Dutch seventeenth century painting and foreign authors

This video is called Art Museum Mauritshuis (The Hague, the Netherlands), part 1.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

The Golden Age of Dutch art has inspired writers from Marcel Proust to Donna Tartt

Just as Tracy Chevalier pilfered Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and Proust purloined the artist’s ‘View of Delft‘, so Donna Tartt appropriated Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’ – set to be Booker-longlisted this week – as her inspiration. But what is it about the Golden Age of Dutch art that so enthrals novelists? Boyd Tonkin travels to the Mauritshuis museum, home to these three masterpieces and many more, to see for himself.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Blessed are the latecomers. By a couple of days, I missed the official press unveiling of the restored Mauritshuis, the treasure-crammed “jewel-box” of an art museum in The Hague that houses the Dutch royal picture collection. So, after the media crowd had left but before the gallery opened its doors to the public, I was allowed to sit in Room 15 for as long as I liked, almost alone. Outside, around the town lake and beside the 17th-century courts and mansions of the seat of the Netherlands government, orange-clad cafés geared up for another Holland World Cup game. Inside, in room after masterpiece-crammed room, time stopped – and the paintings began to whisper their tantalising stories.

On one wall, between Gerard ter Borch’s Woman Writing a Letter and Hunting for Lice, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring forever turns an enigmatic gaze on the spectator. Across the room, the same artist’s View of Delft captures for all eternity his home city in 1660 or 1661, bathed in fitful sunshine after a passing shower. Next door in Room 14, re-positioned between windows in honour of its new-found celebrity, hangs The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, the Delft-based pupil of Rembrandt and perhaps a teacher of Vermeer.

I was more fortunate than Tracy Chevalier. Although the novelist had kept a poster of Girl with a Pearl Earring on her wall since the age of 19, she only caught her in the flesh here at a Vermeer exhibition in the mid-1990s. “These are paintings that need a calm empty room to be appreciated in,” she later said. “You were lucky if you had three seconds in front of a painting before you were shoved out of the way by another visitor.” Even so, that brief encounter incubated the bestseller that, after its release its 1999, helped to make this ever-elusive canvas one of the best known of all Dutch paintings.

The “girl” had starred in fiction at least once before. In Russell Hoban’s The Medusa Frequency (1987), a stalled writer travels to the Mauritshuis to see her – only to find that she has moved to a temporary show abroad.

As for Fabritius’s quizzical bird, it entered the fiction charts – via Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – thanks to a sojourn in New York. Tartt’s novel turns on the (imaginary) theft of the picture after a terrorist bombing at the Met, and pivots its reflections of art and life around the secrets of this gnomic painting. It has already won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – and now it looks like a strong contender for the Man Booker Prize longlist, due on Wednesday in the first year of eligibility for American works.

Yet no tale spun around the masterworks of the Mauritshuis can match in literary gravitas the fictional afterlife of Vermeer’s View of Delft. For Marcel Proust, who saw it first in the Hague in 1902, and again in 1921 when it visited the Jeu de Paume in Paris, this cityscape of buildings irradiated by an ever-changing light was simply “the most beautiful painting in the world”. Across the epic length of his A la recherche du temps perdu, it recurs as a touchstone and talisman of art’s perfection – and art’s mystery.

'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp', one of the fine Mauritshuis Rembrandts, inspired the novelist Nina Siegal (Mauritshuis Gallery)

Remarkably, for a gallery that displays only 260 works, the contribution of the Mauritshuis to literature does not end there. The American writer Nina Siegal has just published a novel prompted by The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – the youthful masterpiece of 1632 found in the Hague’s dazzling cluster of first-rate Rembrandts. And downstairs, Holbein’s portraits of Jane Seymour and of the cruelly handsome Robert Cheseman, Henry VIII’s master falconer, plunge the imaginative viewer straight into the milieu of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

This inspirational gallery has re-opened after a two-year, €30m refit. A new underground foyer connects the neat waterside palace – built around 1640 for the former governor of Brazil, Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, and home of the Dutch royal collection since 1822 – to an Art Deco building across the street converted to host shows, events and a library. But the “jewel-box” ambience remains – even embellished with a state-of the-art lift that hoists you from the subterranean entrance-hall to just inside the old front door.

Director Emilie Gordenker walks me around rooms renovated with a vigilant care for period fittings and materials. “It’s the perfect size as it is,” she says. “We didn’t want to turn it into a big museum.” (The royal collection numbers some 800 works, many on show nearby at the Prince William V Gallery.) She believes the focused but secretive masterpieces of the Golden Age invite, and reward, repeat visits. “You see more and more in them; they benefit from close attention.”

