The Bride of Lammermoor – Sir Walter Scott

I read several of Sir Walter Scott’s novels as a teenager over 30 years ago. One of them was The Bride of Lammermoor but I didn’t remember very much about it at all. My most vivid memory of the story is a famous photo of Dame Joan Sutherland in the mad scene from Donazetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor which was based on the book. All blood-stained white dress, long hair & staring eyes. So, when my 19th century book group decided to read The Bride as part of our series of books that form the basis of operas & musicals, I was looking forward to reading it again. The Bride of Lammermoor is a story full of omens, myths & doom. It’s the story of a tragic love affair with echoes of several Shakespeare plays, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet & Othello.

The ancient family of Ravenswood has lost everything. The book opens at the funeral of the Laird after he has lost his ancestral home to Sir William Ashton, a nouveau riche politician & wily lawyer. The Laird’s son, Edgar, known as the Master of Ravenswood, vows revenge for his father’s death & his family’s downfall. Edgar is left with only the lonely tower, Wolf’s Crag, as his estate. His few servants are loyal, especially his butler, Caleb Balderstone, who comically goes to extraordinary lengths to save the family’s face & honour. As the master stalks the nearby woods, waiting for his moment to take revenge on Sir William, he’s thwarted by his noble action in saving Ashton & his beautiful daughter, Lucy, from a charging bull.

His fate is sealed. He falls in love with Lucy, the daughter of his enemy, & finds that his desire for revenge disappears as he gets to know Sir William & Lucy. Their secret engagement is haunted by omens. A raven sits nearby as they talk & is then shot by Lucy’s young brother. The bird falls at their feet & splashes Lucy’s dress with blood. Old, blind Alice, a tenant of the Ravenswoods & now the Ashtons, warns the Master of the danger he is courting. Even the old prophecy doesn’t change his mind,

When the last Laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride And woo a dead maiden to be his bride, He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow, And his name shall be lost for evermoe!

Sir William has married above his station, & his haughty wife, Margaret Douglas, is not impressed by the claims of a penniless man without prospects. She wants Lucy to marry Bucklaw, a young man who has just inherited his Aunt’s property nearby. When she returns from a visit to find the Master virtually one of the family & her husband treating the Master as a friend, she is so rude to Edgar that he abruptly leaves. His pride is as much to blame for the tragedy that follows as Margaret’s domineering nature or Lucy’s passivity. Margaret intercepts his letters & browbeats Lucy into denying her attachment to Edgar. On the day of Lucy’s formal betrothal to Bucklaw, the Master returns & demands to know Lucy’s true feelings,

If this young lady, of her own free will, desires the restoration of this contract, as her letter would seem to imply – there is not a withered leaf which this autumn wind strews on the heath, that is more valueless in my eyes. But I must and will hear the truth from her own mouth – without that satisfaction I will not leave this spot. Murder me by numbers you possibly may; but I am an armed man – I am a desperate man – and I will not die without ample vengeance. This is my resolution, take it as you may. … Choose if you will have this hall floated with blood, or if you will grant me the decisive interview with my affianced bride, which the laws of God and the country alike entitle me to demand.

Her fragile mental balance is overturned & she goes mad with horrible results. I enjoyed The Bride of Lammermoor very much. It’s almost unrelievedly gloomy, very Scottish in the emphasis on prophecies & omens. I haven’t even touched on the political dimension. The story is set in the early 18th century when the battle between the Protestant government in London & the lingering loyalties to the Catholic Jacobite pretenders was still very current. It was based on a true story told to Scott by his mother & great-aunt,

The story is a dismal one, and I doubt sometimes whether it will bear working out to much length after all. Query, if I shall make it so effective in two volumes as my mother does in her quarter of an hour’s crack by the fireside? But nil desperandum. (Letter to James Ballantyne)

Scott has a reputation for being quite stodgy but The Bride of Lammermoor is an exciting read, full of tragedy & heightened emotions.

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