Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

History, Romance, and the Sublime Sound of Truth in Ivanhoe (1)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

History, Romance, and the Sublime Sound of Truth in Ivanhoe (1)

Article excerpt

Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, a nation-bildungs roman about twelfth-century England, rarely betrays any overt concerns with contemporary political issues of 1819 or with Britain's Regency period more generally. It is thus striking when, in the novel's penultimate chapter, Scott compares the vulgar crowd gathered to see the Jew Rebecca convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake to "a riot, or a meeting of radical reformers" (p. 382).(1) Unfortunately, it also seems a rather ham-handed way for Scott to make clear his Hanoverian-Tory political allegiances through his fear of mob violence and revolution in a post-Napoleonic Britain unsettled by Peterloo and the growing popularity of parliamentary and more radical reform. Moreover, such a narrative gaffe would disrupt the subtle balancing act characteristic, by 1819, of Scott's Waverley novels, one in which evaluative, normative judgments against persons, groups, or nations are rarely uttered, and then only after a careful weighing of evidence pro and con befitting Scott's legal expertise. However, as we will argue, this disconcerting, almost uncanny reappearance of contemporary history in Ivanhoe defines a consistent and complex thematic that is as bound up with Scott's interest in the way history and truth can be represented in a novel as with any localized contemporary political concerns. In Scott's story of Normans, Saxons and Jews, when these apparently incongruous Regency radicals arise where unexpected they in fact form part of a narrative pattern of startling reappearances, first of the Saxon prince Athelstane in Chapter 42, and then of Ivanhoe at Templestowe to rescue Rebecca.

These scenes of unexpected returns continue to complicate narrative structures crucial to Ivanhoe's thematic, narratological, and ideological coherence. Collectively they generate a debate over the discursive powers of history versus romance, and the rhetorical problems of decorum within each choice of discourse. They also intimate a political justification for Scott's narrative choices that is directly tied to this novel's philosophical meditation on the grounds of truth in language. Scott's search for a kind of sublime truth in pure sound complicates critical approaches to Ivanhoe that limit issues about truth to Scott's preferred choices between literary genres and kinds of narratives. Moreover, Scott's concern with the ability of language to carry the truth involves a kind of conservative romantic aesthetic and ideology that turns toward politics rather than away from it, and toward sounds instead of pictures to link psychology and politics. Scott in Ivanhoe enlists a philosophically radical theory of language in the cause of articulating a political voice that aims to unseat Edmund Burke as the champion of the new British conservatives. This same theoretical and philosophical realignment, Scott suggests, will revise a British politics too focused on foreign policy and a dominant French revolutionary model of situating enemies to the state outside of it. In its place Scott emphasizes more pressing, long-term domestic policy issues about internal dissent modeled instead on negotiations characteristic of nations confronting cultures in diaspora. Ivanhoe is a novel of diaspora par excellence in being so strikingly sympathetic to the Jews, in the romanticized form of Rebecca, but so bluntly unsentimental about their likely fate among foreigners. However, it is precisely in the romanticized Rebecca and her Jewish heritage that one discovers the novel's greatest historical ironies. For Scott's story makes English history out of a chapter in Hebrew typology when Rebecca's namesake in Genesis 25:23 forecasts the fate of twelfth-century England's Saxons and Normans, and by implication eighteenth-century Britain's Scots and English: "There are two nations in your womb, / your issue will be two rival peoples. / One nation shall have the mastery of the other, / and the elder shall serve the younger" (Jerusalem Bible). …

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