Save for The Goldfinch’s new prominence, the star attractions of the Mauritshuis have not been fenced off in any VIP enclosure. “People said, ‘Don’t you want to put the Girl with a Pearl Earring on her own?’ No: you see her surrounded by the very high quality of the other paintings.”

Does Dr Gordenker, who curated Dutch and Flemish art at the National Gallery of Scotland, before coming here in 2008, have any personal favourite? “It’s like asking a mother about her favourite children!” In her guide to highlights of the Mauritshuis, though, she does write that if “forced to choose”, it would be View of Delft.

'View of Delft' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660-1661 (Mauritshuis Gallery)

Writers of fiction have woven yarns around the lives of artists, real or imaginary, since as early as 1831, when Balzac re-invented the young Poussin in The Unknown Masterpiece. From Somerset Maugham channelling Gauguin in The Moon and Sixpence to Irving Stone’s semi-documentary heroics in Lust for Life (Van Gogh) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo), the results have spanned the sublime and the faintly ridiculous. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera appear in Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-winning The Lacuna. Orhan Pamuk‘s My Name is Red, with its richly tinted evocations of Ottoman court painting in the 16th century, shows that the genre can adapt to fit a variety of frames.

At the Mauritshuis, the proximity of so many story-spinning canvases prompts a different sort of question about the traffic between prose and picture. Here, the broad sweep of the bio-novel takes second place to the ellipses and enigmas of individual works. For all the heavyweight scholarship devoted to symbolism and allegory in paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, the mystery of these frozen moments continues to haunt viewer and story-teller alike. True, Chevalier’s novel does in its oblique way, via the voice of the maid Griet, observe the life of Vermeer and his household in Delft; more importantly, it captures, scene by scene and gesture by gesture, the episodes, emotions and secrets hinted at by that outlandish jewel glinting at the servant’s (if she is a servant) ear.

The paintings from this place and time seem to serve as uniquely combustible firelighters of narrative. As Chevalier has said about the Girl’s almost startled sideways glance, “It’s the kind of expression you can interpret in different ways depending on your mood.” The writer, she has argued, may stretch the passing glimpse into a plot and colour in the vacant temporal background: “A painting is about a moment, a book is about a sweep of time – be it 100 years or a day or an hour, it is still about what changes between the beginning and the end of the story.”

The biographical canvas of Carel Fabritius is nearly as blank as the plain rough-cast wall behind his finch. To Donna Tartt, this picture tells a story not about the artist but about art itself. Its thick brushstrokes both make and break the illusion of reality, allowing us to experience both the subject and the artist’s technique in the same moment. As her bereaved young hero Theo puts it, “you see the mark, the paint for the paint, but also the living bird”. Fabritius’s artwork functions both as “the thing and not the thing”, a sacred sign of that “slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint but also feather and bone”. So the bird sings the magic of creation.

In Tartt’s book, the meaning of the painting entwines with the death of Theo’s mother and his long journey though grief. In Dutch Golden Age art as a whole, the vivid snapshots of life are often pregnant with an awareness of mortality. With their skulls and maggots, their blown roses and rotting fruits, these paintings swarm with every sort of memento mori to recall the transience of our days – and our loves. And the novelist, perhaps unlike the painter, can not only hint at but also describe the story’s end.

In The Captive, the fifth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust’s obsessional admiration for View of Delft reaches its climax. The writer Bergotte has long wanted to revisit not only Vermeer’s painting but one small corner of it, “a little patch of yellow wall” which “was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself”. Critics and biographers argue over the fragment Proust had in mind; yellow patches lie on both sides of Vermeer’s Rotterdam Gate.

Already sick, Bergotte hauls himself (as Proust did in 1921) to the Jeu de Paume, where he sees the Vermeer – then dies, of a stroke. In his final revelation, “the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall” comes to stand not only for the sublimity of the greatest art but the purpose of life itself. It appears to the dying Bergotte like a coded signal from a better world, “based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again”.

The yellow wall – or, perhaps, the meaning of life – is in Room 15 of the Mauritshuis. The girl with a pearl looks straight at it. Next door, a goldfinch chirrups silently and unfathomably on its perch. A few metres away, seven medical students crowd around Dr Tulp’s pallid cadaver, each pointy-bearded face bristling with ambitious life. Three centuries and more ago, every one of those lives ended with one more chalk-white corpse.

Even though I had the chance to wander through an almost-silent gallery, the stories stacked inside the Mauritshuis could deafen you; the seam of fictional transformation from Proust to Chevalier, Tartt and Siegal is far from exhausted. Among the plentiful great Rembrandts in this gallery, you will find his haunting Two Moors from 1661: a pair of Africans, one defiant, the other subdued, the spectrum of feeling on their faces seeming to express the span of experience available to alien newcomers in the Holland of the Golden Age. Who will write their story?

The Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery (mauritshuis.nl), Plein 29, 2511 CS The Hague, is open daily until 1 November, then Tuesday to Sunday.

After a triumphant tour of Japan, then the United States and ending in Italy, the Girl with a Pearl Earring has returned home to the Mauritshuis royal picture gallery in The Hague. For ever. The museum, which reopened last month after two years’ renovation work, will no longer allow Vermeer’s masterpiece out. Officially the Mona Lisa of the North has been gated in order to please visitors to the Mauritshuis who only want to see that painting. Its fame has steadily increased since Tracy Chevalier published her novel in 1999 followed in 2004 by the film by Peter Webber starring Scarlett Johansson. Anyone wanting to see the portrait will have make the trip to the Dutch city: here.

British suffragettes and World War I

This video from Britain is called Mark Steel on Sylvia Pankhurst.

By Claire Eustance in Britain:

WWI didn’t end fight for women’s equality

Saturday 19th July 2014

Not all Suffragettes gave up the struggle for votes in 1914, says CLAIRE EUSTANCE

It is still all too easy to dismiss the scope and radicalism of the early 20th century British women’s movement. A case in point is the standard response to the question — what happened to the movement after outbreak of war in August 1914?

You are likely to hear comments along the lines of “Didn’t it all just stop?” or “The Suffragettes stopped attacking buildings and pillar boxes and instead started handing out white feathers to men who didn’t rush to join the military.”

If you are lucky you might find someone who knows something of the women suffragists who embraced the peace movement. Perhaps they might mention the International Congress of Women meeting at The Hague in the Netherlands in April 1915.

Surely the history of the women’s movement has more to it than this? What about the thousands of other women who had joined the myriad of women’s suffrage societies to campaign for an end to the exclusively — albeit partial — male parliamentary franchise?

My talk at the Tolpuddle festival, Keeping the Suffrage Flag Flying, focuses on one of these societies, The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), and considers the ways some of its 5,000-plus members responded to the outbreak of war and the impact the conflict had on them.

“Patriotism before politics” was the position adopted by the British Establishment in August 1914. The message to the suffrage societies was clear — it was selfish for women to continue to demand political rights when the country was at war.

And yet, while Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffrage campaigners were won over by such sentiments, others were less convinced.

Among them was Charlotte Despard, the revered president of the Women’s Freedom League, who declared that war “was the decisive damnation of a corrupt society.”

Although many of her comrades found it impossible to follow her into the peace movement, a significant number agreed that it was vital to keep attention focused on women’s demands for an equal voice in the politics of the nation.

The Women’s Freedom League’s long-standing commitment to the principle of resistance to government without representation remained broadly intact through the years of war.

An example was the decision of one member, Florence Underwood, to continue to refuse to pay income tax on her earnings. The league also moved swiftly to accommodate the wishes of their members who wanted to offer service to their country by channelling some of their considerable organisational skills into supporting working women, mothers and children who had been affected by the war.

The Women’s Freedom League’s commitment to the principles of equality produced what might seem a rather incongruous stance on alcohol — viewed by many as a national scourge in wartime.

However, in Hartlepool in 1917, the entire branch membership rose en masse to protest at the exclusion of women from licenced premises at certain times of the day. It was they claimed “not only an injustice but an insult to women!”

The Hartlepool campaign was just one of many forays taken by the league into debates around civil liberties.

Other campaigns highlighted equal pay, prostitution, sexual abuse and the treatment of women by law courts — topics that are largely still relevant to feminists and radicals today.

Yes, war meant that the women’s movement in Britain was probably organisationally weaker. There was less accord, less publicity and less wealth.

And yet over the same period some important principles relating to women’s rights to work, equality with men, rights of mothers as well as meanings of national identity and citizenship, were tested by women and found wanting.

It was feminism as much, if not more, than suffrage that flourished after 1914. There are some lessons for us there today, surely.

Claire Eustance is senior lecturer in history at the University of Greenwich. She will be giving a talk at the Tolpuddle radical history school.

Charles Darwin’s complete Galapagos library posted online

This video says about itself:

11 November 2011

A classic example of evolution on Daphne Major Island in the Galapagos. Natural selection works on beak size variation of Darwin’s Finches.

From ars technica:

Darwin’s complete Galapagos library posted online

404 volumes kept on board the Beagle join the giant Darwin Online repository.

by Sam Machkovech – July 16 2014, 10:40pm +0200

Charles Darwin‘s massive ship library, including astounding drawings of species from far-off lands, meant he rarely had to come above-board while sailing on the Beagle in the 1830s.

