ON SCOTT'S CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
23rd February 2018
Scott’s circle of friends encompassed lords and ladies of the very highest rank, just as much as it did business partners and the men and women working on his estate and in the household. Undoubtedly, the author felt thankful for the loyalty bestowed on him, and his closest friendships lasted a lifetime.
Several of these outstanding friendships were with equally outstanding women of the time, three of which we will introduce today, as part of Museum Week 2018. Sir Walter Scott’s relationships with women of his time, especially those who might be less known today, give an insight into the creative accomplishments as well as personal lives of each of these characters.
Lady Louisa Stuart
Born in 1757, Lady Louisa Stuart was one of the children of John, Earl of Bute, the then Prime Minister to George III. From an early age, she took more interest in intellectual accomplishments, reading and writing poetry, and thus developed a distinctly critical mind. Though weary of the conventional gaieties of London’s high society, Stuart concealed her talent for quiet observation and dispensed her often shrewd wit only amongst friends. Still, those were the accomplishments which enabled her own writing and she took great pleasure in composing poetry and showcasing her talents in letters and among her most private circle.
Every autumn, she was a guest at Bothwell Castle, staying with Lord Douglas and his wife, and it was there that she and Scott, in his early twenties at the time, became friends. Scott enjoyed telling the story of muckle-mouthed Meg so much that Lady Louisa went so far as to produce a humorous poem of the tale. Despite Scott’s delight in the poem ‘Ugly Meg’ and his retelling it to his friends, the worry that it might get out into public was too much. After all, publishing her own writings was not considered dignified for a lady of Louisa’s standing at the time. As a result, she burnt many of her letters and poetry during her lifetime.
As time went by, the friendship between Lady Louisa and Sir Walter strengthened, supported by their similar tastes and admiration for each other’s literary works. She was the only woman let in on the secret of the authorship of the Waverley Novels and was Scott’s soundest critic. With her judgement informed by her sense for observation, knowledge of literature and sense of ‘genius’, which had been attested to by friends and family from an early age, her opinion, whatever it was, was always welcome and appreciated. To Scott, Lady Louisa Stuart’s ‘applause is worth having’ –she was the ‘best critic’ of his acquaintance.
Though much of Stuart’s literary work was either destroyed or hidden away, reserved for the eyes of relatives and descendants, one can still gather a sense of her accomplished style of writing from correspondence such as the selected Letters of Lady Louisa Stuart and her Biographical Anecdotes. When she died in 1851, at the age of 94, she had certainly left her mark on a generation.
“Without being so presumptuous as to hope to emulate the rich humour, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact, which pervade the works of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland.”
In the years before Scott wrote and published Waverley, Maria Edgeworth was the most celebrated living novelist in Great Britain, and a great inspiration for Scott’s own writing. Ahead of her time, Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent is today seen as the first regional novel and – due to its setting ‘before the year 1782’ – as the first true historical novel. In addition to this, Edgeworth was also highly involved in sharing her views on education and estate management, forging friendships with many leading voices of the time. Considering her activities as a business woman and successful writer, it is no wonder she regarded men and women as intellectual equals – an outstanding notion at the time!
With all this success of her own, it is perhaps surprising that her friendship with Scott began when she addressed a letter to ‘The author of Waverley’ to express her gratitude in being acknowledged as an influence in the introduction of the novel. They would go on to form a long-lasting friendship, with Maria visiting Abbotsford and taking a tour of the area with Scott in 1823.
On Scotland’s literary map, Joanna Baillie occupies a distinct spot as a successful poet and playwright of her time, focusing on themes of moral philosophy as well as the Gothic.
Though her interest lay more with storytelling and especially ghost stories when she was a child, Joanna would discover her enjoyment of books, composing poetry and crafting drafts of her own plays as she grew up. With changing environments, moving from Lanarkshire to Glasgow and later to London, her circle of friends widened considerably and through her new acquaintances she would eventually meet some of the great poets and writers of the time.
Though Baillie was already composing early drafts which would later become her ‘Plays on the Passions’ series, her deep friendship with Scott is credited as one of the biggest contributions to her development as a playwright. They made each other’s acquaintance in 1807, henceforth exchanging words of encouragement just as much as criticism of manuscripts and admiration for each other’s work.
Like many at the time, he saw in her a new literary force and Scott would often describe his anticipation to reading Baillie’s latest works or her next volume of plays. His admiration was so great that Scott adapted her ‘Scottish play’ Family Legend for the stage at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh. Acting as director, Scott poured himself into the adaptation, fretting over every detail. He went to such lengths that even the tartans worn by the actors would correspond with the proper clan colours – a detail only very few audience members would have noticed. The play was wildly successful and prompted a Scottish revival of Baillie’s first tragedy De Monfort, part of her Plays on the Passions.
In her own day Joanna Baillie was regarded as a master of her craft, respected and revered for her work and even today, her literary output is testament to her achievements as an advocate for female writers.
Were you familiar with these women and their accomplishments? Why not pick up their works and dive further into the life and times of Scott's contemporaries, they might inspire you as much as they did Scott. After all, #WomenMW is the focus of Museum Week today.