Having only read Ivanhoe out of the many novels written by Sir Walter Scott, I wanted to try another one, so I read through the descriptions and chose The Bride of Lammermoor. It is supposedly very different from his other works, both in style and length, being fairly short. Many people commented about how amusingly gothic it was, so I figured I’d give it a try.
The story tells the tragic tale of young Ravenswood, the descendent of a noble family who lives in a crumbling tower by the sea, and the Ashtons, the family who usurped his ancestral lands via a variety of dubious legal practices. He and the young lady of the family fall in love, turning his thoughts from revenge to something far more gracious. The sight of Miss Ashton alone is enough to make him act in her favor; she seems to have been the very picture of innocence and beauty, and he forgets everything in her presence…even common sense.
And the story is amusing. There are three ghoulish old women who seem to have come straight out of Macbeth as reincarnations of the weird sisters; they speculate on when people around them will die and who will make a nice corpse. There are a variety of Scottish peasants, all overflowing with pride and opinions and attitude, and then there is Caleb, one of two last loyal servants to Ravenswood. To save the family honor, he will do anything—lie, cheat, turn guests out of the house under any pretext, and practically burn down the dilapidated tower itself. If you haven’t read it, I would definitely recommend it, if just to enjoy his brilliant schemes.
There did seem to be some large plot points that conveniently got left out, though. For example, Lady Ashton has been gone during the entire courtship and betrothal period. When she comes back, she instantly finds out about her daughter’s engagement, even though it was a secret and even though the daughter knows she will not be pleased. How this came about, we don’t know, because that scene was left out. Other, similarly vital occurrences are mentioned but never developed.
But it was the ending that disappointed me most.
I downloaded my copy from Project Gutenberg, and for some unfathomable reason, it has two copies of the novel, back-to-back, in the same file. So what looked like a very large book was actually two, smaller ones. But I didn’t know that. (Had I read the separate table of contents, I would have discovered the duplication, but I don’t make a habit of reading Chapter I, Chapter II, Chapter III, and so forth. When I read a book, I want to get to the story itself.)
So there I was, reading along, feeling confident in the length of pages before me that I was not drawing to a conclusion. I reached the tragic climax, and I eagerly awaited the revelation of what happened to Ravenswood and how the rest of his life unfolded.
And then (Plot Spoiler) he disappeared, quite literally. He was riding along, headed for a duel with Miss Ashton’s brother, and quicksand swallows him up, having overgrown its normal bounds due to heavy rain. Just like that, he was gone.
What further set up my disappointment is that Sir Walter has a prologue in which he explains where the story came from, relating the “historical” version of the tale. And I found I liked the historical version much better. Instead of having the hero die in a pit of quicksand, he disappeared to the continent and is never heard of again. All kinds of narrative possibilities there, but that vague, romantic ending is instead given to Bucklaw, the suitor Lady Ashton favored, the Paris in this Romeo & Juliet. In the historical version, Bucklaw dies, not from quicksand, but from falling off his horse, but Sir Walter switched the endings, more or less, giving the death to Ravenswood and the mysterious life to Bucklaw, and I can’t understand why.
Did he think it was better for both parties of the “cursed” romance to die, after having been warned by signs and omens? Did he just sympathize with Bucklaw for the part he unconsciously played in the tragedy, and he wanted something better than a death by accident? If so, why give that to the hero?
And why end the whole thing so abruptly? The narrative moved along quite well until the climax with Miss Ashton. After that, we are distanced from the main characters and everyone starts to die or get written out of the book.
Sir Walter said he greatly enjoyed the tale, as told by his mother in what took about half an hour or so by the fireside, so perhaps his problem was that of adapting a short story into a novel. In a short story, you expect more loose threads, because there simply isn’t time to answer and explain everything. But in a novel, more explanations are expected. We want to know how the plot gets where it’s going, and not just be told, so when he put the bare bones of the short story into the novel, without explaining the connections or truly building up the ending, we’re left with disappointment and a sense of abrupt convenience.
But I would still recommend it. In addition to humor, the story is full of poignant scenes that would’ve looked great in a great black-and-white movie: people arranged dramatically in the middle of a thunderstorm or beside a ruined fountain or, in the beginning, at a funeral where swords are drawn to defend the deceased’s right to his religion’s version of the funeral service. It would have made a great film, and it is a great read, despite its flaws.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo Credit Lighting Up The Sky by Nomadic Lass, use per Creative Commons license