Studies of a Biographer/The Story of Scott's Ruin
THE STORY OF SCOTT'S RUIN
Mr. Andrew Lang, in his Life of J. G. Lockhart, has succeeded, in spite of the want of adequate materials, in drawing a most interesting portrait. Lockhart's Life of Scott, though it made all readers love the subject, did not persuade every one to love the author. The man, indeed, who could display such reverent and loyal affection was certainly lovable; and yet he contrived to keep his own fine qualities in the background. Lockhart, in truth, was one of the men who are predestined to be generally misunderstood. He was an intellectual aristocrat, fastidious and over-sensitive, with very fine perceptions, but endowed with rather too hearty a scorn of fools as well as of folly. Circumstances had tempted him in early youth to give free utterance to his contempt, and occasionally, moreover, to forget that courtesy is due even to vulgar antagonists. In later life, the shyness, due to a sensitive nature, was mistaken, as is so often the case, for supercilious pride, and the unwillingness to wear his heart on his sleeve for coldness and want of sympathy. Such men have to be content with scanty appreciation from outside, and Lockhart had to pass for an incarnation of the cynical variety of Toryism. Mr. Lang, it is to be hoped, has appealed successfully from the erroneous judgment hitherto too often passed. There is, however, one point upon which I am forced to think that he has been a little too lenient. It concerns Lockhart's controversy in regard to the causes of Scott's financial difficulties. In the Life of Scott Lockhart had the very difficult task of accounting for his father-in-law's misfortunes, and it was of course to be expected that the other persons concerned should not be satisfied with the statement. If, indeed, he was not quite impartial, it is impossible to blame him severely for dealing a little too tenderly with the character which he so loved and honoured. Mr. Lang defends him, too, upon the ground that he had in his first edition told the story honestly, although, in the heat of controversy, he incautiously accepted a position attributed to him by his antagonists. Instead of replying, as he might have replied, 'You are only repeating my own admissions,' he tried to withdraw from the admissions which he had virtually made. There is, I think, much truth in this, though I cannot discuss the point. But I also think it impossible to read Lockhart's pamphlet without regret, not only because, as Mr. Lang of course agrees, its insolent tone betrays excessive irritation, but because it is really, if unintentionally, unjust to other persons concerned. The interest of the question consists chiefly in its bearing upon Scott's character, though Mr. Lang's main concern in the matter is of course with Lockhart. Having lately had occasion to go over the controversy with a view to an article in the Dictionary of National Biography, I venture to say something of Scott's share in the matter. The shortest plan is to tell what seems to me to be the true story, from which it may incidentally appear how far it was slurred or softened in Lockhart's hands. That, however, is for me a matter of minor importance. First, I must notice one difficulty. Mr. Lang observes that he is not an adept in financial matters, and is unable to unravel the mysteries of complex accounts dealing with elaborate commercial transactions. I am certainly not more competent than he; but I do not think that any profound insight into the accounts is really necessary. We need only take for granted one little device which, when explained, as one's commercial friends are always glad to do, is rather of charming simplicity than mysterious complication. Scott wishes to borrow money. He gets the loan the more easily because he can say Constable will also be responsible: 'he will repay you if I can't.' The fiction is that Constable owes Scott a debt already, and that Scott can therefore hand over this debt to his own creditors. Meanwhile, the fact is that no such debt exists. Constable admits it because he accepts a reciprocal service from Scott. He borrows money, stating that Scott will be responsible. The credit of each therefore helps the other. But now, if either is unable to pay, the other has to pay the debts of both. This was what actually happened. Constable failed, and Scott found himself suddenly liable not only for his own debts, but for some £40,000 raised by Constable. That, as everybody agrees, was the immediate cause of the catastrophe. The question is, who was to blame; and especially why Scott, who had been making an unprecedented income by his pen, and who had an independent income of his own, should have been borrowing large sums, and borrowing