The Heroism of Sir Walter Scott

by Edwin Watts Chubb

When Carlyle wrote and lectured on Heroes and Hero Worship, he would have made no mistake in selecting one of his contemporary countrymen as a fine example of the man of letters as hero. But it is one of the characteristics of human nature to see the heroic in the remote in time and place rather than in the near. Carlyle, had he closely examined the life of his Scotch neighbor, would have been forced to acknowledge that no knight battling with chivalric valor in the fiction of Sir Walter ever displayed more nobility of soul than that displayed by Walter Scott in his adversity. Critics may find flaws in Scott's style, but as time reveals more fully the character of the man they are unable to find fault with the man himself. Some years ago was published Scott's journal. Parts of this had been published before, but, owing to the nature of some of the information, much of this had been suppressed until sixty years after the death of the writer. To quote from this journal is, perhaps, the best method of giving a first-hand impression of the real man. He is his own revealer. Scott called the big book in which he from time to time records for several years his thoughts his "Gurnal," because his daughter Sophia had once spelled the word in that way. This book could be closed with a lock and key. On the title-page was written:

As I walked by myself,
I talked to myself,
And thus myself said to me.
(Old Song.)

Scott's poems and novels brought him much revenue. This he spent in purchasing land. He became a Scotch "laird" owning many acres, and a most beautiful home, Abbotsford. But unfortunately he formed a bad business partnership. When the firm through mismanagement and speculation, in which Scott had no part, went down in ruin, Scott found to his surprise that he owed a vast sum. In his "Gurnal" of September 5, 1827, he wrote: "The debts for which I am legally responsible, though no party to this contraction, amount to £30,000." But although his legal responsibility was for so great a sum, he felt that morally he was responsible for a far greater amount. When the printing house of James Ballantyne & Co., the publishing house of Constable, and Hunt and Robinson, failed, they failed for upwards of half a million pounds. Of this enormous total, Scott could be held morally responsible for one hundred and thirty thousand pounds.

For several weeks after intimations of failure had reached Scott, he lived in a state of uncertainty. On the 18th of December, 1825, he wrote a long account in his journal. It was published lately for the first time, appearing in the Quarterly Review. What a revelation of the man it is!

"Ballantyne called on me this morning. Venit illa suprema dies. My extremity is come. Cadell has received letters from London which all but positively announce the failure of Hurst and Robinson, so that Constable and Co. must follow, and I must go with poor James Ballantyne for company. I suppose it will involve my all.... I have been rash in anticipating funds to buy lands, but then I made from £5,000 to £10,000 a year, and land was my temptation. I think nobody can lose a penny—that is my one comfort. Men will think pride has had a fall. Let them indulge their own pride in thinking that my fall makes them higher, or seems so at least. I have the satisfaction to recollect that my prosperity has been of advantage to many, and that some at least will forgive my transient wealth on account of the innocence of my intentions, and my real wish to do good to the poor. This news will make sad hearts at Darnick, and in the cottages of Abbotsford, which I do not cherish the least hope of preserving. It has been my Delilah, and so I have often termed it; and now the recollection of the extensive woods I planted, and the walks I have formed, from which strangers must derive both the pleasure and profit, will excite feelings likely to sober my gayest moments. I have half resolved never to see the place again. How could I tread my hall with such a diminished crest? How live a poor indebted man where I was once the wealthy, and honored? My children are provided [for]; thank God for that! I was to have gone there in joy and prosperity to receive my friends. My dogs will wait for me in vain. It is foolish, but the thoughts of parting from these dumb creatures have moved me more than any of the painful reflections I have put down. Poor things, I must get them kind masters; there may be yet those who loving me may love my dog because it has been mine. I must end this, or I shall lose the tone of mind with which men should meet distress. I find my dogs' feet on my knees. I hear them whining and seeking me everywhere—this is nonsense, but it is what they would do could they know how things are. Poor Will Laidlaw! Poor Tom Purdie! this will be news to wring your heart, and many a poor fellow's besides to whom my prosperity was daily bread."

After touching on some other matters he comes back to Abbotsford,—"Yet to save Abbotsford I would attempt all that was possible. My heart clings to the place I have created. There is scarce a tree on it that does not owe its being to me, and the pain of leaving it is greater than I can bear."

A Mr. Skene, in whose gardens Scott while in Edinburgh about a month later took a walk, has left a record of a conversation with Scott. He wrote immediately after the walk so as to record the conversation. This is what Scott said: "Do you know I experience a sort of determined pleasure in confronting the very worst aspect of this sudden reverse—in standing, as it were, in the breach that has overthrown my fortunes, and saying, Here I stand, at least, an honest man. And God knows if I have enemies, this I may at least with truth say, that I have never wittingly given cause of enmity in the whole course of my life, for even the burnings of political hate seemed to find nothing in my nature to feed the flame. I am not conscious of having borne a grudge towards any man, and at this moment of my overthrow, so help me God, I wish well and feel kindly to every one. And if I thought that any of my works contained a sentence hurtful to any one's feelings, I would burn it."

Scott worked so assiduously that by January, 1828, he had reduced his debt $200,000. On the 17th of December, 1830, more than the half of his debt had been paid. On that day his creditors had a meeting during which the following resolutions were passed:

"That Sir Walter Scott be requested to accept of his furniture, plate, linen, paintings, library, and curiosities of every description as the best means the creditors have of expressing their very high sense of his most honorable conduct, and in grateful acknowledgment for the unparalleled and most successful exertions he has made, and continues to make, for them."

That the creditors of Scott would be glad to show their gratitude is easy to believe when one learns that while Scott was paying pound for pound the other members of the firm paid their creditors less than three shillings to the pound. That Scott did his herculean task at great sacrifice is known. How much of pain and worry he endured is not so well known. At one time he writes: "After all, I have fagged through six pages, and made poor Wurmser lay down his sword on the glacis of Mantua—and my head aches—my eyes ache—my back aches—so does my breast—and I am sure my heart aches—what can duty want more?"