Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Betrothed by Sir Walter Scott

Recently I pulled The Betrothed out of my books to read pile. I am astounded by the style. It's faux-mediaeval written in the early nineteenth century and flowery beyond belief. Here's an example, where the heroine Eveline is being comforted by Rose after the death of her father at the hands of The Welsh, who are beseiging them in the castle Garde Doloureuse:

So saying, and overpowered by the long-repressed burst of filial sorrow, she sunk down on the banquette which ran along the inside of the embattled parapet of the platform, and murmuring to herself, 'He is gone for ever!' abandoned herself to the extremity of grief. One hand grasped unconsciously the weapon which she held, and served, at the same time, to prop her forehead, while the tears, by which she was now for the first time relieved, flowed in torrents from her eyes, and her sobs seemed so convulsive that Rose almost feared her heart was bursting. Her affection and sympathy dictated at once the kindest course which Eveline's condition permitted. Without attempting to control the torrent of grief in it's full current, she gently sat down beside the mourner, and possessing herself of the hand which had sunk motionless by her side, she alternately pressed it to her lips, her bosom, and her brow, now covered it with kisses, now bedewed it with tears, and amid these tokens of the most devoted and humble sumpathy, waited a more composed moment to offer her little stock of consolation in such deep silence and stillness, that, as the pale light fell upon the two beautiful young women, it seemed rather to show a group of statuary, the work of an eminent sculptor, than beings whose eyes still wept and whose hearts still throbbed.

From The Betrothed, Chapter IX

Note that the second half is all one sentence. I couldn't bring myself to copy any dialogue.

The problem, to modern eyes (or mine, anyway) is that the style gets in the way of the fictional experience. It's a heart-breaking portrait of a young woman who's been forced to be strong after the death of her father in order to prevent the castle falling, and now the facade crumbles. However, I keep stumbling over the long sentences which build and build and build to make the powerful image or thought, but when we get there I've lost track of what we started with. Not to mention that I stopped to smirk at the word "bosom".

And yet... what it does do is give us the fantasy of an age of chivalry within the very language of the book. After a while, the language becomes more familiar and less awkward, and it draws you in.

I could do an actual pastiche of Sir Walter Scott. But what would be the point of that? He wrote so many books of his own, that to write something in the style of him is superfluous. Putting in extra effort to sound just like him and make the story less readable would be silly.

The challenge would be to write something to give the effect of reading Scott, without actually writing like him. It would be a C21 version of early-nineteenth century faux-mediaeval style. Of course you'd need a reason why the faux-mediaeval story is being told in a faux-early-nineteenth century style. Which peculiarly enough, gives me half an idea...

It makes me think of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a C21 version of early-nineteenth century novels, except with magic. Clarke, doesn't actually write like (say) Jane Austen[1] but gives the impression of having done so, without sacrificing readability. Unless I'm mistaken, there's some faux-mediaeval in the footnotes. It's also a damn-good book.

Combined with Scott it gives me the idea for a story of a nineteenth century antiquarian, writing about a mediaeval event. But don't hold your breath waiting.


[1] I choose Jane Austen as an author writing at the time the book is set (1806-1818 off the top of my head)