them in this undesirable fashion? That, again, is in general terms answered by obvious facts. Scott wanted money because he had set up as a landed proprietor, built a fine house, collected curiosities, and indulged in expensive hospitality. To understand the position, however, so as to apportion the responsibility, we have to look a little more closely at the previous history, which, though indicated, is mixed up with other matters in Lockhart's Life. Scott, then, had formed a characteristic connection—characteristic because there never was a man who took greater satisfaction in helping a poor friend. To be a staunch patron of his followers and a staunch adherent of his leaders was an essential article in his ideal of manly duty, and his whole life is a series of such services. He had thus taken up James Ballantyne. They had met when they were both schoolboys and Scott already an accomplished spinner of boyish stories. They had met again at a club which Scott frequented in his early days at the Bar. A little later Ballantyne set up as a printer, and was publishing a newspaper at Kelso. Scott then employed Ballantyne to print some of his early ballads. He showed the result as a creditable specimen of his friend's skill, and then suggested to Ballantyne to come to Edinburgh and take advantage of his good report. Ballantyne accordingly set up the 'Border Press' in 1802. The press speedily obtained a good character, and Scott, now beginning his literary career, was able to bring a steady flow of custom to his friend. So far the scheme was carried out successfully, and the printing business not only succeeded for the time, but attained permanent prosperity. It survived the ruin of Scott's fortunes and enabled Ballantyne ultimately to provide for his family. There was unfortunately one difficulty. Ballantyne had not sufficient capital for his trade, and was forced from the first to carry it on partly with borrowed money. How far he was incompetent as a man of business was afterwards matter of argument; but there can be no doubt that he was, as he himself admits, always embarrassed, and that he was regarded with distrust in business circles. Scott had lent him money, but on a renewed application for help took (in 1805) a most unfortunate step. He thought it imprudent to lend more, but consented to become an unavowed partner in the business. Ballantyne gave employment in the firm to his brother John, a shifty, harum-scarum person, and the two Ballantynes became Scott's trusted agents and courtiers. Lockhart has drawn portraits of the Ballantynes so vivid that, after making allowance for some unintentional caricature, it is impossible to doubt that they are sketches from the life by a very keen observer. The nicknames 'Rigdum Funnidos' and 'Aldiborontiphoscophornio' are sufficient indications of Scott's own view of their characters. He saw and enjoyed their absurdities and weaknesses, but, in his tolerant fashion, liked them none the worse. It is all very well to have friends who tickle your sense of humour; but, in such cases, it is desirable to maintain a certain distance, and not to. become responsible for their foibles. Scott, however, felt bound to stick by his clients through thick and thin. They came to be the intermediaries between him and the outside world. He had to be approached through his little court; and as they had their own interests—and John at least was given to roundabout intrigues—Scott's own reputation suffered from this indefinite and secret connection. Murray and Longman, instead of making a direct bargain with the author himself, had to negotiate through these inferior auxiliaries, and were far from pleased with their manœuvres.
There can be no doubt, too, that, as Lockhart says, the connection led Scott into practising concealments of various kinds in a way hardly worthy of his character. He had begun by communicating all his early works to his friends before publication. After this connection was formed he indulged in mystification. The great secret as to the Waverley Novels was in all probability really due to this. He had been annoyed by hearing that publishers thought that his name was becoming 'too cheap.' The later poems had not equalled the circulation of their predecessors. Scott had now begun to look at the matter from the publisher's as well as from the author's point of view, and probably thought that it might be as well not to risk injury to his fame by an unsuccessful attempt in a new line. He would at least wait till success or failure was decided. Once begun, the mystery was rather attractive than otherwise, and it amused him to keep back the revelation. The whole system, however, put Scott in an unsatisfactory position, which soon became more marked.
