Walter Scott, one of Britain’s greatest writers and the first to gain international celebrity status, was born 240 years ago today. His novels - such as Ivanhoe - and poetry are still widely read today, but his diaries, though still in print and considered by some to be a ‘superb work’, are less well known. They cover only the last years of his life. In the very first entry, Scott explains how he came to be inspired to start writing a journal; and, in another entry, a few months before his death, the adventure writer in him is anxious to record details he has heard about a notorious bandit.
Scott was born in Edinburgh, on 15 August 1771; but, when only 18 months old, he contracted polio, which left him lame for the rest of his life. He trained as a lawyer, like his father, but without much commitment. He did work in his father’s office for a while, but preferred to travel, and to read. In 1797, he married Margaret Charlotte Carpenter, from a French Royalist family, even though he knew very little about her. They lived happily to her death, a few years before his own, and had four children. Also in 1797, Scott first volunteered for the Royal Edinburgh light dragoons, and acted as its secretary and quartermaster.
Scott’s career in writing began with translations of German Gothic romances; he then produced his own ballads, such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Lady of the Lake, which proved immensely popular. He also worked on new editions of writings by Dryden and Swift. In the 1810s, Scott turned to novels, and found a new level of success with, what became known as, his Waverley novels, including Rob Roy and Ivanhoe among many others. However, these novels were published anonymously, and though some reviewers were identifying him as the author from the first, he continued denying the fact until 1827.
The income from his popular novels gave Scott the wherewithal to build a mansion in the Scottish borders, 35 miles southeast of Edinburgh, which he called Abbotsford. By 1820, when he was knighted, Scott was a celebrity and important public figure. He organised the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. He helped created the Edinburgh Academy. He was chairman of the Edinburgh Oil Gas Company in 1824, was a governor of the Scottish Union, and an extraordinary director of the Edinburgh Life Assurance Company.
In 1826, though, his world collapsed with one of the worst financial crises of the century. Not only did he have the financial burden of Abbotsford, but the bankruptcies of his publisher and printer, left Scott in financial ruin. Rather than declaring bankruptcy himself, he worked hard for the rest of his life to repay his debts - to the detriment, some say, of his later novels, which were, in modern parlance, churned out. He died in 1832, having cleared around three-quarters of his debt (the rest was partly repaid through the sale of his copyrights), and almost all the newspapers - according to his biographer J G Lockhart - ‘had the signs of mourning usual on the demise of a king’. Further biographical information is available at Edinburgh University’s Walter Scott Digital Archive.
In 1837-1838, John Gibson Lockhart, who married Scott’s daughter Sophia and was editor of the Quarterly Review, published the seven volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. He was only able to write the lengthy, and much respected, biography because he had inherited the rights to all of Scott’s literary remains, including a wealth of letters and two volumes of a diary which Scott wrote from 1825 until his death. Lockhart explained, in the biography, he could not use the diary as freely as he might have wished ‘by regard for the feelings of living persons’. It was not until 1890, that the full manuscript was published, by David Douglas in two volumes, as The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.
David Hewitt writing Scott’s entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of the journal: ‘[Scott] is endlessly interesting; he records what he had been doing; he comments acutely on what goes on around him; he works out intellectual positions; he analyses himself; he lays himself out on the page. The Journal is a superb work, but its greatness is ultimately due to an accident of timing. It opens with Scott at the height of his fame and prosperity. Within six months he was ruined and his wife was dead. He undertook to repay all his debts, and the Journal records how a heroic decision to do right and to act well gradually destroyed him mentally and physically.’
An 1890 set of both volumes can be bought from Abebooks for as little as £20; and there are many more modern reprints available. The text of the 1890 version is also freely available at Internet Archive (as is Lockhart’s biography).
Here is the start of the first entry in Scott’s journal.
20 November 1825
‘I have all my life regretted that I did not keep a regular Journal. I have myself lost recollection of much that was interesting, and I have deprived my family and the public of some curious information, by not carrying this resolution into effect. I have bethought me, on seeing lately some volumes of Byron’s notes, that he probably had hit upon the right way of keeping such a memorandum-book, by throwing aside all pretence to regularity and order, and marking down events just as they occurred to recollection. I will try this plan; and behold I have a handsome locked volume, such as might serve for a lady’s album. Nota bene, John Lockhart, and Anne, and I are to raise a Society for the suppression of Albums. It is a most troublesome shape of mendicity. Sir, your autograph, a line of poetry, or a prose sentence! Among all the sprawling sonnets, and blotted trumpery that dishonours these miscellanies, a man must have a good stomach that can swallow this botheration as a compliment.’
And here is one of the last entries, written a few months before his death. It seems an appropriate extract to use, given Scott’s legacy as one of the world great writers of adventure stories.
