by Sir Walter Scott
‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian?’
What, you may ask, has the above quotation to do with Sir Walter Scott? Surely part of Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, what is its connection with Ivanhoe, a novel written two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death?
A central theme of Ivanhoe is anti-semitism. Written and published in 1819/1820 and set during the last decade of the 12th century, it is a novel which seems to demonstrate that, with respect to religious intolerance, plus ça change, plus c’est la mème chose – as the French say. European anti-semitism during the reign of Richard I of England was of an especially vile kind, which the historical Richard himself fomented, not only by introducing draconian laws but by (it is said) acts of physical violence towards them.
Scott’s purpose in creating Isaac of York seems to be to develop his theme. Isaac resembles Shakespeare’s Shylock in being two-faced – at once proud and devious, yet there is a soft underside to him, a humanity that is missing in Shylock’s dealings with Antonio. Yet the question in the reader’s mind remains: which does he love more, his daughter or his gold?
Rebecca, the beautiful and talented daughter, is by contrast one of the greatest heroines in all fiction. The object of her affection and love forever denied her by the customs and prejudices of the age, and by HIS prejudices, she endures her disappointments and trials as a shining example of all the best a human being can be. And it is largely through his development of her character that Scott demonstrates his own partiality – his favourable opinion of King Richard and his contempt for the Templars. Neither is wholly deserved.
Ivanhoe, by Scott’s definition, is a Romance. I hate that word when applied to novels of this kind as it conjures up in its modern usage visions of large bosoms, ripped bodices and much sex. The book is not like that and, welcome or otherwise, I have to say it contains pretty much every literary device that ‘modern’ writers of historical fiction avoid and critics despise: a universal narrator who addresses the reader; lots of telling and very little showing; dialogue abounding in ‘thees’, ‘thous’, ‘gramercies’ and other pseudo-mediaeval oaths; the bending of, indeed the ignoring of real history when it suits the plot and the writer’s purpose.
The story of Ivanhoe is briefly told. Wilfred, disinherited by his father Cedric the Saxon, returns from King Richard’s crusade to find his property in Norman hands. He loves Rowena, who is betrothed to Athelstone, a friend of his father, and must remove all barriers to his happiness before the end. Rebecca, the Jewess, who loves Wilfred, saves his life after he is wounded in the lists, and nurses him back to health, rises above the hatred and prejudice of the times to wish them every happiness. The arch villain, the Templar Bois-Gilbert, Ivanhoe’s nemesis, complicates the plot by coveting Rebecca and in so doing placing her unintentionally in peril of her life for witchcraft.
For a hero, Wilfred of Ivanhoe is conspicuous in the pages of the novel by his few appearances in it. Rowena, the official heroine, appears hardly at all. Instead, it is with Norman barons, brave outlaws, frolicking clerics, a king in disguise and – in true Shakespearean fashion – a jester that we are encouraged to keep company. Even Bois-Gilbert gets his opportunity to present an almost decent side to his personality. A man driven by ambition and desire, he is not entirely without a conscience.
After my recent flirtation (as both reader and writer) with the fantasy/scifi genre, I enjoyed returning to my first love, historical fiction. Ivanhoe is a great novel and, along with Kenilworth, The Heart of Midlothian and The Talisman, one of Scott’s best. It includes a wonderful description of a mediaeval jousting tournament as well as a colourful supporting actor roles to Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. It is such a good story that I will even forgive Sir Walter for transporting Robert of Locksley and his band from Sherwood Forest to Yorkshire!
To conclude, I can do no better than echo the words of another of our great writers, Jane Austen:
” ‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.’ “