In 1809 Scott took another step which made the situation far more serious. He was already connected in various ways with the great Constable, who had paid what was thought a fancy price for Marmion, had published Scott's great edition of Dryden, and was following it by the edition of Swift. Constable was also publisher of the Edinburgh Review, to which Scott had contributed many articles. But now Scott set up the firm of 'John Ballantyne and Co.' in direct competition with Constable. Jeffrey's review of Marmion in the Edinburgh and the offence taken by Scott at the language of Constable's partner are suggested as the special occasions of the breach. But there were other and deeper reasons. Scott's political zeal was at this time becoming militant. The beginning of the Peninsular war had stimulated party passions. It roused the Tories, who could now claim to be supporters of a patriotic uprising against military despotism. It alarmed the Whigs, who saw a boundless vista of new Continental complications, debt and taxation. The Edinburgh Review had become unequivocably Whiggish, and just at this time excited Scott's warmest indignation by an article proving the utter hopelessness of this new military venture. He at once took up most energetically the scheme for starting the Quarterly Review as an antidote to the poison of the Edinburgh. He wrote articles for it himself, enlisted recruits on all sides, and soon threw down the gauntlet to his antagonist. His publishing project fell in with this scheme. The new firm would enable him to garrison Edinburgh and organise what literary faculty there might be in the Tory party. It would act in alliance with Murray, the publisher of the Quarterly, and it would publish an Edinburgh Annual Register, which should enable him to expound the true version of contemporary history. He has thus concocted, as he tells Morritt (January 1809), 'a grand scheme of opposition to the proud critics of Edinburgh.' The Whigs should no longer have it in their power to suppress wholesome literature. Besides defending the good cause, he would be able to help needy friends. Southey, for example, was to be the main historian of the Register. And then there were more purely literary purposes in which Scott was greatly interested. He had already edited some valuable historical collections, and had further enterprises in hand. Here, unluckily, was a weak point. Although no one was ever better able than Scott to please the public taste, he was a curiously bad judge of their taste in literature generally. He judged other men's likings, as we must all more or less do, by his own. What interested him would interest them. He was fascinated by local ballads and the old antiquarian researches which threw light upon ancient manners and customs. The public was equally fascinated by the vivid imagery generated in his imagination when supplied with such materials; and he seems to have inferred that it must share his taste for the raw material itself. Acting upon this principle and upon his ardent belief in the talents of his friends, he undertook to publish masses of unsaleable literature. A huge dead-weight of stock presently accumulated in the warehouses of ' John Ballantyne and Co.' A ponderous History of the Culdees, written by a valued friend; a heavy volume of 'Tixall poetry,' which cost £2000; an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, undertaken by a wandering German whom he most generously protected till the poor man's death; Miss Seward's Poems, a burden which he had incurred from rather excessive civility to one of the early recognisers of his talent; these and other failures, encumbered the new firm. The new Register itself caused a loss of over £1000 a year; and, considering that the Ballantynes had insufficient capital and did not enjoy a good reputation for solvency, it is no wonder that the venture was in grievous difficulties after three or four years. By 1813 they were at the verge of bankruptcy. The cause, as James Ballantyne admitted, was clear enough: 'beginning in debt, without capital, and always heavily in advance.' Magnificent schemes with insufficient means are a very obvious short cut to ruin; and the only wonder seems to be that Scott managed to escape at the time. Scott, however, showed abundant energy as well as buoyancy and courage. He was obliged to consent to make an application to the rival against whom he had been, as he said, preparing his bombs. The personal quarrel had speedily blown over, and Constable now agreed to look into the books. It appeared that Ballantyne and Co. would become liable for about £15,000 within the next year, and that all their assets, if they could be realised, would be about equal to their liabilities. As, however, the times were hard, it was necessary to get some temporary help. Scott applied to the Duke of Buccleuch, as the chief of his clan, and the Duke's guarantee enabled him to raise the necessary sum. But, further, it was decided that the publishing business must be given up altogether. The printing was substantially a sound business, and might still be carried on. Scott accepted the position. He set most vigorously to work to extricate himself, and, after a sharp struggle, with apparently complete success. He complained, and it seems quite justly, of the conduct of the Ballantynes. They had not looked things fairly in the face, and had kept both themselves and him in darkness. He reproaches them, but with good temper and with friendly assurances. The misfortune, indeed, appears to have been that he did not complain enough. He was too good-natured, or felt too strongly his own responsibility for the misfortunes of the firm, to break off all connection with business and make himself once for all independent.
The publishing business, however, was finally abandoned. John Ballantyne became an auctioneer, though Scott continued to employ him in negotiations with publishers. The masses of unsaleable stock were gradually disposed of in various bargains for the sale of Waverley Novels, which began to appear in 1814; and it might be hoped that the whole disastrous muddle was finally at an end. John Ballantyne believed, in fact, that this result had been achieved. He says, in a memorandum quoted by Lockhart, that, owing to the 'consummate wisdom and resolution' of the first partner, the business had been finally wound up with a balance of £1000 to the good. Scott himself supposed that the toils were fairly broken. He was before long able to return the bond to the Duke of Buccleuch, and thought that the embarrassments were finally over, and that he had a right to spend freely the large income which was now beginning to flow in from the Waverley Novels. Even at the worst, it must be added, Scott could still say at this time that no man could ultimately be a loser by him. He had an independent income and unencumbered property. A bankruptcy would have been serious and discreditable, but even in that case all his creditors would have been ultimately paid.
