On This Day: Christmas 1820/2020 special – Walter Scott and The Pirate

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It’s a few days ahead of 25th December, we know… but we wanted to share with you this special ‘On This Day’ Christmas post by Dr Anna Fancett so you have time to enjoy it in the lead up to the holiday break. In the post, Fancett explores how an idea delivered to Walter Scott on Christmas day 200 years ago inspired his 1821 novel The Pirate – and also discusses the contemporary reception of the novel.

See all posts in the ‘On This Day’ series here.

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A Christmas Letter: Walter Scott and The Pirate

Sir Walter Scott by Raeburn (with added festive hat!)

by Dr Anna Fancett (Sultan Qaboos University)

Of all the things that can be given on Christmas Day, perhaps an idea is the most intriguing. On the 25thDecember 1820, Walter Scott received, not a gift-wrapped parcel but a letter from his publisher, Constable. The letter contained an idea: 

‘If you have not already resolved, might I presume to hint at a subject for the next, or for the Succeeding Work? ‘The Bucanier’ is I think un-occupied ground–three of [the] Regicides if I mistake not went to New England after the Restoration and endured great hardships there taken by Pirates, Shipwrecked, etc.’[i]

Scott’s immediate reaction to the letter is unrecorded, but as he was receptive to suggestions and corrections from letters, as Robert Mayer has recently shown,[ii] it is reasonable to assume that he read the suggestion with interest. Indeed, the Edinburgh Edition of The Pirate notes that he ‘must have responded positively’ because Constable wrote about Scott’s future buccaneer book.[iii]

Scott’s 1821 novel, The Pirate, however, is very different from the novel that Constable suggested. The story of the three regicides was saved for inclusion in a later novel, Peveril of the Peak, and the proposed title, The Bucanier, was not used by Scott at all. Instead, Scott took the idea of a story based on pirates and mined his memory for suitable inspiration, landing upon a tale that he had heard on the last day of his tour of Shetland and Orkney with the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners in 1814. The story was about: 

Gow the pirate, who was born near the House of Clestrom, and afterwards commenced buccanier. He came to his native country about 1725, with a snow which he commanded, carried off two women from one of the islands, and committed other enormities,’[iv]

He was later captured and hanged but 

‘While at Stromness, he made love to a Miss Gordon, who pledged her faith to him by shaking hands, an engagement which, in her idea, could not be dissolved without her going to London to seek back again her ‘faith and troth,’ by shaking hands with him again after the execution.’[v]

This tale became the primary inspiration for The Pirate, a novel whose titular pirate, Cleveland, is shipwrecked in Shetland and becomes romantically involved with Minna Troil. Cleveland and Minna’s relationship serves as the catalyst for the rest of the novel’s action, including the love story between the protagonist, the comparatively boring Mordaunt Mertoun, and Minna’s sister, Brenda. Although Scott leaves out both the execution of the pirate and the gruesome ritual of shaking a dead man’s hand, the doomed relationship between a Shetland woman and a desperate pirate remains at the heart of this novel. The Monthly Review remarks on the fact that ‘None of the former novels of this author have been so much imbued with love as the present,’[vi] – a far cry from the political plot recommended by Constable.

However, all was not plain sailing in the composition of this novel. In late 1821, Scott wrote to Erskine saying, ‘I want to talk to you about the locale of Zetland, for I am making my bricks with a very limited allowance of straw.’[vii] Despite his 1814 trip, Scott was uncomfortable with his lack of knowledge about Shetland, as this request demonstrates. The notes in the Edinburgh Edition of The Pirate likewise explains that Scott:

‘proceeded slowly because of the unfamiliar nature of the material in The Pirate. He had previously been writing about historical events that had taken place in locations well known to him or, at least, about well-known historical characters and contexts. Now he was creating an original romance in a strange land.’[viii]

It took almost a whole year between Constable’s letter and the publication of The Pirate – a long time in comparison to Scott’s other works. 

Although the relatively slow composition of this novel was due, in part, to Scott’s unfamiliarity with Shetland, his contemporary readers did not agree that this was the novel’s weakness; characterisation was the problem that they bemoaned. In an 1821 letter, for example, Sydney Smith writes: 

‘pray (wherever the scene is laid) no more Meg Merrilies and Dominie Sampson  very good the first and second times, but now quite worn out, and always recurring. All human themes have an end (except Taxation); but I shall heartily regret my annual amusement if I am to lose it’.[ix]

Smith’s criticism rests not on Scott’s lack of knowledge of Shetland, but rather on the unoriginality of the novel’s characters. La Belle Assemblée shares this perspective:

it is, however, valuably stored with those legendary and superstitious fictions, which are so closely interwoven with the history of the country in which the scene is laid; and if the originality of its leading characters ha[d] been such as we might expect from the vigorous pen of its reputed author, this novel would still be entitled to rank with our established favourites in the same line.’[x]

Despite the complaints about characterisation, this review praises that which Scott was worried about – knowledge of Shetland. Similarly, the Monthly Review, which criticises Scott for the metempsychosis of his characters from one novel to another, praises Scott’s acquaintance with his setting and subject matter:

‘much prudence is manifested in returning to these bleak and gloomy regions from the tranquil plains of England, since the author’s powers of description, which are of the most energetic and vivid kind, are never displayed to so much advantage as in painting all the sublimer features of natural scenery, the mountains and the cataracts of his native land, […]. His local knowledge, also, and his intimate acquaintance with the manners of the people, all point to the north as the true theatre of his genius.’[xi]

No sign of Scott’s lack of ‘straw’ is present here; the reviewer assumes an ‘intimate’ knowledge of Shetland. 

Constable’s Christmas letter furnished Scott with an idea – piracy – which would turn into the 1821 novel, The Pirate. Some of Scott’s readers, having consumed around a dozen fictional narratives from him in seven years, were fatigued with the appearance of familiar character types, but they praised his descriptions of Shetland, the very thing that Scott himself had been worried about. In 2020, a year in which few people have been able to travel, perhaps his powerful descriptions will once again charm readers. 

Anna Fancett received her PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 2015. Her thesis explored the representation of the family in the novels of Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Since then, she has published on motherhood and narrative in Scott’s novels, and the reception of Walter Scott in China. She is currently working on a comparative piece on education in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Susan Ferrier’s Marriage.

[i] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C. Grierson and others, 12 vols (London, 1932-37), 7.12n.

[ii] Mayer, Robert, Walter Scott and Fame: Authors and Readers in the Romantic Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Mayer discusses how Scott took on suggestions and corrections made by his correspondents. 

[iii] Walter Scott, The Pirate (1822) ed. by Mark Weinstein and Alison Lumsden, Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels 12 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 394.

[iv] The Pirate, 393.

[v] The Pirate, 393.

[vi] Monthly Review, (1822), 69-83, available at: http://www.british-fiction.cardiff.ac.uk/reviews/pira22-68.html.

[vii] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 7.12.

[viii] The Pirate, 395.

[ix] The Letters of Sydney Smith, ed. Nowell C. Smith, (Oxford, 1953), I, 385, available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=13414.

[x] La Belle Assemblée, (1822), 40-47, available at http://www.british-fiction.cardiff.ac.uk/reviews/pira22-68.html.

[xi] Monthly Review.