Like Wait For Me! by Deborah Mitford, The Bride of Lammermoor was part of my Christmas stash, but I have only just got round to reading it. I was predisposed in its favour, being extremely fond of all things pertaining to the lairds and clans of the Highlands (my affection for Jennifer Roberson’s novel Lady of the Glen and Michael Caton-Jones’s film “Rob Roy” is sufficient proof of this). I had also greatly enjoyed Ivanhoe and Waverley, so I could reasonably expect equal pleasure in reading The Bride of Lammermoor.
The Bride of Lammermoor is, as the title suggests, a tale of love – and ill-fated love, at that – but it is also a tale of ancestral hatred, of politics and of intrigue. The plot opens circa 1710, in the reign of Queen Anne. Lord Ravenswood, ruined by the mismanagement and spendthrift ways of previous generations, further disgraced by his support of the Stuarts against Mary and William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and dispossessed of his ancestral home by the wily machinations of Sir William Ashton, has died in poverty, loneliness, and great bitterness of spirit. To his son Edgar, known as the Master of Ravenswood, he leaves nothing but the dreary tower of Wolf’s Crag, overlooking the rocks and crashing waves of the North Sea, and the solemn vow, made on his deathbed, to avenge the wrongs done by Sir William Ashton to the Ravenswood name.
At first, Edgar Ravenswood has every intention of carrying out the promise made to his father, for his disposition is as proud, fierce, and brooding, as his looks are haughty and awe-inspiring, and he cannot forgive his father’s enemy. There is talk that he will seek revenge in the shedding of his enemy’s blood, as did his ancestor Sir Malise Ravenswood:
It was said by a constant tradition, that a Malisius de Ravenswood had, in the thirteenth century, been deprived of his castle and lands by a powerful usurper, who had for a while enjoyed his spoils in quiet. At length, on the eve of a costly banquet, Ravenswood, who had watched his opportunity, introduced himself into the castle with a small band of faithful retainers. The serving of the expected feast was impatiently looked for by the guests, and clamorously demanded by the temporary master of the castle. Ravenswood, who had assumed the disguise of a sewer upon the occasion, answered, in a stern voice, ‘I bide my time;’ and at the same moment a bull’s head, the ancient symbol of death, was placed upon the table. The explosion of the conspiracy took place upon the signal, and the usurper and his followers were put to death.
Though Edgar disdains to take the law into his own hands and put a pistol to Sir William Ashton’s head, he does resolve to respect the family motto and “bide his time”. But fate places across his path Sir William’s daughter, Lucy, who is beautiful, gentle, and romantic. Before long, Edgar is in love with her, and she with him. Edgar strives to ignore his feelings, however, for a union between himself and Lucy Ashton is undesirable, from the point of view both of filial duty and of personal honour. Old Alice, a blind servant still faithful to the Ravenswood family, and possessed of second sight, puts his dilemma most clearly when she asks him:
“Are you prepared to sit lowest at the board which was once your father’s own, unwillingly, as a connexion and ally of his proud successor? – Are you ready to live on his bounty – to follow him in the bypaths of intrigue and chicane, which none can better point out to you – to gnaw the bones of his prey when he has devoured the substance? – Can you say as Sir William Ashton says – think as he thinks – vote as he votes, and call your father’s murderer your worshipful father-in-law and revered patron? – Master of Ravenswood, I am the eldest servant of your house, and I would rather see you shrouded and coffined!”
The tumult of Edgar’s mind at these words is great and he almost resolves to break all connection with Lucy. Upon seeing her again, however, his resolve melts like ice in the sun, and despite warnings, omens, and prophecies all foretelling certain ruin to both families should Ravenswood court the daughter of his enemy, he and Lucy shortly afterwards form a secret engagement. But the unlucky pair have reckoned without the interference of Lady Ashton, Sir William’s autocratic wife: she will not hear of her daughter’s marrying the destitute heir of a family she loathes. She has, moreover, another candidate for Lucy’s hand, and no sooner has she got wind of the engagement than she sets out to break it, by fair means or foul.