This, then, was the end of the first act of the drama. If John Ballantyne's statement could be accepted, the result would be that Scott had finally got rid of his publishing encumbrances. He had engaged in dangerous speculations, and could not be acquitted of rashness. But he had saved himself and his partners, and had never got entirely beyond his depth. The printing business appears to have been bringing in at a later time a profit of nearly £2000 a year, and involved no speculative risks. Unfortunately, there was a sequel. Lockhart tells us that John Ballantyne was under a delusion, and that, when the publishing was abandoned, the printing business, which had got inextricably mixed up with it, took over debts to the amount of £10,000. It is not easy to make out how far this statement is admitted by the other side. Anyhow, such a debt might easily have been extinguished by a man who was soon making £8000 a year by his novels, besides having an independent income. To explain the catastrophe which followed, we must first observe the facts which came out in Lockhart's controversy with Ballantyne's trustees. In 1816 James Ballantyne wished to marry, and the young woman's relations said that he ought to show that he was clear of debt. Hereupon Scott agreed that Ballantyne should give up for a time all his interest in the business, and should henceforth be employed as a manager with a fixed salary of £400 a year. During the following six years, therefore, 'Ballantyne and Co.' meant really Scott himself. He was the sole proprietor, and had, of course, a right to do with it whatever he pleased. In 1822, however, a new arrangement was made. Scott agreed to take Ballantyne again into partnership in the business of which he speaks as 'now so flourishing.' The profits were henceforth to be equally divided, Scott's influence and custom being regarded as equivalent to Ballantyne's labour as a manager. The partners were only to draw moderate sums, so that the debt might be extinguished. This debt, however, implies a remarkable state of things. Scott, in a document called a 'missive letter,' which shows his thorough familiarity with the facts, agrees that he is to be personally responsible for the bills due at that time by the firm. They then amounted to something like £30,000. Between this time and the crash at the end of 1825 the debts had increased to about £46,000. This debt, increased by the additional liability caused by Constable's failure, brought about Scott's ruin; and the problem remains—who was responsible for the accumulation? On one point, of course, there can be no dispute. If Scott had shown the same prudence during the later period as he did during the first crisis, he would have freed himself from all difficulty. He chose, that is, to spend his income, when he ought to have been paying off his debts. He had, it is true, his landed estate to show for it, and although, as Lockhart tells us, he had been induced to pay extravagant prices, he might take this to be a good investment. But, in point of fact, he seems to have been curiously unaware that he was incurring any risk; and the settlement of Abbotsford upon his eldest son in 1825, which, if valid, put the property beyond the reach of his creditors, would have been inexcusable if any such alarm had occurred to him.
Now Lockhart's Life goes to suggest the theory against which Ballantyne's trustees really protested. The immediate cause, according to Lockhart's view, was Ballantyne's shiftlessness and incapacity. Ballantyne was, says Lockhart, an excellent reader of proofs, and made many valuable literary suggestions to his great friend. But he was also a muddle-headed and lazy man of business, who never looked into his accounts or made out a genuine balance-sheet. When bills became due he met them by drawing fresh bills, and never troubled himself about the ultimate result. Therefore, it is to be inferred, that unfortunate nest-egg of debt, which was left when the publishing business was wound up, continued to accumulate by a kind of automatic process. If I never look into my affairs, allow all my subordinates to go their own way without check, and always pay my debts by fresh borrowing, it is very easy to understand that my liabilities will increase, apparently of themselves. Meanwhile, one has to ask, what was Scott doing? Lockhart admits, or rather asserts, this to be a puzzle. Scott, he says, was in his domestic affairs the most businesslike of men. He kept minute accounts of details, and could have told you all that he spent upon turnpikes for the last thirty years. Yet, either 'occupied with his romantic creations,' as Lockhart once ventures to suggest, or absorbed in building, planting, and entertaining, he passively allowed Ballantyne to go on piling up this ruinous burden. This, we must add, is the more surprising when we remember Scott's energy in dealing with his previous difficulties. Then he had set to work like a man, administered most excellent advice to his partners, and by judicious management regained a position of practical independence.
