The Age of Scott's Heroines
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
IF one drives through the streets of a great city at the unpleasantly matinal hour required by the departure of an early train, one may come upon a scene which lights up as with a ray of sunshine the deserted thoroughfare. It is the spectacle of a long procession, two and two, of well-dressed and attractive girls, with a teacher at the head and another at the foot, — by way, it is to be presumed, of typifying the fang and the rattle of the snake ; that is to say, the powers which serve to give alarm and to offer defense in case an aggressor disturbs the march of the sinuous and undulating column.
As I have looked out upon this sight, there has come into my mind that other procession of fair female faces and forms, each one of whom, in her turn, captivated the heart of susceptible youth, and was, for a brief hour, the undisputed queen of the realm of fancy. The sight has set me to thinking over the ages of the women of fiction whom once I worshiped, and still fondly remember.
“ What,” I have asked mentally, “ is the ago of Scott’s heroines ? ” The group before the actual vision was of maidens ranging between twelve and twenty, or, more accurately, between fourteen and eighteen. But could one, in the wildest stretch of his imagination, pick out of this tripping, fluttering flock of “sweet girl undergraduates,” with forbidden caramels in their pockets, and with brains like the sieves of the Danaides, letting out as freely as they took in at each dip into the well of Helicon, any counterparts of the peerless damsels of the Waverley gallery ?
Many things they know of which the others never dreamt, but in character and capacity how vastly more immature are even the best and brightest ! For instance, that pert little baggage who has just tossed her head and twitched her shoulders at the rebuke of the watchful duenna ; that spiteful minx who is flashing her diamond ring in the eyes of her poorer companion ; that lazy, gluttonous dunce who easts a longing glance into the confectioner’s window, and who will presently blunder shamefully in her French lesson ; that coquette with the downcast eyes, who has, hid in her glove, a scrap of a note, which she will slip into the corner letter-box ; or that smooth-browed ingénue, whose skillful fibbing is the terror and admiration of the class, — which of these would we select as the rival of those who won the homage and inspired the deeds of Captain Waverley, of Henry Morton, of Quentin Durward, or of Roland Græme ? Let us turn to the books themselves and see what is the real age of the ladies with whom we have to do. In most cases, Sir Walter has told the fact with the frankness of a parish register or a family Bible.
To begin with Miss Rose Bradwardine : she is set down as sixteen. Flora MacIvor cannot well be more than eighteen, as she is represented as the friend of Rose ; and with Flora’s earlier development in the court life of France, a greater difference in age would have put her out of all the conditions of intimacy. Scott dwells upon the patronizing ways of Flora toward Rose, which would be noteworthy only where the discrepancy in years was not great. Had Flora been twenty one or two, it would have “ gone without saying.”
In Guy Mannering we have good and sufficient data. Henry Bertram is twentyone at the close of the novel. He fulfills the astrologer’s prediction in the perils he escapes at the capture of Dirk Hatteraick. Colonel Mannering is unmarried at Henry’s birth, and Julia is sixteen when she meets Bertram in India. She cannot be more than eighteen when she appears on the scene. Lucy Bertram is of course just sixteen, as she was born when her brother was carried off at the age of five.
Isabella Wardour, in The Antiquary, is not chronicled, and there is nothing to guide our surmises except the spirited character of her conversation. She talks as if she were twenty, but with Scott that is no criterion.
Lucy Ashton, the Bride of Lammermoor, is seventeen.
Isabella Vere, in The Black Dwarf, is not characterized, and as she is the mere “ walking lady ” of the play, that is of no consequence.
In Old Mortality we have as a starting date 1679. Edith Bellenden has been forming a slowly developed attachment to Henry Morton. She must be between eighteen and twenty at the opening of the story. This makes her nearly thirty when, iu 1688-89, after Killiecrankie, Morton returns to Scotland, and quite that when they are married, Scott was probably oblivious of this lapse of time; for since Morton was supposed to have been lost at sea at least nine years before, there is no reason why she should not have become Lady Evandale long before the time at which she actually accepted her old lover.
Rob Roy gives Die Vernon as eighteen.
Ivanhoe is silent as to the ages of Rebecca of York and Rowena. But here we must digress a little to notice a singular anachronism as to the age of Cedric. In the castle of Torquilstone Cedric gives Athelstane a spirited account of the reception by Harold of the envoy of Tosti, before the battle of Stamford Bridge. This, he says, he had from his father, who was present. To say nothing of the anachronism of the existence of the castle at that date, if Cedric’s father was twenty (and he could hardly have been less) in the year of the conquest (1066), and if Cedric was sixty (and he could hardly be older) in the year of King Richard (1194), it would make, at the very lowest calculation, Cedric’s father eighty-nine years at the birth of Cedric ; and if we add eleven years in order that Cedric should be old enough to hear and remember the story he repeats so vividly, his father must have died over an hundred years old. There are plenty of such anachronisms in Ivanhoe; in fact, the whole is an anachronism so far as it depicts the hostility of Norman and Saxon as surviving nearly an hundred years its historical passing away.
