Old Mortality (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 28 May 2009
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The story/plot is 'classic Scott' so to speak: a young man (Henry Morton) finds himself - at first willy nilly - caught up in a major conflict in Scottish history, the 'Killing Time' of the 1670s when the Covenanters of the Scottish Lowlands rose in rebellion against what they felt to be religious oppression by Charles II's government. But he is torn between the two sides: Morton himself is no religious fanatic (on the contrary, he is if anything anachronistically liberal) nor does he want to overthrow Charles II, but rather joins the Covenanters as such seems the only way to end the English oppression. But he is also in love with Edith Bellenden, granddaughter of a Royalist noble family, whom in turn is courted by the (royalist) young Lord Evandale...
Complications enough there, and Scott - as I've grown to expect from him - makes full use of them, and keeps the story moving forward at a good speed so I never stopped reading late at night (which was hard, even then) without wondering what would happen next and eagerly looking forward to my next opportunity to read on. And, as usual also, there's a good amount of 'comic relief' as well amidst the pitched battles, pursuits and intrigues. True enough, some of the dialogues (especially from the religious zealots) sound distinctly out-dated, but then again, 'Old Mortality' was written in 1816, and is set in the 1670s, so that's normal I guess. Indeed, the very fact that this book is still a very enjoyable read 196 years after its first publication is perhaps the best testimony to its quality.
In short, heartily recommended to all lovers of historical novels! And before I forget, this edition comes with an excellent introduction and ample notes.
story of the Covenanters.
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This may be the best annotated edition of a classic I've ever seen. And OLD MORTALITY may be Walter Scott's best book.
It's not widely known, but Scott fans in the nineteenth century, when Scott was much more popular than he is now, favored his first three novels after WAVERLEY over all the others he wrote later. These three books were GUY MANNERING, THE ANTIQUARY, and OLD MORTALITY -- books we hear a lot less of today than IVANHOE and QUENTIN DURWARD.
But the fact is, Scott always wrote fast and easily, and the books that were closest to his heart were the ones that he wrote first, books about Scotland, his home, and the various characters he encountered in it. OLD MORTALITY was his first real historical novel, taking place in the 1600s, a hundred fifty years before Scott started writing it, and dealing with murderous religious conflict between Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans.
Scott took a nineteenth century liberal view of the conflict, portraying Scottish Protestant rebels as fanatics -- but these fanatics were in Scott's own ancestry, and he makes them more powerful and respectable than he might even have wanted to. Meanwhile his "common-sensical" hero and heroine are a little dull, and very much in the wrong time period. It's not so easy to be sensible when a war is actually going on.
All this and more is explained in the brilliant introduction and excellent notes of the editors. And Scott survives notes way better than most authors. Until the twenty-first century, readers had access only to later versions of novels like OLD MORTALITY, versions that Scott had added long notes and longer introductions to, in order to double his own sales and explain things better to his readers. Even without these notes (which Stevenson and Davidson explain in their own notes) Scott's writing style is professorial in its own right -- so much so that it's surprising how wonderfully he handles fast action and tense dramatic scenes.
So here was a topic dear to his heart. Here was the inventor of the historical novel writing his first historical novel, the one whose topic he cared most about. Here was a clever shading of historical figures so that his lead characters expressed not a seventeenth century, but a nineteenth century view of what was right for Scotland. And here is an annotated edition that explains the shadings, shows where Scott changed history and why, and lets the reader follow better than ever before what the real historical situation was, what Scott made of it, and where all the real and fictional excitement comes from.
Even in Scott's own time, living Presbyterians were politically enraged with what Scott had done. Nowadays, we are as likely to think of Muslim terrorists as of Presbyterian assassins when we read OLD MORTALITY. But we'll never read it with such wonderful help as we get in this Oxford edition.