Thursday, October 22, 2015

"The Curtain Unseen"

Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, first published in 1819, is a melodramatic novel about a family feud and a tragic love affair, which you may know best as the trigger for Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Having always thought of Scott as the giant influence behind so many budding nineteenth-century British novelists, I was surprised to learn that he released The Bride (and all of his Waverley novels) anonymously. He positioned this particular tale as local oral history and invented a narrator, Peter Pattieson, to retell it in his own words. This is how the novel opens:
By caulk and keel to win your bread,
Wi' whigmaleeries for them wha need,
Whilk is a gentle trade indeed
To carry the gaberlunzie on. 
--Old Song 
Few have been in my secret while I was compiling these narratives, nor is it probable that they will ever become public during the life of their author. Even were that event to happen, I am not ambitious of the honoured distinction, digita monstrari. I confess that, were it safe to cherish such dreams at all, I should more enjoy the thought of remaining behind the curtain unseen, like the ingenious manager of Punch and his wife Joan, and enjoying the astonishment and conjectures of my audience. Then might I, perchance, hear the productions of the obscure Peter Pattieson praised by the judicious and admired by the feeling, engrossing the young and attracting even the old; while the critic traced their fame up to some name of literary celebrity, and the question when, and by whom, these tales were written filled up the pause of conversation in a hundred circles and coteries. This I may never enjoy during my lifetime; but farther than this, I am certain, my vanity should never induce me to aspire.
Although, as I've said, Scott did publish The Bride anonymously, his authorship was a more or less open secret. By 1827 he publicly acknowledged that he'd written the Waverley novels; and in his 1830 edition of The Bride, he added a long introduction about his historical sources. Yet despite that unmasking, the layers of authorial ambiguity in this book remain intriguing, and peculiar.

An anonymous author publishes a book claiming to be an oral history of a real event. The anonymous author invents a fake author to write down this oral history in his own words. After bewildering us with a completely unhelpful song excerpt, the fake author explains his dearest wish: to eavesdrop on other people who are talking about his book, and to enjoy the fun of hearing them assume that "a literary celebrity" has written it.

In sum: real author, fake author, false fake author, shadowy chorus of oral history authors. Am I missing someone? There might be another author or two I've overlooked . . . for instance, what about the author of that so-called "Old Song"? Did the real author really write that too? Or did the fake author? Or did the shadowy chorus?

What are your thoughts about these layers of confusion? I'm thinking, as you may be too, of the popular Italian novelist who is writing under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. (I haven't read any of books yet, though I have friends who say I should.) She seems determined to keep her real identity out of the limelight, but I don't know if she's gone so far as to create novels that themselves contort the idea of narrative identity. On the whole, such coy and complicated invisibility seems distinctly unmodern. I know that plenty of contemporary writers create works that play with narrative identity, but Peter Pattieson's opening explanation of anonymity chimes a different tune--a faded echo of mysterious courtier poets and playwrights. His secrecy, like theirs, is also a bow--proud, well mannered, amused, ironic--to the exigencies of class and position, whether they be low or high.

The Bronte sisters were avid readers of Scott's novels, and they absorbed his attitudes about narrative secrecy into their own layered plots and characters. But because they were women and were dealing with not only discrimination but also geographic and social isolation, their choices constructed a feminist and intellectual complexity that I believe contemporary readers are more accustomed to recognizing. To my ear, Scott's secrecies are singing a different old song.

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