This gives the real issue between Lockhart and Ballantyne's trustees; and here I may confess to being not quite clear as to the meaning of the financial statements. The first point is the debt of some £30,000, for which Scott undertook the personal responsibility in 1822. How did it originate? On Lockhart's theory, it was entirely the result of the original debt incurred by the publishing concern, which had been taken over by the printing concern and had been allowed to accumulate under Ballantyne's ineffectual management. On the theory of Ballantyne's trustees, on the contrary, that debt had been completely extinguished; and the accumulation of debt was simply due to Scott's expenditure upon Abbotsford. I cannot discover that either statement is proved by definite figures; but there are some obvious difficulties in accepting Lockhart's version, and a brief consideration of them seems to make the case tolerably clear. In the first place, Scott obviously and admittedly wanted money. In the middle of the early crisis he had begun his purchases of land. They had no doubt seemed justifiable because he had at the same time tapped the great spring of wealth opened by Waverley (1814). During the eleven years which succeeded he achieved the intellectual feat which still commands astonishment. All the great novels had been produced in that brief period. While achieving this performance he was spending his new income with equal lavishness. If both the income and the expenditure had been in hard cash, the proceeding might have been justified. Unfortunately, neither was true. He received for some of his copyrights bonds which were never actually paid off; and he had to raise new loans in order to buy new land, build his house, and carry out improvements. The result was an intricate network of engagements, through which it is not wonderful that a man who was all the time regularly doing his official duties and engaged in every kind of social amusement, did not clearly see his way. It is a marvel that he found time for half his occupations, and no wonder if time was wanting for a clear appreciation of his financial position. Meanwhile, it is also clear that he might naturally raise some of the sums required upon the credit of the printing-office. It was entirely, as we have seen, his own concern from 1816 till 1822, and he had therefore a perfect right to raise money for his own purposes in the name of 'Ballantyne and Co.' Ballantyne's trustees ask, in fact, a question to which, as Lockhart never answered their 'reply,' we cannot tell what answer he might have given; but it seems sufficiently conclusive: why, that is, should Scott have acknowledged himself to be personally responsible for the debt of 1822, unless he were aware that it had been incurred for his own use? The careful document, in which he describes the state of the obligations between himself and James Ballantyne, shows his precise knowledge of the case, and no disposition to abandon any claim which he really had upon his partner. Debts due to him from Ballantyne are clearly set out, and the means of repayment carefully prescribed. It seems to be impossible to suppose that Scott should have taken this debt upon his own shoulders exclusively, if he had thought that it was caused by Ballantyne's careless management.
But, in the next place, it is equally impossible to hold that the debt had been incurred without Scott's knowledge. The imaginary pictures of Scott absorbed in 'romantic creations' and allowing Ballantyne to arrange all the bill-discounting, is a bit of rhetoric which fell in with the conventional ideas of the poetic dreamer, but was quite at variance with the reality. Scott had plenty of romantic fancies, but they did not in the least prevent him from being also a keen man of business. The documents published by Ballantyne's trustees leave no doubt upon this point. He received regular accounts of the bills that were to fall due, and of the provision for meeting them. He asks for explanations, receives schemes of financial operations from the Ballantynes, and devises schemes himself. He goes into such minutiæ that upon one occasion he writes to Ballantyne, when enclosing some bills, ‘ Be cautious to fill up the dates with ink of the same description, for bankers look sharp to this! ' It is impossible to hold that the man who could have an eye to such points was so innocent as to be unaware of the true nature of the transactions for which he was responsible. James Ballantyne was himself alarmed. 'When I reflect,' he writes to his brother, 'how many bills I have paid for Sir Walter Scott on verbal orders and mere notes, which I thought no more about, I absolutely quake for the aspect under which I might be considered were he to die.' There are transactions, he says, which he, as an ignorant accountant, could not explain, and he would have to 'stand upon character alone.' Lockhart had indeed qualified his statement of Scott's ignorance by saying that, though cognisant of the general facts, he did not know how the proceeds of the bills were applied. This, as the trustees naturally reply, amounts to an abandonment of the case. It is plain that Scott was not only informed of what was being done, but actively directed, arranged, and suggested plans for carrying on the transactions. It is difficult, then, to suppose that Scott, when assuming the debt, did not actually admit that it was due to his own wants. It continued to accumulate after Ballantyne's acceptance of a partnership, and the question remains whether it was still caused by Scott's personal expenditure. Lockhart admits that in cases of emergency Scott might obtain an advance from the company. One such emergency, for example, was the purchase of a commission for his son. He declares, however, that Scott never failed, on receiving payment for a new novel, to replace the advances; and further declares that he showed 'anxious delicacy' when asking for such accommodation. The trustees, in answer to this, publish an account of the actual sums drawn from the business by Scott during Ballantyne's partnership (1822-26). The statement, which is presumably authentic, includes such items as a sum of over £7000 for building at Abbotsford, £5000 for his son's commission, and near £900 to a wine merchant, and the general result is that 'Ballantyne and Co.' had paid on Scott's account, in the period of the partnership (1822-26), £15,000 more than they had received from him. Lockhart's assertion must therefore have a more limited meaning. After Scott had again taken Ballantyne into partnership he had of course no right to spend the money of the firm for his own purposes. When he obtained an advance he remained personally responsible, and he no doubt 'replaced' it by acknowledging the obligation in some form or other. The result would be, I presume, that Scott personally was debtor to the firm for a considerable sum, and, as things turned out, a bad debtor. It seems probable, indeed, to the ignorant in such matters, that in point of fact neither Scott nor Ballantyne had by this time any distinct understanding of their affairs; and that Scott might suppose himself to have replaced money when the effect of the complicated operations in which they were engaged might really be quite different. Ballantyne seems also, as far as one can dimly discern, to have been drawing more money from the business than he should have done, for the trustees admit that he too was a sinner, though less of a sinner than Lockhart maintained, and far less of a sinner than his partner.
