The old age of Sir Walter
THE RAGGED LION by Allan Massie Hutchinson, f15.99, pp. 240 Ishall be reading the other reviews of The Ragged Lion with even more than usual curiosity, for I shall be watching to see which critics declare a previous interest not in Allan Massie (though since he is a fluent journalist as well as a scrupulously fine novelist he will doubtless be known to many hacks) but in Sir Walter Scott. The Razed Lion is Sir Walter's 'memoir', presented complete with the sort of only partly mock scholarly introduction beloved of Scott himself — where, though the pedants are fictional, the devoted scholar- ship is real. Allan Massie acts as his own Jedediah Cleishbotham, offering us the manuscript, describing its provenance, even gravely pointing out the possible flaws in its authenticity. With a nice Dryasdustish twist, he argues that the close echoes of Scott's Journal and Lockhart's famous biography are actually evidence of the genuineness of the memoir, since it must have been one of Lockhart's sources.
After the introduction, however, the voice is Sir Walter's in old age, offering autobiographical fragments, memories, reflections, doubts, fears, political views, and self-justifications, shot through with haunting dread of senility, but still alert and rationally crisp in language and insight. It is superbly done, and I found it both subtle and engrossing. But then I have to declare that I am already a fan of Sir Walter Scott, whose complete oeuvre I undiscrimatingly devoured between the ages of ten and 14, and which will for me be forever associated with the porcelain chill of the bathroom, where I did most of my reading after lights out. Early love affairs are the most intense; and an endur- ing affection for Scott certainly affected my eagerness to read and review this novel. It also makes it difficult for me to judge how this work would strike the reader who is ignorant of or indifferent to its subject.
Even this observation, however, is in practice a compliment to Allan Massie, though of a particular and peculiar kind. It is a tribute to his devoted imagination which has a convincing, selfless transparen- cy. At times, indeed, its through-shine fictional glass buckles to suggest the presence of Massie the manipulator, offer- ing comments on the present age — as when he hints how much Scott the roman- tic Tory would have been out of tune with modern Conservatism: I have a profound admiration for Dr Adam Smith [he makes Sir Walter remark], and yet a world that was formed only on his princi- ples would be a dry and barren place, where all emotions are tepid, but greed.
Yet though one can naturally enough spot the presence of Massie as critic, analyst and author, arranging ironies or pointing out the paradoxes of Scott's nature, his activities are very different from, say, the brilliant but self-conscious fireworks of an Ackroyd pastiche, which one is positively encouraged to discuss as an artefact. It would, one feels, scarcely matter to Ackroyd if Wilde, or Chatterton, or Dr Dee had never actually existed: they are springboards for his imagination, and the reviewers who complained that Dr Dee never lived in Clerkenwell would, in Ack- royd's view of things, be beside the point. But not in Massie's book. If Scott, as a crit- ic once wrote, celebrates 'the heroism of everyday life', Massie unselfseekingly trusts in romance within sober truth. He will, I hope, be pleased that I find this book so difficult to judge as pure fiction.
Nonetheless, one can see the problems that faced Massie in this fictional enter- prise, and how he attempts (successfully, I believe) to solve them. The main difficulty is how to grip the reader's imagination with the tale of a man of manifold, unpreten- tious virtues and manifest decency, whose most obvious act of heroism was his deter- mination to pay off, by his own unaided efforts, the crippling debts incurred by the publishing firm in which he was liable as a partner. What is worse, from the novelist's point of view, he is actually fond of his family: Of Lady Scott and of my mother I have already written in this memoir; and there is nothing I can now add, beyond repeating my sense of my own good fortune in being born of one and finding the other. I have been equally fortunate as a father.
This is a novel without adultery, incest, child abuse, exotic locations or homo- sexuality. Indeed, Scott's aging obsession with 'Green-breeks' — a boy from a street- gang who has all the remembered glamour of a juvenile Hotspur, and whose image haunts Scott in dreams and hallucinations — is troubling precisely because it cannot be so easily labelled. Even when Scott, in a vision, touches the boy's 'blood-encrusted hair' and is rewarded by 'a smile of infinite sweetness and regret', the faint sexual fris- son only merges into the greater ambiva- lence of the status of this vision — as an evocation of potent yearning, insidious romance, and all those longings of the imagination which may liberate or destroy a man's life.
The only dramatic interest in Massie's novel is simple but potent: we are waiting for Sir Walter to die and wondering, with him, if his mind will go before he does. The external facts of Scott's life may be soberly free of the dramas of golden-tongued Romance; yet as dissolution approaches, his mind has its inward dramas — a more gentlemanly, poignant version of Lear's `fierce debate/ Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.' The hints of terror, even despair, are all the more moving for being read between the lines of fluently and rationally controlled prose — to which the Scots dialect adds a flavour as distinct and timeless as peat in clear water.
One of the many excellent things about this novel is the awareness it creates of the fragility of the rational personality — an awareness that may be terrifying or inspir- ing. A sort of muted heroism is shown in Sir Walter's private fight to maintain civilised reason and civic virtue; yet he is also poignantly aware that each has exacted its toll. Laws and civil order are seen by Scott the `Shirra' (Sheriff) of Selkirkshire as vital constraints upon the brutal anarchy of human nature; yet Scott the Minstrel can also regret the loss of something wild and imaginative, destroyed in the process of civilisation. This double vision, bred within a bitterly divided society, runs through the book, balancing between the claims of Whig and Jacobite, between domesticity and imaginative escape, between society and solitude, present and past, reason and the supernatural.
Massie's themes are clear, but never too neat; the novel remains profoundly human. Massie himself, like Scott, is both Roman- tic and Johnsonian: he has a wild, fey streak to his imagination, yet he is also that rare thing, a novelist for grown-ups.