Book Review: The Bride of Lammermoor: Hard to define, even harder to forget

Another thought-provoking post from one of my students, this time from my Star-crossed Lovers course in Southport:

bride of lammermoorThe Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott is hard to define;  the opening chapter is a story in itself, with Peter Pattieson retelling Dick Tinto’s story which he claims came from an old lady who lived at Lammermoor.  The narrator claims it is based on a true story, probably because Scott felt that the tale was too fantastical to be judged by its readers as based on actual events. Today, in the world of ever more convoluted plotting, such an explanation would be at the end of the book.

The main narrative tells of a love affair between Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood. Lucy is the daughter of Ravenswood’s enemy, Sir William Ashton. The affair turns tragic because of the manoeuvring of Lady Ashton (Lucy’s mother), who orchestrates the annulling of the couple’s engagement and then attempts to arrange a speedy marriage between Lucy and the Laird of Bucklaw, whom she considers a more worthy husband. Although it appears that Lady Ashton’s plans have worked, in the end there is a tragic conclusion.

The novel is very well written in a Gothic style, full of foreboding, where the buildings and countryside almost become characters in their own right. After the introduction, the main story itself starts in Chapter 2 with an opening line:

In the gorge of a pass or mountain glen, ascending from the fertile plains of East Lothian, stood in former times an extensive castle of which only the ruins were now visible.

Later in the same chapter Scott writes,

The last proprietor of Ravenswood Castle […]was compelled to part with the family seat and to remove himself to a lonely and sea beaten tower […]looked out on the lonely and boisterous German Ocean. A black domain of wild pasture-land surrounded their new residence.

Thus Scott introduces the surroundings before he introduces his characters, but they are equally well described and well rounded. Edgar Ravenswood is portrayed as an almost Byronic hero, none more so, than when, later in the story, he confronts the Ashtons:

He planted himself full in the middle of the apartment[…] He bent his eyes with a mingled expression of deep grief and deliberate indignation. His dark coloured riding cloak displaced from one shoulder[…] he had a sword by his side and pistols in his belt.

Lucy, who is only seventeen, is described as

exquisitely beautiful yet somewhat girlish features were formed to express peace of mind, serenity, and indifference to the tinsel of worldly pleasure…[her] expression was… gentle, soft, timid and feminine.

Unlike the Jane Austen novel Persuasion (the first novel on this course), the book feels based on reality and is not set just in a middle class cocoon in which world events seldom intrude. The story, which takes place in a turbulent time in Scottish history just prior to the union with England, involves aristocrats, the moneyed middle class, the not-so-rich middle class and the working class/peasantry. Scott distinguishes between the working class and the others by using Scottish vernacular. A good example is a conversation between Ravenswood and his faithful retainer Caleb, when Caleb mistakes Ravenswood for a ghost:

“But is iy you in very blood and body? For I would sooner face fifty devils as my masters ghaist, or even his wrath; wherefore, aroint ye, if ye were ten times by master, unless ye come in bodily shape, lith and limb.”

“It is I you old fool,” answered Ravenswood.

The story has echoes of Shakespeare: the two main characters both meet a tragic end as in Romeo and Juliet; there is a foretelling of a foreboding event which comes true, as in Macbeth, and the similarity to that play continues with three old crones who are not dissimilar to the three witches. In addition, the character of Lady Ashton has the Machiavellian ways of Lady Macbeth.  One final similarity is that Shakespeare often based his plays on folk tales.

LuciadiLammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor, Met production

The novel, an overlooked masterpiece, has such an interesting story that it is a wonder that no film or television adaptations have been made. This is especially annoying when TV dramas have been made of far inferior material. It would appear ideal for a BBC mini series. The story does, however, form the basis for Donizetti‘s 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor, although this adaptation sacrifices the subtlety of the book for pure melodrama.

The question of how to sum up the book is a difficult one, is it a Gothic Romance? Is it a tale of ill fated love? is it a historical romance? Is it a parable about how the old ways and the old hierarchies are breaking down? or is it a character study of star crossed lovers? Well the answer is that the book is all of them. However it is greater than the sum of its parts and the reader feels sad when it comes to an end. Not only is it hard to define, it’s a story that is hard to forget, in fact, I wanted to read it again, and that, to me, is a sign of a good book.

By John Ross

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