Charles Darwin’s five-year journey to and from the Galapagos Islands ended in 1836. While that was over two decades before the publication of On the Origin of Species, he credited his time on board the Beagle as a formative experience for his theory of evolution. That extended trip wasn’t only spent studying local wildlife, especially during lengthy voyages at sea to and from home—Darwin also devoured a library of more than 400 volumes of text.

While many of those books were referenced in his later research, they were not preserved as a collection once the Beagle returned to England, leaving a gap in our understanding about the books and studies that kept Darwin’s mind occupied during such an historic era. Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a two-year Beagle project funded by the government of Singapore, that complete on-ship library has been transcribed and posted at Darwin Online, the world’s largest repository of Darwin-related texts and writings.

The library, which was stored in the same cabin as Darwin’s bed and desk during his journey, totaled out at 195,000 pages by the time researchers at the National University of Singapore assembled the full collection (and these weren’t exactly picture books, with only 5,000 corresponding illustrations). The complete list is quite astounding, made up of atlases, history books, geology studies, and even a giant supply of literature. Darwin also enjoyed a few books in French, Spanish, and German, along with a book in Latin about species and a Greek edition of the New Testament.

Historians and fans can read and perform text searches of the fully transcribed library. But if you’re pressed for time, we strongly encourage you to at least skim through the collection of gorgeous illustrations.

British colonialist homophobic heritage

This 2013 video is called UK Gay Marriage Bill: 100 Conservative lawmakers expected to vote against draft law.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Britain ‘must tackle’ homophobia established in former colonies

Thursday 17th July 2014

BRITAIN should help end the homophobia it started in countries it once ruled as colonies, LGBT rights campaigners told David Cameron yesterday before the start of the Commonwealth Games.

Activists descended on Downing Street to urge the PM to speak out against the 42 commonwealth countries that criminalise homosexuality.

The Peter Tatchell Foundation said Mr Cameron should declare his support for article seven of the Commonwealth Games rules against discrimination.

Edwin Sesange was among the organisers of the African LGBTI Out and Proud Diamond Group’s protest.

He said: “Britain imposed most of the existing anti-gay laws in Commonwealth nations when it was the colonial power in the 19th century.

“Homosexuality was not illegal in these countries prior to British colonisation.

“Britain has been part of the problem. Therefore it should be part of the solution by challenging homophobia and transphobia in the Commonwealth.”

British BNP nazi homophobia: here.

USA: New Mexico woman charged with hate crime for beating her lesbian daughter: here.

United States cubist painter Max Weber exhibition

This video from London, England is called Private View – Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905-1915.

By Michal Boncza in London, England:

The wonders of Weber

Saturday 12th July 2014

MICHAL BONCZA welcomes an exhibition of works by an influential cubist painter

Max Weber: An American Cubist In Paris And New York 1905-1915

Ben Uri Gallery, London NW8


ART, identity and migration inform the Ben Uri gallery’s exhibition choices and this Max Weber show fits the bill to perfection. The fact that Weber’s work has not been exhibited in Britain since 1913 only heightens the interest.

Born in 1881 to a Jewish family in Bialystok — present-day north-east Poland but at the time part of the Russian empire — his peregrinations began at 10, when his family emigrated to New York.

It was there in 1898 that he began to study art but by 1905 Weber was in Paris, attracted by and absorbing the intellectual and artistic ferment of those heady days.

For a time he received tutoring, alongside many young artists, at the non-commercial Academie Henri Matisse from the master himself. But money ran out and after a relatively short three years Weber was back in New York.

His affectionate graphite sketch of his former tutor Matisse, perhaps completed before his return from Paris, is a delight — its minimalist strokes and likeness would certainly have pleased the master.

The experiences garnered in Paris allowed Weber to innovate and experiment in a varied palette of styles resulting in a sometimes disconcerting eclecticism.

Four dissimilar still natures on show, painted between 1910-12, reveal his dramatic progression from expressionism to cubism.

The principles of the latter are employed impressively when, “perched high above New York,” he renders the cityscape with subliminal feelings for its rich textures and crowded cement panorama.

Yet in The Dancers he retains elements of cubism but abandons fragmentation as a purely formal device to instead use it to organise the spirited movement and energy in simultaneous, separate perspectives reminiscent of reflections in a shattered mirror.

His contemporary — and fellow east European Jewish emigre — Marc Chagall’s expressionism comes to mind as the carnal sensuality feels as tangible as the bebop is audible.

Today Weber is considered to have been a major influence in the developing of modernism in the US. His work stemmed from many disparate influences, including Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau and African art, resulting in what’s been defined as “synthetic cubism with futurist devices.”

Once, while talking about his painting Chinese Restaurant (1915), Weber described the process thus: “light seemed to split into fragments in the interior… to express this, kaleidoscopic means had to be chosen.”

