Friday, May 24, 2013

Field trip: On location with Walter Scott's Fortunes of Nigel (1822)

("Camlet Moat", Fortunes of Nigel, via Illustrating Scott
This one has been a long time in the works: the discovery that part of Walter Scott's The Fortunes of Nigel (a winning title if ever there was one) took place in a location ten minutes down the road from where I live was one of the things that inspired me to finally start reading his work - and to go on an American Scrapbook field trip.

But when I did start reading Scott, Nigel remained on the backburner. There was that title to begin with, which I think helped me to relegate it prematurely to the status of a minor work, to be read after Guy Mannering, The Heart of Midlothian, The Antiquary, and all the others in the vanguard of Scott's reputation. But I take it back. Hey, it's still Scott. And for entirely personal reasons, it has easily entered into that vanguard. It turned out to be a book which seamlessly brings together pretty much all of my current obsessions. Is Scott writing just for me at this point? And if what follows seems a little self-indulgent, I take heart from today's post on Sharon Howard's blog which exhorts academics who blog to be idiosyncratic, personal and, indeed, indulgent. So off we go.

I won't go into plot details. Edinburgh University Press's Walter Scott Digital Archive has a typically useful page on the book, here, which takes care of that. I will say, though, that this is another instance where - like many of Scott's readers? - his novels fill and illuminate the (embarrassing) gaps in my own historical knowledge, so that his rendition of King James VI / I will now always be my primary imaginative route into the period.

As I've already mentioned, the local connection to this book was what drew me to it in the first place. Its denouement (no spoilers) takes place at a site called Camlet Moat, now contained in Trent Park in North London (official site here). Probably the location of a medieval fort, all that's left now is the moat, circling a small island in the middle of a forest. This is how Scott describes the scene:
"The place at which he stopped was at that time little more than a mound, partly surrounded by a ditch, from which it derived the name of Camlet Moat. A few hewn stones there were, which had escaped the fate of many others that had been used in building different lodges in the forest for the royal keepers."
Scott's description is certainly more accurate than that of his illustrator, at the top of this post (though I still haven't quite worked out how Scott knew about this strange site in the first place). Below, Camlet Moat as it looks today, when I dragged my family to visit it last year - the moat is in the middle ground:

Camlet Moat
The island itself has now been fully colonised by neo-pagans and teenagers (feathers, dream-catchers, candles, stick-men abound), which means that an already eerie place has been transformed into a Blair Witch theme park. Heck, this dude even thinks that Camlet should really read Camelot - yes, the Camelot - and I am totally on board with that idea. Still, it's delightful to think that this forgotten corner of my neighbourhood was once known, by name at least, to thousands of readers across the globe.

Back to the book: my own delight at its local associations was only compounded when it became clear that Camlet Moat was also destined to feature as the site (slight spoiler) of an episode of highway robbery in which the villains of the piece, "according to the custom of robbers in other countries, but contrary to that of the English highwayman of those days [...] meant to ensure robbery by previous murder."

So, local interest AND highway robbery. But Tom, I hear you say, it's a shame that there's not a Transatlantic angle in there too. And then, in the final pages, Scott does this to two of the minor characters: "The prevailing belief was, that they had emigrated to one of the new settlements in America." The moral? Don't judge a book by its title.

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