These facts, which seem to be indisputable, entirely dispose of the theory suggested, if not explicitly set forth, by Lockhart. Scott was not in the position of a mere passenger leaving the command of his ship to an incompetent commander. He was actively superintending and giving orders at every stage of a critical navigation. Nor was it his whole error that he spent his money as it came in without applying it to check the automatic growth of the debt which was swallowing up all the profits of the business. He was actually drawing funds from the business in order to carry on a system of unproductive expenditure. What is true is that, for some reason or other, he was strangely unconscious of the danger. Lockhart remarks that a letter which Scott wrote in May 1825, a few months before the crash, is ‘as remarkable a document as was ever penned.' It was an emphatic and most judicious warning to his friend Terry against undertaking the management of a theatre without sufficient capital. He insists upon the advantage of 'solid cash,' and the inevitable ruin of a business which is 'pinched for money' and 'gets into the circle of discounting bills.' Every word is precisely applicable to his own affairs, and we need only substitute 'publishing' for theatrical speculation to make it a sermon upon himself. Everything, indeed, shows that his misfortune came upon him as a stunning surprise; and the heroic spirit with which he afterwards sacrificed health and life in the effort to redeem his honour proves unmistakably that, if he was under a strange blindness, it was not because his transactions had lowered his moral sense. The explanation of his strange ignorance depends partly upon his relations to Constable. Constable was, as he fully believed, a man of solid wealth. Nobody supposed, he remarks in his Diary, that Constable's house was worth less than £150,000. There were 'great profits on almost all the adventures' and 'no bad speculations.' The impression was natural enough from the outside. Constable was not only energetic, but shrewd; and the schemes which he started ultimately succeeded and justified the soundness of his judgment. Now, if the opinion of his solvency had really been correct, Scott's position would at least have been comparatively secure. He had, as he admitted, been indulging in expensive tastes; but Abbotsford had now been finished, and he might well suppose that he would not require to accumulate new debts, and could gradually put an end to the system of mutual accommodation. In fact, it seems that if Constable could have got safely through the great commercial crisis of 1825, Scott would also have surmounted his difficulties, as he had done in the old troubles of 1813–14. Constable, unfortunately, turned out to have been in a position similar to Scott's. He had from the first been carrying on his business with insufficient capital, and the profits of his successful speculations had been constantly eaten away by the discounts and interest on loans. He had got into intricate relations with his London agents, Hurst, Robinson and Co., who appear at the period of excitement to have been indulging in reckless speculations, and the consequence was that, when one of the three houses failed, the others collapsed like a house of cards. Scott had said that Constable was as 'firm as Ben Lomond.' What he took for solid rock really rested upon rotten foundations.
