Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Never in Bedlam?": Madness and History in Sir Walter Scott's the Heart of Mid-Lothian

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Never in Bedlam?": Madness and History in Sir Walter Scott's the Heart of Mid-Lothian

Article excerpt

Introduction: Scott, Madness, and the Impurity of History

WRITING IN HIS JOURNAL IN DECEMBER 1827, SIR WALTER SCOTT DEscribed an encounter with a madwoman. He had agreed to meet her before knowing who she was or her reasons for needing to see him. His tone as he recounts their meeting is of concern mixed with a certain deadpan amusement:

There was the awkwardness of a moment in endeavouring to make me
understand that she was the visitor to whom I had given the
assignation. Then there were a few tears and sighs. "I fear, madam,
this relates to some tale of great distress." "By no means, Sir" and
her countenance cleard up. Still there was a pause. At last she askd
if it were possible for her to see the King. I apprehended then that
she was a little mad and proceeded to assure her that the King's
Secretary received all such applications as were made to his Majesty
and disposed of them. Then came the mystery. She wishd to relieve
herself from a state of bondage and to be renderd capable of
maintaining herself by acquiring knowledge. I inquired what were her
immediate circumstances and found she resided with an uncle and Aunt.
Not thinking the case without hope I preachd the old doctrine of
patience and resignation, I suppose with the usual effect. (1)

In seeking unlikely assistance from royalty, Scott's visitor was enacting a familiar narrative. Published almost a decade earlier, The Heart of Mid-Lothian had offered in its protagonist, Jeanie Deans, a figure of sanity and prudence who nonetheless goes to extraordinary lengths in order to meet Queen Caroline and secure her sister's pardon. While Scott may not have had Jeanie in mind as he heard his visitor's grandiose request, the journal entry does encourage some troubling associations, and like the novel, it invites consideration of how madness might be accounted for within a more rational, coherent discourse. Scott's language in the journal at first casts the madwoman as a remote and inaccessible figure. "There was" awkwardness, just as "there were" sighs and tears; the woman is scarcely accountable for her contributions to the conversation. By the end of the passage, however, Scott has implicitly acknowledged the public dimension of her condition, the necessity to dispense some advice--however ineffective it may prove--and in doing so to understand her "state of bondage" in a broader social context. The questions of what can be done with the mad, how they should be housed, cared for, and accommodated within society, are introduced if not answered here. It is the contention of this article that the same questions permeate The Heart of Mid-Lothian, and that recognizing the potential resemblance between Jeanie and Scott's mad visitor is crucial for understanding their disruptive force in the novel.

Scott had occasion at various points in his life to reflect on society's treatment of the mentally ill. His responsibilities and experiences as Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire required that he be familiar with the state of the law-surrounding mental health. (2) A more personal acquaintance with the topic was prompted by the fate of his amanuensis, Henry William Weber, who went "quite insane" at the end of 1813, requiring the author to "disarm him of a pair of loaded pistols" (Journal, 128). (3) In 1816, with Scott's financial support, Weber was confined in York Lunatic Asylum; he died there in 1818, the year that The Heart of Mid-Lothian was first published. Scott's intervention in the affair--like his later meeting with the madwoman--might be enlisted in critical accounts of his own eminently healthy mind. (4) He administers to the needs of the mad detachedly and at times beneficently, without being touched by their madness himself. However, an alternative view, and one in keeping with more conflicted and ambivalent accounts of Scott's authorial practice, might see in Weber's circumstances the possibility of contamination and uncomfortable identification. …

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