Thoughts on Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

A bit of a reading lethargy has befallen me since I finished the novel, Guy Mannering.  I think part of the reason is I miss the book and its having transported me to 18th Century Scotland and the territory of Galloway.  Almost from the beginning when we found the title character ‘losing his way’ in the night and stopping at a hovel, whose mistress – upon the promise of payment in return for being guided – rouses her young son to conduct ‘our hero’ to the estate of Ellangowan, I was pretty much hooked.

I will miss the characters that Scott created: the wonderful Meg Merrelies – a gypsy ‘witch’ almost literally larger than life at six feet tall, the unfailingly loyal and impossibly awkward Dominie Sampson, the steady and loyal Colonel Mannering himself, his daughter Julia – ready to spread her wings and follow the first promising suitor who comes her way, piping on his flageolet beneath her window.  The same suitor is also Harry Bertram, the heir to the estate of Ellangowan.  And Harry’s robust friend, farmer Dandie Dinmont, whose character gives the name to the Dandie Dinmont Terrier (pictured here).  All great characters, and let’s not forget the evil Captain Dirk Hatteraick, a successful smuggler and murderer.

I’ve read many better “stories” than this, but it was Scott’s language and great characters that made this perhaps my favorite book of 2010 thus far.

SPOILER ALERT! – following is my summary of the book’s plot; read no further if you’d like to read this for yourself!

The sub- or alternate title of this book is “The Astrologer.” This comes from the opening passages of the novel, where Guy Mannering arrives at Ellangowan, just as the Laird’s wife has given birth to their son and heir.  The gypsy, Meg Merrelies, is also present and has come to tell the fortune of the future laird.  Mannering, being an Oxford scholar and being – naturally of his era –  quite versed in the art of astrology is prevailed upon to cast the young lad’s horoscope.  Asking to be conducted to somewhere with suitable viewing of sky, he ends up standing on the ‘rampart’ of the ‘castle-like home (the next morning he also takes a stroll along the walls, surveying the surrounding era in another powerful descriptive passage by Scott).  As part of the horoscope, he divines that the heir will face critical times in his life at the time he turns five and also 21 years old.

Later, the current Laird of Ellangowan (Harry’s father, Godfrey Bertram) lets his status ‘go to his head’ and begins to abuse his powers as a judge and local authority, even leading him to dispossess the band of gypsies (that includes Meg Merrelies) from their traditional haunt on his property, Derncleugh.  This leads naturally to a certain ill will toward the laird, especially from Merrelies, who curses him as she and her troop are pulling up stakes.  Sampson later remarks “If ever the devil spoke through the mouth of a woman, he did it that night through Meg Merrelies…”

below: gypsies & smugglers at Derncleugh (I assume that’s Meg in the background…)

Mannering’s predictions turn out to be quite true, as on his fifth birthday, he is kidnapped by Hatteraick and his ‘pirates’ after witnessing their murder of a government agent.  On this same night, Bertram’s mother dies while giving birth to his younger sister, Lucy.

The novel leaps ahead almost 16 years, where Godfrey Bertram, due to mismanagement and incompetence, has fallen upon hard times and ill-health.  Mannering, who has in the interim risen to the rank of colonel in the army, and spent many years in India, returns to the same location that bewitched him (or maybe it was Merrelies who bewitched him) so many years ago to see how things have turned out for the young laird whose future he foretold.

He cannot stay in the area, but learns that the estate is to be sold and leaves instructions for a local attorney to send word when he should return, for he has long dreamed of living at Ellangowan.  Due to a bumbling messenger, however, he does not receive word in time, and the estate instead falls into the hands of an unscrupulous neighbor, Glossin, who has also long coveted it.

Godfrey Bertram dies and Colonel Mannering, feeling some paternal sympathy towards the young Lucy Bertram, rents a nearby house and offers for her and her tutor, Dominie Sampson, to live with him and his daughter Julia, who he is trying to keep away from a mysterious suitor.

Naturally, the suitor turns out to be the long-lost heir, Harry Bertram, traveling under the only name he has known, VanBeest Brown (it seems the smugglers left him in Holland).  Harry journeys north in search of his true love, meets and befriends the farmer Dandie Dinmont after saving him from bandits on the road, and eventually finds his way back (unknowingly) to his place of birth.  Clearly, Glossin and Hatteraick prefer that the events of 16 years ago are not revisited and do what they can to prevent the reinstatement of the young laird (now perfectly suitable as a match for Julia Mannering), but good prevails and we have a happy ending all around.

Behind the scenes through all this is Meg Merrelies,  who though having cursed Godfrey Bertram had always been fond of little Harry, for whom she was an occasional companion and guardian, and who also has never been fond of Glossin, works to make sure Ellangowan’s rightful heir is restored.
Oh well, I didn’t intend to write an entire ‘cliff notes version’ of the story, but that’s the gist of it.

It was NOT easy to read because the language is not what readers of our era are used to, but I would heartily recommend it nonetheless.

The book has also served to increase my interest in Sir Walter Scott and in the history of Scotland in general.  I think I will search for a good biography of the author and put that in my TBR pile for this year.

Next up of the Waverley Novels (taken chronologically) would be The Antiquary, which I have already downloaded to my FreeBooks app on my iPhone and to my nook® reader as well.

What about you?  Have you read any Sir Walter Scott?  Poetry? Novels?  Anything to recommend?