That Scott should have felt this implicit confidence is sufficiently explicable. When the publishing business collapsed Constable had come to his help; and in a short time the former rival had become a close ally. They had a genuine regard for each other. Although their alliance did not imply purely altruistic motives, their interests were identical. Constable saw in Scott's writings the best of all his speculations. The Waverley Novels and the Encyclopædia Britannica were apparently the backbone of his business. He very naturally wished to monopolise the most popular and most fertile author of the day. He looked upon Scott as a perpetual fountain of popular literature, which could be so directed as to make the fortunes of both. He did everything to stimulate Scott's natural disposition to write. Scott himself thought that his best things were those which came most easily, and was perfectly ready to be stimulated. He was delighted to pour out novel after novel, and to bargain for new novels, yet unwritten and even undesigned. When he wanted more money to buy land, he was ready to take advantage of this easy method of providing funds; and Constable did not discourage him. He could pay for them at least in credit, and was always ready to propose new enterprises. He gave Scott £1000 for Halidon Hill—a trifle turned out in two rainy mornings—rejoiced in having made such a bargain, and suggested that Scott might add to his income by writing such a thing once a quarter. Scott, again, he observed, might make £6000 by an edition of the English poets, 'as an occasional relief from more important labours.' He was to edit Shakespeare with Lockhart, and was to contribute to the Miscellany, which was to be a perfect mine of wealth, as indeed it turned out to be in the main a judicious speculation. It was only in the last years that Constable seems to have reflected that even Scott might possibly overwrite himself; and even then he rather proposed that some of the energy might be diverted to other ends, such as history or editing, than that it should be diminished. A publisher, who was thus doing all in his power to stimulate the productivity of an author, would hardly be inclined to raise any difficulty as to advances or to encourage any doubts as to his own power of paying for the work to be done. Some two years before the crash he had become a little alarmed at the amount of floating obligations, and suggested to Scott the advisability of reducing the quantity of bills. Scott took the suggestion in good part, and proposed, though apparently without carrying out the scheme, to take measures accordingly. Without attributing to Constable anything worse than an over-sanguine view of things, it is obvious how Scott would inevitably be affected. Here was the 'Napoleon of publishers,' the shrewdest of speculators, the most solid, steady, and respectable of men, constantly asking for more. Why should he ask for more? The answer which would suggest itself to any author would no doubt be—because he was making a good thing of it. Scott would take it for granted that all this eagerness and readiness to propose new work meant that the great publisher was growing as rich as he was, apparently at least, growing rich himself. No doubt, if Scott had been a man of business so far as to be behind the scenes of commercial transactions, he might have heard rumours suggestive of a different explanation. Constable's operations had apparently suggested doubts to competent observers in his own trade. Scott, however, had fifty other occupations, and it is not strange that his confidence in Constable's solvency was equal to Constable's confidence in his literary capacity. One of the assumptions which he took to be certain was thus altogether fallacious, and the danger was sprung upon him from the quarter where he supposed himself to be absolutely safe.
I suggest this, of course, not by way of justifying, but of partly explaining, Scott's illusions. He had been led into the original business by a generous wish to serve a friend. Gradually this had expanded into the grand scheme for putting himself at the head of a great house which should encourage authors, diffuse sound literature, and disseminate sound political doctrine. When his curious want of appreciation of public taste, and his trust in men of inferior education and character, brought him into apparently hopeless difficulties, he seems to have faced the crisis like a man, to have seen the real evils of the case, and to have extricated himself by sound judgment and firmness. Just at this moment, however, he 'struck oil,' if I may say so, by the publication of Waverley, and suddenly discovered that his brains would bring him wealth, and his wealth might place him in the ideal position of landed proprietor. Upon the morality of that ambition it is needless to dilate. Some people regard it simply as a proof of snobbishness or vulgar rapacity, the desire of an upstart for a fine house and showy establishment. With them I need not argue, if only because the answer is given with admirable clearness in Lockhart's concluding chapter. He shows how Scott's whole life was moulded by the passionate desire to carry on the old traditions and preserve the ancient virtues of his race. Of course, he was in some degree an anachronism and Abbotsford a sham. That may be taken for granted, and enlightened persons may condemn him as a reactionary supporter of extinct prejudices. Only, allowing that the poor man held his convictions, we must also admit that he was not aiming at vulgar display, but at discharging what he took to be a most important social function: protecting his dependants, and supporting his superiors; helping innumerable poor friends and distressed authors; taking an active part in all patriotic movements, and diffusing the most genial goodwill throughout the whole circle of his influence. That this involved a certain ‘worldliness,' and a curious mixture of the shrewd commonsense of the lawyer with the romantic visions of the enthusiast, is fully admitted by Lockhart, who also shows in general terms how it led to these financial embarrassments. But Lockhart's natural desire to shield Scott's memory involved here what seems to me a misrepresentation of the facts. The curious combination, that is, between the romantic and the business elements shows itself in a way which Lockhart has to ignore. Scott, he says 'studiously escaped from whatever could have interfered with his own enjoyment'; put, that is, both his official business and his bill transactions out of his mind in order to retire to the world of the Waverley Novels, or to throw himself into social distractions.
