A Fair Proffer | Daily News

A Fair Proffer

Almost everyone I know (inside the pages of books) have read it. The middle sister in Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’ is seen walking, with her nose glued to it. It happens to be the first book Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose in Harper Lee’s ‘To kill a Mocking Bird.’ In Louisa May Alcott ‘s ‘Little Women’, Meg goes to sit beside the fire to toast her feet and read this tale of sire and maid in a land of sublime scenery and heroic chivalry dating back to the 19th century.

It also happens to be Walter Scott’s most popular novel. It entranced people all over Europe, with Goethe declaring that Scott had invented “a wholly new art”. It is still his best-known. Some 100,000 copies of the Penguin edition of the revised scholarly Edinburgh edition have been sold in the past few years; it has been made into a stage play and an opera; it has been filmed and adapted for television several times. A N Wilson, in his splendid book on Scott, The Laird of Abbotsford, compared it to Pugin’s Houses of Parliament: “Both are not merely works of art, but brilliant pieces of myth-making.”

Yet, it was out of sheer desperation, realizing I have absolutely nothing new to read from among my father’s books that I picked up ‘Ivanhoe’ one day in late August many years ago, alone at home and waiting for my final year BA results. No, I did not finish reading the book in one breath, nor did I spend a sleepless night trying to find out what happens next. ‘Ivanhoe’ is not the kind of book that will carry the usual blurbs on its cover - “a page turner,” “read in one breath,” “you will stay up the whole night.”

The main reason for this was the language. Unless you are a scholar familiar with the dialect of the Scots, you are bound to be flummoxed by the things the characters say. The narrative flow is choked by unfamiliar words. “Fear not, my lord. I must speak with you in private, before you mount your palfrey.” “If thou refusest my fair proffer, the provost of the lists shall cut thy bow-string, break thy bow and arrows and expel thee from the presence as a faint-hearted craven.” And on and on for four hundred or so pages. There is no doubt about it. Scott is too wordy. His descriptions are too long, as are his paragraphs and the speeches his characters make.

And this surely won’t do for the 21st century. It’s no secret our attention span is too short these days and, worse still, it is getting shorter. We no longer settle in an armchair or curl up in bed with a novel, but sit in front of a screen and flit to and fro. How can anyone be expected to read Scott now that the most popular mode of communication is the 140-character Tweet?

And yet, I read it, if I remember right, within two or three days. And I loved it. Reading ‘Ivanhoe’ was like being reluctant to plunge into the sea at Unawatuna when you go there for a swim. Once in, you don’t want to come out. So too, with ‘Ivanhoe.’ I loved the vivid images Scott creates of what Britain must have been like from the Middle Ages to early Renaissance. I loved Wilfred of Ivanhoe - a Saxon knight returned from the Crusades still loyal to Richard Plantagenet. The other figures, both fictional and historic, fair and foul were colourful and fascinating: Richard the Lion-Hearted; the beautiful Jewess Rebecca; her father, Isaac; beloved and beautiful Rowena; Cedric the Saxon; Robin Hood and his Merry Men; the infamous Prince John; Knight Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert; helpful hag Urfried; loyal manservant Gurth; and the simple jester Wamba. Especially Wamba.

But most of all, I loved the book because of the romance that never takes wings between Ivanhoe and Rebecca, a romance that’s never even fully acknowledged. Where Tolstoy’s Anna and Flaubert’s Emma give way to their passions, Scott’s Rebecca elevates herself to a far noble sphere.

Rebecca is beautiful. The narrator tells us that her figure “might indeed have compared with the proudest beauties of England.” She is intelligent. Bois-Guilbert describes her as “keen-witted”, and the narrator says that she is as “endowed with knowledge as with beauty”. She is also generous and good to the poor. The peasant Higg would have lost the use of his legs had it not been for Rebecca’s free medical treatment.

Moreover, Rebecca responds to every scene gracefully. She insists that Gurth accept her money, rather than letting Ivanhoe pay for his own suit of armor after the tournament. She treats Ivanhoe’s injuries, even though it’s painful for her to be close to him when she’s sure he can never love her. When Ivanhoe gets too bloodthirsty about the value of war and glory, Rebecca chides him for forgetting the cost of conflict. And every time Bois-Guilbert tries to seduce her – with force, with flattery, with honest confession – she stands by her refusal. On top of all this, Rebecca is so generous that, in the final chapter, she gives a chest of jewels to the woman who marries Ivanhoe. Her ending may be tragic, but her strength in facing it makes us sympathize with her and admire her. With Women’s day slogans still echoing in our ears, here’s to one of the greatest women protagonists found in literature.

It is ironic that whilst he paints Rebecca to perfection, Scott has no hesitations in revealing the flaws in Ivanhoe. The most notable is Ivanhoe’s anti-Jewish prejudices. He likes Rebecca until she tells him her lineage. When he hears she is Jewish his attitude changes. “She could not but sigh internally when the glance of respectful admiration, not altogether unmixed with tenderness, with which Ivanhoe had hitherto regarded his unknown benefactress, was exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from an unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race.” You are forgiven if you feel you don’t like Ivanhoe. But before you condemn him to purgatory wait till you reach the last paragraph in the last chapter.

If you are still reluctant to read Sir Walter Scott, or feel you should read an abridged version of ‘Ivanhoe’, please don’t. Do keep in mind there is a simpler resource. Just glance through the pages that you find uninteresting. Scott won’t mind. For he is said to have approved of “the laudable practice of skipping”. So when you come upon a long passage of description of landscape or dress, let your eye run rapidly over the paragraph, and move on. The secret, which every true lover of Scott knows, is this: Scott wrote fast and often carelessly, and he should be read in the same way. He is a novelist for eager readers, not for perfectionists.

They say there are some readers like Tony Blair who would love to be stranded on an island with ‘Ivanhoe.’ I wouldn’t go that far. But when it comes to historical romances, I’d say this is one of the best. 


Add new comment