Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Book Review: Redgauntlet

Title: Redgauntlet

Author: Walter Scott

Date: 1824 (my copy was reprinted in 1963)

Publisher: J.M. Dent

ISBN: none

Length: 445 pages plus notes and glossary

Quote: “Alan Fairford was averse to general company, from a disposition naturally reserved, and Darsie Latimer from a painful sense of his own unknown origin, peculiarly afflicting in a country where high and low are professed genealogists.”

Namely, in Scotland—or Scott-land. Scott was paid by the word; readers have complained about this for two hundred years. He wasn’t a great researcher, or terribly concerned about misrepresenting known historical facts in his historical fiction, either. If you can forgive him for these failings, after the first hundred pages or so you can enjoy his stories as a kind of historical fiction from a parallel world, a Scott-land where some things happened the way they did in our world and other things happened differently. For Kenilworth, in which Scott exploited real names from well documented celebrity gossip, it’s possible to identify precise differences between Scott-land and any real place. For most of Scott’s novels, it’s not so easy.

Redgauntlet is primarily a character study of the Earl of Redgauntlet, a noble old Scotsman who never completely abandons the Jacobites’ “Lost Cause.” He plots an additional Jacobite rebellion, which of course didn't happen in real life, and tries to enlist Darsie's help by having Darsie kidnapped; instead Alan, Darsie, and Lilias persuade him to avoid violence. The characters are fictional but, to some extent, the three young characters were thought to resemble Scott himself and two friends of his, Will Clark and Williamina Stuart. 

Darsie doesn’t know what his real name is. He gets a clue when he meets Lilias Redgauntlet. He likes her, as almost everyone does, but for some strange reason he’s not passionately infatuated with her. No points for guessing why, although Scott’s emphasis on how very devoted to each other Alan and Darsie are (“they were all in all to each other”) may suggest additional explanations to a corrupt modern mind.

The guys also say their friendship is “intimate.” Could this mean what it suggests to us? It could; the story can be read that way, but Alan and Darsie are very, very discreet about any experience of physical intimacy either of them may ever have had. The story is meant to be a “romance” in the Romantic Era’s own sense of an improbable adventure story, with a wedding down the road, but without the mushy love scenes that alienate ten-to-twelve-year-old readers.

It's possible that Redgauntlet was written for teenagers; perhaps Alan, like some of the teenagers in Scott’s intended audience, thought legal research would be dull. Scott gives him one incredibly tiresome client but may have written the story with an intention of showing Alan how lively legal research can get. Alan gets kidnapped and has lots of “action adventures,” in which he meets Jacobites and Quakers and smugglers and other interesting sociological features of Scotland’s history.  Scott had observed some of these kinds of people himself, so his characterizations here have a credibility that the characterizations in Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, and all Scott’s remote historical fiction lacked. If you like stories with horses, boats, lighthouses, criminals, lunatics, fighting and all kinds of dangers, you’ll enjoy Alan.

Gently used copies of Scott's books are available from either address at the bottom of the page for $5 per book + $5 per package shipped.