15 April 1832
‘Naples. I am on the eve of leaving Naples after a residence of three or four months, my strength strongly returning, though the weather has been very uncertain. What with the interruption occasioned by the cholera and other inconveniences, I have not done much. I have sent home only the letters by L. L. Stuart and three volumes of the Siege of Malta. I sent them by Lord Cowper’s son Mr. Cowper returning, his leave being out and two chests of books by the Messrs. Turner, Malta, who are to put them on board a vessel, to be forwarded to Mr. Cadell through “Whittaker. I have hopes they will come to hand safe. I have bought a small closing carriage, warranted new and English, cost me 200, for the convenience of returning home. It carries Anne, Charles, and the two servants, and we start to-morrow morning for Home, after which we shall be starting homeward, for the Greek scheme is blown up, as Sir Frederick Adam is said to be going to Madras, so he will be unable to send a frigate as promised. I have spent on the expenses of medical persons and books, etc., a large sum, yet not excessive.
Meantime we [may] have to add a curious journey of it. The brigands, of whom there are so many stories, are afloat once more, and many carriages stopped. A curious and popular work would be a history of these ruffians. Washington Irving has attempted something of the kind, but the person attempting this should be an Italian, perfectly acquainted with his country, character, and manners. Mr. R , an apothecary, told me a singular [occurrence] which happened in Calabria about six years ago, and which I may set down just now as coming from a respectable authority, though I do not [vouch it].
DEATH OF IL BIZARRO.
This man was called, from his wily but inexorable temper, Il Bizarro, i.e. the Bizar. He was captain of a gang of banditti, whom he governed by his own authority, till he increased them to 1,000 men, both on foot and horseback, whom he maintained in the mountains of Calabria, between the French and Neapolitans, both of which he defied, and pillaged the country. High rewards were set upon his head, to very little purpose, as he took care to guard himself against being betrayed by his own gang, the common fate of those banditti who become great in their vocation. At length a French colonel, whose name I have forgot, occupied the country of Bizarro, with such success that he formed a cordon around him and his party, and included him between the folds of a military column.
Well-nigh driven to submit himself, the robber with his wife, a very handsome woman, and a child of a few months old, took a position beneath the arch of an old bridge, and, by an escape almost miraculous, were not perceived by a strong party whom the French maintained on the top of the arch. Night at length came without a discovery, which every moment might have made. When it became quite dark, the brigand, enjoining strictest silence on the female and child, resolved to steal from his place of shelter, and as they issued forth, kept his hand on the child’s throat. But as, when they began to move, the child naturally cried, its father in a rage stiffened his grip so relentlessly that the poor infant never offended more in the same manner. This horrid [act] led to the conclusion of the robber’s life.
His wife had never been very fond of him, though he trusted her more than any who approached him. She had been originally the wife of another man, murdered by her second husband, which second marriage she was compelled to undergo, and to affect at least the conduct of an affectionate wife. In their wanderings she alone knew where he slept for the night. He left his men in a body upon the top of an open hill, round which they set watches. He then went apart into the woods with his wife, and having chosen a glen an obscure and deep thicket of the woods, there took up his residence for the night. A large Calabrian sheepdog, his constant attendant, was then tied to a tree at some distance to secure his slumbers, and having placed his carabine within reach of his lair, he consigned himself to such sleep as belongs to his calling. By such precautions he had secured his rest for many years.
But after the death of the child, the measure of his offence towards the unhappy mother was full to the brim, and her thoughts became determined on revenge. One evening he took up his quarters for the night with these precautions, but without the usual success. He had laid his carabine near him, and betaken himself to rest as usual, when his partner arose from his side, and ere he became sensible she had done so, she seized [his carabine], and discharging [it] in his bosom, ended at once his life and crimes.
She finished her work by cutting off the brigand’s head, and carrying it to the principal town of the province, where she delivered it to the police, and claimed the reward attached to his head, which was paid accordingly. This female still lives, a stately, dangerous-looking woman, yet scarce ill thought of, considering the provocation. The dog struggled extremely to get loose on hearing the shot. Some say the female shot it; others that, in its rage, it very nearly gnawed through the stout young tree to which it was tied. He was worthy of a better master. The distant encampment of the band was disturbed by the firing of the Bizarro’s carabine at midnight. They ran through the woods to seek the captain, but finding him lifeless and headless, they became so much surprised that many of them surrendered to the government, and relinquished their trade, and the band of Bizarro, as it lived by his ingenuity, broke up by his death.
A story is told nearly as horrible as the above, respecting the cruelty of this bandit, which seems to entitle him to be called one of the most odious wretches of his name. A French officer, who had been active in the pursuit of him, fell into his hands, and was made to die [the death] of Marsyas or Saint Polycarp that is, the period being the middle of summer, he was flayed alive, and, being smeared with honey, was exposed to all the intolerable insects of a southern sky. The corps were also informed where they might find their officer if they thought proper to send for him. As more than two days elapsed before the wretched man was found, nothing save his miserable relics could be discovered.
I do not warrant these stories, but such are told currently.’