This video from London is called Cubist Max Weber’s ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ at Ben Uri Exhibition.

The iconic structure of his neighbourhood, the Brooklyn Bridge, is “hurled together in mighty mass against rolling clouds … this noise and dynamic force create in me a peace the opposite of itself.”

Weber’s words are as evocative as the brush strokes used to record that vision — it’s certainly the most vibrant image on display and possibly one of the best images of the bridge ever conceived.

Runs until October 5. Free. Opening times: (020) 7604-3991.

Explorer Thor Heyerdahl born 100 years ago

This video from Oslo in Norway is called The Kon-Tiki Museum.

From the Norway Post:

Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo celebrates the 100th anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s birth

Amazing new exhibition and activities in Norway and abroad as the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo celebrates the 100th anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s birth

When the famous Norwegian adventurer, scientist and communicator Thor Heyerdahl died on 18 April 2002 it made headlines around the world. No Norwegian celebrity’s death has received as much coverage before or since. He had become world famous 55 years earlier thanks to his legendary Kon-Tiki expedition and photos of Thor Heyerdahl and his crew together with the USA’s President Truman outside the White House.

The photos and the story of the Kon-Tiki expedition were everywhere. Naturally, interest did not decline when the film about the expedition won the Oscar for best documentary and the book sold by the millions. It has since been translated into 72 languages. During these years, Thor Heyerdahl retained his world celebrity thanks to new expeditions that were loved by the entire world, but also strongly criticised by academia.

He followed up the Kon-Tiki expedition with other spectacular expeditions on the reed boats Ra and Tigris. His recreations of prehistoric voyages showed that early man had mastered sailing before the saddle and wheel were invented. His reputation as a scientist was consolidated through his archaeological excavations on the fabled, mysterious Easter Island. Curiosity was Thor Heyerdahl’s driving force. Thor Heyerdahl’s archives at the Kon-Tiki Museum have now been included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Much of this archive is now on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum’s new library exhibition, which opened in April this year.

The Kon-Tiki Museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth with a new, upgraded exhibition. There will also be a touring exhibition, accompanied by lectures and films, which will travel around Norway and abroad: Russia, the UK, Italy, the US, Canada, Spain, Armenia, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania and Estonia. The ‘Thor Heyerdahl 1914 – 2014′ exhibition portrays Thor Heyerdahl’s life and best known expeditions on large posters through text and photos. At the Kon-Tiki Museum the Kon-Tiki raft has been fitted out as it was on its voyage across the Pacific Ocean in 1947.

Upgraded Kon-Tiki exhibition – Kon-Tiki sails again

The exhibition is our most comprehensive yet and has a special section for children. A new exhibition, ‘The Tiki Effect’, tells the story of how the names Kon-Tiki and Aku Aku (Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition to Easter Island in the 1950s) became buzzwords from the 1950s to the 1970s, with bars, restaurants, music and fashion named after Kon-Tiki and Aku Aku. Even Walt Disney adopted the idea in Disneyland and the well-known pop group The Shadows had a hit with a song called Kon-Tiki.

This music video is called The Stranger ~ Kon Tiki – The Shadows.

The Galapagos expedition – new exhibition

Thor Heyerdahl believed that South American Indians could have sailed from Peru and Ecuador to the Polynesian islands. He proved this was feasible with the Kon-Tiki expedition.

“Why did no Indians visit the Galapagos Islands?” asked his opponents, who claimed that there were no clear signs that South American Indians had visited the Galapagos Islands. Thor Heyerdahl took this as a direct challenge. He quickly organised a small expedition with three archaeologists. Within two months, after digging in five locations on Floreana, Santa Cruz and Santiago, the three men had collected more than 1,988 pieces of pottery, one pottery flute, four pieces of flint, one piece of obsidian, and two other artefacts that proved the islands had been visited in both historic and prehistoric times.

Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition to the Galapagos Islands now has its own exhibition at the museum where kids can also learn how an archaeologist works.

Cave stone sculptures from Easter Island

When Thor Heyerdahl was on Easter Island in 1955-1956 he learned that there were old family caves that were passed down through the generations. Thor Heyerdahl became the first outsider, from a country far away over the sea, who was allowed to see a family cave on Easter Island. The sculptures he found here depicted a wide variety of subjects, from people and mammals to birds, fish, insects and molluscs. There were skulls carved in stone, animals with human heads, faces with beards, a hook-beaked birdman and models of reed boats. Thor Heyerdahl was given some of the cave stones by the local population and he bought others.

Since then, the 900 cave stone sculptures have been stored at the Kon-Tiki Museum, inaccessible to the general public until this summer in 2014. Some of them are old, while others were probably made while Thor Heyerdahl was on Easter Island in 1955-1956.

