I made a special trip (all the way round the corner, after a long, liquid lunch at the Eagle and Child) to York’s Waterstones.

I was looking for a copy of Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, which I first read as a pre-teen in a Dent’s Classics edition. On second thoughts, it could have been a Black’s edition. Or, upon third thoughts, any other publisher pushing stuff out in the same format: hard-back, near pulp paper, colourful wrapper and five or six colour illustrations (just made to be razored out, framed and hung on pub walls): with Woolworths charging at most a whole two bob-a-nob. I’d bet those did more for juvenile literacy (they did for mine) than any government initiative.

Today Amazon will do you a copy, as I now discover, through a Kindle app, and all for free!  Somehow, though, it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as having, seeing and reaching for a hard copy on the shelf.

What Scott did in Redgauntlet was to stretch his usual historical fiction into what we might today call “alternative” or “speculative history”. It hypothesises a third Jacobite Rising in the mid 1760s. As many commentators have pointed out, a central character, Alan Fairford, seems very autobiographical.

My interest in Redgauntlet, apart from its inherent literary merit,  is twofold:

  • this is the anniversary of Culloden, in 1746, which ended any chance of a Jacobite restoration;
  • to evaluate the various stories around what “Charles Stuart did next” (one of which was to be touted for the monarchy of the revolting American colonies).

One particular aspect of the latter depends from William King’s Political and Literary Anecdotes of His Own Times (the .pdf reproduction of that is very corrupt), which was also a Scott source for the Redgaunlet romance. King, in his own way, is as gossipy and delightful as Aubrey or Evelyn, but nowhere as well known. What King relates is that Charles Stuart, in disguise, returned to London in September 1750:

follower_of_allan_ramsay_portrait_of_anne_drelincourt_lady_primrose_ha_d5714565hSeptember 1750, I received a note from my Lady [Anne] Primrose [as right], who desired to see me immediately. As soon as I waited upon her, she led me into her dressing-room and presented me to ______. If I was surprised to find him there, I was still more astonished when he acquainted me with the motives which had induced him to hazard a journey to England at this juncture. The impatience of his friends who were in exile had formed a scheme which was impracticable, but although it had been as feasible as they had represented it to him, yet no preparation had been made, nor was anything ready to carry it into execution. He was soon convinced that he had been deceived, and therefore, after a stay in London of five days only, he returned to the place whence he came.

A page or so later we have a footnote:

He came one evening to my lodgings and drank tea with me: my servant, after he was gone, said to me “that he thought my visitor very like Prince Charles.” “Why,” said I, “have you ever seen Prince Charles?” “No.sir,” replied the fellow, “but this gentleman, whoever he may be, exactly resembles the busts which are sold in Red-lion-street, and are said to be the busts of Prince Charles.” The truth is these busts were more taken in plaster of Paris from his face.

The history behind that becomes clearer from the DNB:

In 1750 Charles got together thousands of weapons at Anvers in preparation for an English rising, and obtained from James a renewal of his regency. Letters with fake dates were sent to Elisabeth Ferrand which, if intercepted, would mislead espionage. On 2 September he left Luneville, proceeding via Antwerp and Ghent to Ostend, whence he sailed in disguise with John Holker on the 13th, landing in Dover and arriving in London three days later. Charles went to Lady Primrose’s house in Essex Street off the Strand, and subsequently held a meeting with fifty leading English Jacobites, including the duke of Beaufort, Lord Westmorland, and William King in a house in Pall Mall. They were discouraging. After touring London with a view to a coup, Charles attempted to promote his flagging cause by being received into the Church of England, probably at a service at which the nonjuring bishop Robert Gordon officiated. After a further meeting with King—at which his ‘servant remarked on the extreme likeness between the visitor and the busts of the “Young Pretender” on sale in Red Lion Street’ (McLynn, Charles Edward Stuart, 399)—Charles left London on 22 September, sailing from Dover the next day.

About the most remarkable thing there — apart from the Hanoverian informers being ignorant of the Pretender’s presence —  is that busts of the Young Pretender were on sale, and  on public display, in London. And in Essex Street we still find this memorial:


Anyone in doubt just how hare-brained the Jacobites were at this stage should refer to the Elibank Plot.



Filed under fiction, Literature, London, Scotland

3 responses to “Scott-free

  1. terence patrick hewett

    After reading Sue Limb’s parody The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere, I can never take Sir Walter Spott entirely seriously: The Lay of the Last Minstrel! The Devil’s Danglers! As good as Cold Comfort Farm.

    Whomsoever says that the female of the species has no sense of humour is an idiot.

    • Malcolm Redfellow

      … and Tim Curry as randy Lord Byro. The text is great, the radio adaptation (for my money) even snippier.

      The point of my post (which went AWOL — blame it on Leeds brewery’s Best) was my bewilderment at just how Scott has been (h)air-brushed from the literary style du jour. I could not see a single copy of any Scott novel in that extended cruise of the shop.

      Indeed, — and admittedly Waterstone’s, York, is a prime site in a touristy honey-pot — “classic” literature seemed to amount to variations on the Brontës. Now there’s a target, a generation adrift, worthy of mockery, along with Choleric, de Quinine and the Lumps.

  2. terence patrick hewett

    Apropos of nothing at all: it is the short story that is the most difficult to write. Very few people have mastered the art: H H Munro, M R James, Kipling and the mostly unknown Herman Charles Bosman: at their best they hit as a blow to the face.

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