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"Fanciful Devotion": Ritualization in Scott's Old Mortality (Walter Scott) (Critical Essay)

Studies in Romanticism 2010, Spring, 49, 1

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RITUALS AND RITUALISTIC BEHAVIORS PERVADE OLD MORTALITY, THOUGH curiously for a novel depicting religious strife, few have an explicit or official sacramental purpose. From Old Mortality's endless pilgrimage restoring Covenanter gravestones to Alison Wilson's ritualized care of Milnewood after Henry Morton's presumed death, most of the rituals in Old Mortality are symbolic actions operating in a culture struggling over symbols. Many of these rituals have received critical attention individually as examples of Scott's ironic distancing between ritual performance and real conditions in the face of historical change or of the subtle ways in which Scott's ostensibly evenhanded treatment favors Royalists (and Claverhouse) over superstitious Whigs. (1) But along with sharpening his satiric treatment of Whig and Royalist extremes and registering his present anxieties about radical Presbyterians, Scott's employment of ritual complicates his depiction of historical change. The most obvious rituals include those performed privately by comic or grotesque figures, such as Lady Margaret's devoted re-enactment of Charles II's breakfast at Tillietudlum, and public spectacles staged by the Privy Council, such as the wappen-schaw and the triumphal procession that follows the Whig defeat. Even Morton's seemingly natural behavior, however, has ritual elements. All can be seen as strategies for resisting--or appropriating--historical change. As Scott presents it, the conflict leading to the Whig uprising of 1679 involves more than the obvious religious and political differences. It also encompasses "the opposition of ancient manners to those which are gradually subduing them," as he described cultural change in his introduction to The Fortunes of Nigel. (2) But it is not simply a matter of one stage of development succeeding another, even though Morton's fictional party of moderates may represent the future. It is a struggle, rather, between different responses to modernity. Historically, neither Whigs nor Royalists had much use for traditional rituals--the Calvinist Whigs despised High Church and Catholic rituals, and the court of Charles II at times openly mocked secular rituals of state. Scott presents both camps as using reinvented or ad hoc rituals as ways of negotiating rather than simply resisting historical change; his individual characters use them less self-consciously as a way of appropriating a place in a changing order. Scott's anthropological imagination is less concerned with accurately depicting Whig and Royalist rituals than with showing how ritualization separates insiders from outsiders, high from low, and the sacred from the profane. Scott's own "invention of tradition" in staging a Highland fantasy for George IV's state visit to Edinburgh is well known and suggests even less concern for accurate recreation. (3) But the improvised rituals and invented traditions of Old Mortality are more than fantasy: despite their lack of historicity, they express historical change.

"Fanciful Devotion": Ritualization in Scott's Old Mortality (Walter Scott) (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 22 March 2010
  • Publisher: Boston University
  • Print Length: 33 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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