More exhibitions about Thor Heyerdahl the scientist, environmentalist, adventurer and artist will open in the autumn of 2014. There will also be a new exhibition about the fantastic voyages across the Atlantic Ocean on Ra and RA II, both named after the Egyptian sun god.

Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel, two hundred years ago

Sir Henry Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott (1822)

By David Walsh in the USA:

Two hundred years since the publication of Waverley

Sir Walter Scott and the drama of history

9 July 2014

Monday marked 200 years since the publication of Waverley, a novel by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), an event of genuine artistic and intellectual significance. Waverley is widely considered the first historical novel—that is, the first work that treated the past not primarily as ornament on a tale of “timeless” morals and manners, but from the point of view of its own distinct significance as the necessary and comprehensible prelude to the present.

Literary critic Leslie Stephens observed that “the special characteristic of Scott as distinguished from his predecessors is precisely his clear perception that the characters whom he loved so well and described so vividly were the products of a long historical evolution.”

Charles Edward Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie')

Scott’s book follows Edward Waverley, a young, high-born Englishman, as he becomes involved for a time in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745—the effort, launched in Scotland, to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne. The uprising, led by Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), was in large measure an effort to turn the clock back to feudal times and forestall the spread of capitalistic relations. Highland clans and Scottish landowners opposed to the 1707 union of England and Scotland and those Scottish merchants who had been damaged by that union—along with a section of English aristocrats—took part in or sympathized with the unsuccessful rebellion against the government of George II.

Scott brilliantly portrays the uprising and its consequences from the social, political and moral points of view (in his study of the family, private property and the state, for instance, Friedrich Engels wrote, “Walter Scott’s novels bring the Scotch highland clan vividly before our eyes”), without sacrificing tension and spontaneity. The reader encounters a host of characters, English and Scottish (and even French), from many social backgrounds and taken from life. Waverley is an artistic accomplishment of the highest order, even if it is not yet Scott’s very finest work.

The novel has a great historical value, but that in and of itself would not be a compelling enough reason to recommend it to a wide audience or to urge a consideration of Scott’s body of work as a whole, which is the primary motive for this article. Waverley is immensely enjoyable and entertaining, dramatic and gripping, and almost “Shakespearean” in its objectivity. Scott is able, to a remarkable degree, to give the principal parties their respective due. This certainly includes the clan and Jacobite leaders, even while he recognizes and identifies the hopeless and retrograde nature of their rebellion.

Illustration for Scott's Waverley

Scott was on the eve of his 43rd birthday in July 1814. He was already a celebrated narrative poet—The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810)—and, in fact, Waverley was published anonymously in part to protect his existing reputation should the book fail to please the public. Scott had read and studied voraciously, accumulating a store of local and national history, poetry, ballads, folk tales and more, as well as undergoing a more conventional education. Waverley, with its profusion of cultural and historical allusions, is the book of a man well into life. In its richness and maturity, it is not a typical “first novel,” in that sense.

The appearance of Scott’s novel made an immediate and enormous impression. According to the Walter Scott Digital Archive at the Edinburgh University Library, “The success of Waverley was phenomenal and established Scott as a novelist with an international reputation. The first edition of one thousand copies sold out within two days of publication, and by November a fourth edition was at the presses.”

Ian Duncan, in an introduction to a recent edition of Waverley, suggests that the book “has a strong claim to be the most influential work in the modern history of the novel.” Scott went on to author another two dozen novels over the next decade and a half or so, in the process becoming the most lionized and popular literary figure of his day.

Thirteen of the novels, including most of the highly regarded ones, are set between 1644 and 1799, most of those in Scotland (or northern England), and treat various sides of the great historical transitions of the day. The subject is often civil war or internecine religious conflict, in which hostile social forces violently collide, treated generally through the activities of rather unheroic and secondary figures.

Scott’s stature in the first third of the nineteenth century and beyond is almost impossible to conceive of today. He became a venerated, even adored, figure, whose work reached wide layers of the reading public and influenced countless writers, including Victor Hugo, Alexander Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy.

Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin, the great Russian poet, for example, wrote: “The influence of Walter Scott can be felt in every province of the literature of his age. The new school of French historians formed itself under the influence of the Scottish novelist. He showed them entirely new sources which had so far remained unknown despite the existence of the historical drama of Shakespeare and Goethe.” Tolstoy’s War and Peace owes a direct and unmistakable debt to Scott.

Both Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge and, more successfully, A Tale of Two Cities would have been unthinkable without the earlier writer’s example. In a letter, Dickens wrote of reading such Scott novels as “Kenilworth [1821]…with greater delight than ever,” and also noted that “in Scott’s Diary which I have been looking at this morning, there are thoughts which have been mine by day and by night.”