This theory, though we may partly accept it, is pushed too far, if, with Lockhart, we take it to imply that Scott chose to remain ignorant of Ballantyne's conduct of his business. There it plainly conflicts with hard facts. The truth is, apparently, that Scott's romance took a peculiar turn. It implied, in particular, a very low estimate of the value of written romances. No great author ever had a lower opinion of the claims of authors upon the gratitude of mankind. It appeared to him, as we know, perfectly absurd to suppose that the writer of his 'bits of novels,' could be worth the attention of the hero of Waterloo. Ardently as he loved literature, he reckoned literature in general, and his own in particular, to be the harmless amusement of life, and only worth considering as an ornamental appendage. I suspect that his view has much more to be said for it in many senses than authors will generally admit. Certainly, it often took the attractive form of personal modesty and of superiority to the fretful touchiness of the ordinary man of letters. Lockhart reports a conversation with Miss Edgeworth in which Scott spoke with deep feeling of the folly of thinking of real life as only material for art. He had, he said, heard 'higher sentiments' from the uncultivated than he had ever read in books; and he declared that authors would never learn their true calling till they had taught themselves 'to consider everything as moonshine compared with the education of the heart.' Miss Edgeworth's comment was that, whereas Swift professed to have written that 'people might treat him like a great lord,' Scott wrote that 'he might be able to treat his people as a great lord ought to do.' We may paraphrase this by saying that, in Scott's view the active duties of life were the substantive and the literary activity the mere adjective supplying the graces, or at most stimulating the affections, which had a more important function elsewhere. Miss Edgeworth's interpretation represents the better aspect of the doctrine. There is, of course, another application which is a good deal more doubtful. Scott accepted with complete frankness the view that his own writings were to be entirely subordinate. No doubt, as they expressed his Toryism, his patriotism, his hearty appreciation of manly, independent, and domestic and social affections, they helped to propagate his ideal of life; but they were also distinctly and most avowedly written to sell. He wanted to live his romance more than to write it. The desire may remind us of Milton's doctrine that the man who would write an heroic poem should be 'himself a true poem.' Only, Milton lived in order to write Paradise Lost, whereas Scott wrote Waverley in order to live in his own fashion, and that fashion involved anachronisms not of the truly heroic kind. The result, too, was not what Lockhart implies. This romance did not take him away from the world of bankers’ books and balance-sheets. On the contrary, it gave such a charm to the position which he desired that he accepted them as a necessary, though no doubt a very disagreeable, part of the process. All the bill-discounting represented painful thought and recurring anxiety, from which we may well believe that he was glad to escape, whether to writing in his study or superintending Tom Purdie and his labourers. Probably, too, it prevented him from making such an accurate investigation as would have roused him while there was yet time. But, clearly, the disagreeableness of the task did not prevent him from going into even the minute details and regulating all the ultimately ruinous negotiations. The end, unfortunately, sanctified the means; and he forgot his prudence in the delight of being able for a time to realise his fondest dreams. To himself, no doubt, it seemed that when he had got rid of the publishing house, the legacy which it left of unpaid liabilities was a mere remnant of botheration, which would be gradually wound up. The consummation was postponed from month to month as new temptations arose to invest his money at Abbotsford, and the mass of floating liabilities grew rapidly, though quietly, without prompting any sufficient effort at extrication. When he had once fairly finished his new mansion and rounded off his estates, he fancied that he would be able to shorten sail and bring all this intricate system of accommodation into order. The catastrophe at the end of 1825 destroyed all his chances, and led to that heroic effort which makes it seem almost indecent even to try to investigate the facts. Yet, on the whole, it is as well to know the facts, even about a man whom one loves; and it seems to me that, though it is impossible for any one, as it certainly is for me, to unravel the details, the main results are sufficiently unmistakable.
- The Ballantyne Humbug Handled, etc. (1839) is an answer to a 'refutation' of Lockhart's statements in the Life by Ballantyne's trustees. They made a 'reply,' to which Lockhart gave no answer.