In The Heart of Mid-Lothian we get distinct dates. Effie Deans is eighteen, and Jeanie ten years older.
In The Monastery, Mary Avenel is represented as about six years of age at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh. That makes her sixteen at Elizabeth’s accession (1558). The action of the story takes place after this date, as Piercie Shafton flees from the anger of Elizabeth, which he certainly would not have done in the reign of Mary.
Now when we turn to The Abbot, we find Catherine Seyton, twin sister of Henry ; and that young gentleman could hardly be the brawler and fighter that he was at less than sixteen, nor could he be very much older, if able successfully to masquerade in his sister’s attire. But what are we to do with Roland Græme, who is not born till after Sir Piercie appears at the monastery and the tower of Glendearg ? He assists the escape of Mary of Scotland from Lochleven, and escorts her to her refuge in England, which took place in 1568. Master Roland must have been, therefore, at the mature age of eight, a conception which passes even the most reckless of modern dime romances.
In The Pirate, Minna Troil is given as eighteen, Brenda as seventeen.
In Kenilworth, Amy Robsart is a sheer creation of fancy. The scene opens in the eighteenth year of Queen Elizabeth (1576), when Leicester was already married to the wife who died at Cumnor, not secretly, but at the court of Edward VI.
Alice Bridgenorth, in Peveril of the Peak, was born in 1658. Therefore at the Popish Plot, in 1679, she must be twentyone.
Anne of Geierstein, when made her uncle’s ward, was ten. Seven years later the story opens.
Margaret Ramsay, in The Fortunes of Nigel, is, we are told, twenty, but she is feather-brained enough to have been fifteen.
In The Betrothed, Eveline Berenger is stated to be sixteen.
Edith Plantagenet owns to no date in The Talisman.
Lilias Redgauntlet is born after her father’s execution, which came after Culloden, and that would make her birth about 1746 or 1747. She could not have been over fourteen when she figured at the coronation of George III., in 1760. Charles Edward, the young chevalier, was born in 1720, and is described as about forty when he appears as Father Buonaventure. This would bring the intended plot not later than 1763, and would make Lilias about seventeen.
Quentin Durward gives the age of Jacqueline when she first appears in the inn of Plessis les Tours as fifteen.
In Woodstock, Alice Lee was virtually engaged to Markham Everard before the breaking out of the civil war, — say as far back as 1640. If she was fifteen then, which is the earliest date for a serious attachment, she must have been twenty five or six at the date of the battle of Worcester (1651).
Again, in St. Roman’s Well, Clara Mowbray could not have been less than sixteen at the time of her secret marriage ; therefore, nine years later, when the story opens, she would be at least twenty-five.
Catharine Glover, in The Fair Maid of Perth, is undated.
The Countess Brenhilda, in Count Robert of Paris, is twenty-six.
Annot Lyle, in The Legend of Montrose, is hardly more than a lay figure. Her age is given as eighteen, but it is said she looked four years younger.
Out of thirty heroines, sixteen are distinctly described as under twenty. Of the other fourteen, six are undated. This leaves us eight, three of whom are set down as over twenty ; two start at one side of the line and are carried over to the other ; two are by implication rather than by the intention of the author taken out of their “ teens ; ” and one, Amy Robsart, is a heroine “ of an uncertain age,” since she is historically a middle-aged matron, and fictitiously a youthful bride. Of the six undated, the presumption is altogether in favor of the earlier age.
A member once entertained the Club with the statement that nearly all Scott’s heroines are motherless. They are girls who have grown up in the companionship of uncles or fathers, older men, and with an early responsibility of thought and action. They have had to plan their own wardrobes and decide upon their own conduct toward their lovers. Some of them have been behind the scenes of stirring political events ; nearly all have been thrown into situations where they had to think for themselves, to act with decision, and in general to fulfill the whole duty of heroines.
But apart from this there is unquestionably in the present day a later coming forward of either sex than in the times whereof Scott wrote, as well as those in which he lived. More is required in the way of preparation for responsible duties. More, too, is given in the way of keeping the youth youthful. There is engrossing study which chains young men and girls to the schoolroom and college class. It is a study which looks to immediate results in examinations, in degrees, in competitive prizes, rather than to lasting acquisitions. Then, too, there are for the young recreations, literary, social, and physical, which fill np their time and thoughts and keep them from aspiring to a share in the occupations and interests of their elders. Our schoolgirl march along the street exemplifies this. It is simply for exercise. It goes nowhere, except to cover the daily round and return to the schoolroom. Its object lessons are the goods in the shop windows ; its diversions, the stolen glimpses of the clubloungers.
The heroines of Scott are, some of them, only lay figures, but at least, so far as they have character, they are women, and they justify the deeds which are done to win them.