George Eliot, another major English novelist, also admired Scott tremendously. A biographer comments that her “passion for books seems to have sprung into being on her first contact with Sir Walter Scott,” when she read Waverley in 1827 or so. The biography continues, “The love of Scott lasted throughout her life,” and cites Eliot’s later comment, “It is a personal grief, a heart wound to me, when I hear a depreciatory or slighting word about Scott.”

The latter’s poems and novels inspired operas (Donizetti, Rossini, Bizet), musical pieces (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Sullivan), theatrical works and paintings. Eleanor Marx observed that her father “read and reread Walter Scott; he admired him and knew him almost as well as he knew Fielding and Balzac.” Franz Mehring commented that Marx “recognized a number of Walter Scott’s novels as being models of their kind.” He apparently considered Old Mortality (1816), which treats the conflict between Scottish Presbyterian rebels (“Covenanters”) and Royalists in the late seventeenth century, to be a particular “masterpiece.”

Ironically, Scott’s The Lady of the Lake was so popular that it inspired both abolitionist Frederick Douglass (who, after his escape from slavery in 1838, chose his last name from a central character) and the Ku Klux Klan (which allegedly adopted the custom of cross burning from the Scottish clans’ tradition depicted in the work).

A conservative in his political and social views, Scott nevertheless breathed the same air as his more radical (although, in some cases, only in their youth) contemporaries William Wordsworth, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Hölderlin, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Robert Owen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Friedrich von Schlegel (all born in the years 1770 to 1772!). The great event here is the French Revolution of 1789, which erupted when they were at an impressionable age.

Scott was hostile to the French Revolution and social upheaval in general, although The Heart of Midlothian (1818) opens with a scintillating account of a popular revolt. In any event, something of the drama of the stormy era unquestionably entered his bloodstream—and never left it. As Trotsky noted in a very different context, “the ‘spirit’ of an epoch…is reflected in everybody, in those who accept it and who embody it, as well as in those who hopelessly struggle against it.” (It is not for nothing that Scott authored a nine-volume biography of Napoleon in 1825-1827.) One becomes aware of this intense dramatic element as the best of Scott’s novels progress toward their climactic confrontations.

He was a product in part of the Scottish Enlightenment. As Peter Garside has pointed out, “There is still a tendency…to think of Scott solely as a nineteenth-century figure, but of course his first thirty years [half his life] were spent in eighteenth-century Edinburgh” (Scott and the “Philosophical” Historians, 1975). Garside continued, “Scott had a strong sense of the intellectual and cultural importance of the Scottish Enlightenment as a whole,” which included such figures as Adam Smith, David Hume and Robert Burns.

Occurring in a “post-revolutionary” society, the Scottish Enlightenment had a politically moderate coloring for the most part, but its humanism, belief in reason, general broadmindedness and hostility to the arrogance of authority certainly helped shape Scott’s outlook. (One of his professors at the University of Edinburgh in 1790-1791 was the Enlightenment philosopher Dugald Stewart, who was a sympathizer of the French Revolution, at least in its initial stages, and fell under suspicion as a result.)

A generally tolerant and democratic sensibility is to be found in Scott’s work—for instance, in his scathing treatment of anti-Semitism in Ivanhoe (1819). In addition, it would be difficult to imagine this rather contemptuous passing comment by one of the central female characters in Waverley appearing in a novel prior to Scott’s day: “I believe all men (that is, who deserve the name) are pretty much alike; there is generally more courage required to run away. They have besides, when confronted with each other, a certain instinct for strife, as we see in other male animals, such as dogs, bulls, and so forth.”

(Scott, to his credit, was a sincere admirer of Jane Austen, among other female writers. In his journal, he commented, quite wonderfully, “The Big Bow-wow strain [!] I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch [referring to Austen], which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”)

David Daiches, in his 1951 essay “Scott’s Achievement as a Novelist,” rejected the notion of Scott as an “ultra-romantic figure.” Instead, he argued, “Scott’s best and characteristic novels are a very different matter. They might with justice be called ‘antiromantic’ fiction…. It is worth noting that the heroine of the novel considered by most critics to be Scott’s best [The Heart of Midlothian] is a humble Scottish working girl.”

That heroine, Jeanie Deans, travels to London by foot to try to obtain a reprieve for her sister, falsely charged with child-murder. When she reaches the English capital, “she pours out her heart in her humble Scots diction” to the queen. “And when Jeanie tries to find out how she can repay the kindness of the noble duke who had helped her to her interview with the queen, she asks, ‘Does your honour like cheese?’ That is the real Scott touch.”