It is precisely at this moment that Ravenswood is given the opportunity to better his fortunes, by acting as a diplomatic envoy abroad. Lady Ashton takes advantage of his lengthy absence and consequent inability to argue his case in person, in order to force Lucy to relinquish her engagement in favour of her mother’s chosen suitor. Lucy is young, being but seventeen, she is impressionable and of an ordinarily passive and tractable nature: she holds out a year against her mother’s campaign of intimidation, but in the end, she gives in, wrongly convinced that Ravenswood no longer cares for her.
Ravenswood arrives just minutes after the marriage contract has been signed. The strain of the subsequent interview, combined with that of the previous year, affects Lucy’s reason: the night of the wedding, the festivities are interrupted by a scream from the bridal chamber, and when the door is forced open, the body of the groom is discovered on the floor, covered in blood. Lucy herself is found huddled in the fireplace, a gibbering madwoman. It is not long before she dies. Holding Ravenswood answerable for Lucy’s death, her older brother challenges Edgar to a duel at dawn on the beach below Wolf’s Crag. Ravenswood’s despair is so deep that he accepts, not caring whether he lives or dies – but fate once again intervenes, for as he rides down to meet his opponent, he is swallowed up by quicksand.
There are many positive elements in The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott’s characterisation is very good: Edgar Ravenswood is no stuffed effigy of a hero, but has a strong and likeable personality. Though fired by pride and resentment, he is not ridiculously belligerent, but is instead intelligent, sensible, thoughtful, and dignified. His outrage at the Ashtons’ treatment of him is all the more justified and sympathised with. In contrast, Sir William is greedy, grasping, unprincipled and cowardly, and Scott’s descriptions of his dealings form a vicious commentary on the politics of the time. The weakness of character Lucy inherited from her father is also stated without any attempt on the narrator’s part to soften or disguise it: Lucy may be a victim of her mother’s tyrannical temper, but she is also at fault.
However, certain other characters undermine the strength of the narrative, most notably the various servants and tenants of the Ravenswood and Ashton families: according to a long-established literary custom, Edgar Ravenswood’s aged and faithful servant, Caleb Balderstone, plays the role of buffoon in the story, with the purpose of affording comic relief in an otherwise gloomy tale. He rambles, digresses, and is remarkably inventive when it comes to finding either provisions or excuses for the lack of them, and thereby saving the family’s honour, which he prizes above his life. His officiousness involves his master in difficulties more than once, but Ravenswood’s impatience is always superseded by amusement. I wish I could say the same for me. I found Caleb’s speeches long-winded and tedious in the extreme, and could have wished they had been cut by half. There is a great deal to be said in favour of succinctness.
My main criticism, however, concerns the way Scott downplays the drama at certain crucial points in the narrative. I think this stems from Scott’s unwillingness to have his novel categorized as a gothic tale or romance, in the style of Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe. He seeks to give his story credibility by insisting on the historical aspect of the events, i.e. the fact that they really took place, and that his narrator is not inventing incongruous fancies, but re-telling facts which he collected from sure sources. In my opinion, this injures the narration: not only is the outcome of the plot known from the start, thus killing all suspense, but the attempt at realism clashes with the climate of superstition surrounding Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood’s love affair.
Most of all, the ending falls flat: coming swiftly upon the heels of Lucy’s dramatic descent into madness and bloody murder attempt on her bridegroom, Ravenswood’s death should have been terrible and awe-inspiring. But there is no final struggle to escape the hungry, sucking sand, no imprecation hurled at the skies or tragic resignation to fate: he is simply there one minute, and gone the next. Scott disposes of his hero in two neat lines, and the effect is disappointingly anticlimactic. I, for one, felt more than a little cheated, as if the words of the ancient prophecy had only partly been verified:
“When the last laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride / And woo a dead maiden to be his bride, / He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow, / And his name shall be lost for evermoe!”
© Florence Berlioz 2011