he became a novelist, it was to give immense point and gusto to his Scots conversations. In an older Scotland the language of the law, like the language of the Bible, interpenetrated the speech of every class. Consequently it was often misused, and this farcical side adds perpetual salt to his dialogues. As the years of his youth passed an inner circle grew up for him in his immense acquaintanceship. Chief of that circle was William Erskine, the son of an Episcopalian clergyman in Perthshire, who became to Scott both an exacting literary censor and a second conscience.
Then there was Thomas Thomson, the son of an Ayrshire minister; he became one of the most learned of Scottish antiquaries and was to Scott at once a boon-companion and an esteemed fellow-worker in the quarries of the past.
About the author
Of all his friends, perhaps, Thomson was the one whom Scott most esteemed as a table companion. There was James Skene of Rubislaw, who was especially a brother sportsman. These were the years of the Revolution in France, but to Scott it was no blissful dawn, as it appeared to the young Wordsworth, but a carnival of disorder distasteful to the lawyer, and a menace to his country hateful to the patriot. He was always wholly insensitive to the appeal of abstract ideas. As we shall see, he developed a strong interest in the technique of government and the practical workings of society, and few novelists have had such a masculine grasp of its economic framework.
But the political ideas which were beginning to work like yeast in many of the younger minds in Scotland, problems like the ultimate purpose of human society, and the relation between the power of the state and the rights of the individual, left him cold. His mind was in a high degree concrete and practical; he might take arms against a proven abuse but not against a dubious theory, and his devotion to the past made him abhor all that was speculative and rootless. Scott had early put behind him Calvinism and all that it implied, whether exemplified in his father or his tutor.
The new seeds of thought sown by the French Revolution found a prepared soil in minds accustomed to the toils of religious speculation, minds which were compelled to work out for themselves a reasoned philosophy of life.
Scott never felt the compulsion. In practice he regarded all men as his brothers, but he would have nothing to do with whimsies about the Brotherhood of Man. He was a Tory, not on the philosophical grounds of Burke and Bolingbroke, but because as a poet he loved the old ways, and as a practical man would conserve them, however logically indefensible, so long as they seemed to serve their purpose. In , however, he had his chance when a cavalry corps, the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons, was embodied and he became its quartermaster.
He spent his holidays in exploring Scotland, not a common occupation in those days of comfortless travelling.
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But it was to his own Border that he devoted most of his leisure. He had already explored the main valleys of Tweed and Teviot, and both sides of the central Cheviots, and now he began to push farther into the wild hill country that bounded the Debatable Land.
In the autumn of , along with Robert Shortreed, the Sheriff-substitute of Roxburghshire, he made his first incursion into Liddesdale, and thereafter for seven successive years the raid was annually repeated. They slept in cot-houses or farms or manses as their road led them, and enjoyed an Homeric hospitality. Those days in sun and rain on the Liddesdale bent and nights by the peat-fire were filled with more than roystering. His literary education followed the fashionable groove. Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling , read a paper to the Edinburgh Royal Society in April which started in the capital a craze for German literature.
It was the peak moment of Gothick extravagance, for in Mrs Radcliffe published her Mysteries of Udolpho , and a certain odd, undersized youth of twenty-one, Matthew Lewis by name, next year issued a tale, Ambrosia or The Monk , which took the town by storm. Scott fell deeply under the glamour of this pasteboard romance.
He was passing through the inevitable stage in a literary education, when the foreign seems marvellous because it is strange, and the domestic humdrum because it is familiar. He was soon to return by way of Liddesdale and the ballads to his own kindly earth. He had become a personable being, and appeared thus to one female observer.
There was obvious power in him, but of the ruder kind, and it needed a discerning eye to penetrate to the poetry below the bluffness. What was not in doubt was the friendliness. Such a young man could not escape the common fate. Scott belonged to the familiar northern type to which sex is not the sole mainspring of being. He preferred the society of men to that of women; he had no disposition to casual amours; in this domain of life he had an almost virginal fastidiousness.
Happily he did not miss the first, for he had a taste of the old Romeo and Juliet romance, that ecstatic, child-like idealization of one woman which belongs especially to a poetic youth. She was not only well-born but a considerable heiress, and her portrait shows composed features, large blue eyes, dark brown ringlets and a complexion of cream and roses. The two had probably met before, for their parents were acquaintances. The story is like the baseless fabric of a dream, but it would appear that his hopes revived again in , and that, during a tour in the north in April and May of that year, he visited Fettercairn and returned south in better spirits.
But some time in the early autumn he got his dismissal. Scott had perhaps been a timid and hesitating lover, for he was shy of women, and had marvellously idealized this woman. Some of his friends dreaded the consequences for one whom they knew to be full of banked fires.
It yields to unexpected and striking impressions, to changes of plans The meeting was like opening a sepulchre.