Scott’s historical novels, argued famed essayist Thomas Carlyle, “taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so taught: that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies, and abstractions of men.”

One tends to remember, as Daiches pointed out, the minor or “middle” characters who abound in Scott’s work, the practical and energetic Scottish lawyers and farmers, the eccentric pedants and courthouse hangers-on, the landladies and tavern-keepers, the adventurers and vagabonds, the merchants and gypsies. The novelist is moved by the traditional heroism of an earlier day (and saddened by its passing), but finds it impotent, while he takes satisfaction in “the peace, prosperity and progress which he felt had been assured by the Union with England in 1707” and brings colorfully to life those who are making the most, for better or worse, of the new conditions.

Scott’s writings began to fall out of favor in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it is not terribly difficult to figure out why. There are areas of life, as Scott himself indicates in his comment about Jane Austen, excluded from his work. The rise of the psychological novel and its more intimate, fluid treatment of human relationships made Scott a less attractive figure. His deliberately roundabout style, his often leisurely, sometimes careless approach, which suggested a real or imaginary rural world in an earlier age, seemed both artificial and stodgy in the light of mid-century realism and, later, naturalism.

Mark Twain in 1895

Mark Twain famously ridiculed Scott in Life on the Mississippi (1883), amusingly, if mistakenly, accusing the Scottish writer (clearly with Ivanhoe and such in mind) of setting “the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.”

On the other hand, bourgeois critics and writers took advantage, so to speak, of Scott’s weak side and his less appealing qualities as part of a wider attack, after the 1848 revolutions and the appearance on the historical scene of the working class, against the very concept of historical change and progress. As conscious or unconscious defenders of the status quo, which was now threatened from below, historians and novelists alike increasingly tended to treat society in an unhistorical manner, accepting the given social order and relationships as having existed from all time.

As the left-wing Hungarian critic Georg Lukács argued, in The Historical Novel (1937), “Since history…is no longer conceived [after 1848] as the prehistory of the present, or, if it is, then in a superficial, unilinear, evolutionary way, the endeavours of the earlier period to grasp the stages of the historical process in their real individuality, as they really were objectively, lose their living interest…. [H]istory is modernized. This means the historian [or novelist] proceeds from the belief that the fundamental structure of the past is economically and ideologically the same as that of the present. Thus, in order to understand the present all one has to do is to attribute the thoughts, feelings and motives of present-day men to the past.”

Lukács’s work, in fact, led to a revival of interest in Scott, and it is worth briefly going over a number of his conceptions. Like many intellectuals in the Stalinist orbit, Lukács was at his most useful when dealing with eras very distant in time from his own. When he arrived at the twentieth century, his literary criticism inevitably strained and twisted to conform to both the Stalinist political and cultural lines.

In The Historical Novel, Lukács first addresses the rise of a new, widespread historical consciousness out of which a writer such as Scott could emerge. He associates that development with “the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon, which for the first time made history a mass experience, and moreover on a European scale.” The quick succession of upheavals between 1789 and 1814 “gives them a qualitatively distinct character, it makes their historical character far more visible than would be the case in isolated, individual instances.”

Moreover, discussing the new, mass character of the armies in the Napoleonic wars, the far-flung experiences of hundreds of thousands, or millions, which extended from Egypt to Russia, Lukács remarked, “Hence the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their daily lives and immediately concerns them.”

In the wake of the Restoration of the European monarchies after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, a new type of argument in favor of historical progress had to emerge: “According to the new interpretation the reasonableness of human progress develops ever increasingly out of the inner conflict of social forces in history itself; according to this interpretation history itself is the bearer and realizer of human progress. The most important thing here is the increasing historical awareness of the decisive role played in human progress by the struggle of classes in history.”

Although Britain was held up in the early nineteenth century as the model of peaceful, upward development, keen observers such as Scott, wrote Lukács, “were made to see that this peaceful development was peaceful only as the ideal of an historical conception…. The organic character of England’s development is a resultant made up of the components of ceaseless class struggles and their bloody resolution in great or small, successful or abortive uprisings.” Much of Scott’s novel-writing concerns these episodes.

Scott’s choice of “mediocre, average” heroes pointed to his renunciation of Romanticism and his effort “to portray the struggles and antagonisms of history by means of characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.” Lukacs continued, “For the hero of the epic is life itself and not the individual.”

“In Scott’s most important novels historically unknown, semi-historical or entirely non-historical persons play the leading role…. Scott thus lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives…. For the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if the everyday life of the people, the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed.”

There is a great deal more to be said on the subject of Scott and the historical novel, but let this suffice as an introduction. If any readers, unfamiliar with the novelist’s work, develop an interest in his novels as the result of this essay, its purpose is served.