Rave Reviewer: On the Evolution of an Exhibition

28th Mar 2016

My apologies for going completely dark; the closure season seemed to go past in the blink of an eye! We achieved a great deal over the winter, hand-cleaning all of Scott’s books, waxing all of the wooden fixtures and fittings (whilst being sensitive to Scott’s intended finishes), and deep cleaning at height in the Library, Chapel and Entrance Hall, alongside our annual artefact and furniture cleaning programmes. I simply couldn’t have done it without my intrepid team of volunteers and I am indebted to them all the more as time goes by.

Delicate cleaning has made the detail in this gorgeous ebony armchair sing. The Library in the final few days before reopening!

The work in the house over the last three months isn’t the only thing that has been keeping me busy. We are in the final stages of preparing to launch Rave Reviewer: Scott on Frankenstein, Emma & Childe Harold, our 2016 season exhibition brought to visitors in partnership with the National Library of Scotland (NLS). Those of you keen to see the exhibition can do so with an Abbotsford house admission ticket from 2nd April 2016 and purchase exhibition catalogues in the shop with enhanced detail, transcriptions and photography of each display item (a steal at a mere £3 a copy!). In amongst the frantic activity that always defines the days leading up to the launch of any exhibition, I thought it was worth offering you a window on the process up until this point, particularly as creating displays such as this is a key part of the work of heritage teams across the country.

It was an unseasonably sunny day in November 2014 when I first sat down with David McClay to have a look at some of the jewels of the John Murray Archive at NLS, and to discuss how the material in their care might help us tell stories about the relationships between Scott and the literati of his day. Although I’d only been at Abbotsford for a couple of months at that point, as a keen consumer of classic literature I was particularly interested in the reading and writing community of the early nineteenth century; in part because of the phenomenal array of household names writing at the time also in the hope that fascinating stories might be told through examining their correspondence with one another.

Lord Byron's seal. Byron and Scott first met one another in April 1815 at John Murray's premises in London

These days, for many, Walter Scott is not familiar name in the manner of Jane Austen or Lord Byron who seem to have transcended literature altogether (probably because of celluloid and sheer notoriety respectively!), although I do think Scott’s star is now in the ascendant and his achievements in literature and many other areas are being recognised once again. Despite the difficulties some have with Scott’s prose and the blank faces others give you when you mention his name, we must never forget that these sentiments would be completely alien to the reading public of the nineteenth century to which he would have been nothing less than an institution. My thought process was very much that the manner in which other famous writers pay homage to Scott in their own writings might help cement this idea, and give visitors a way in to understanding Scott’s mass appeal as an author and poet. I came away from that November meeting with ideas flitting around in my head, having been introduced to a novel concept by David McClay – that this complex world of authors in dialogue might be brought to life by exploring a key cultural feature of this period: the review periodicals.

A wonderful image of Scott's son-in-law, J.G. Lockhart as editor of the Quarterly Review

I am indebted to David for signposting me towards this lesser-known story about Scott, because consequently I have found myself spirited away by the intrigue and crafty manoeuvring of Walter the reviewer whilst we have been working hard on the co-curation of the exhibition. In a nutshell, we are focussing on his career as a prolific contributor to the periodicals, a thread of activity that runs in tandem with his two legal appointments in Edinburgh and Selkirk and the blossoming of his own writing career. We have cherry-picked moments within this twenty-year period during which Scott engages with significant writers as an anonymous reviewer, including mercilessly reviewing the first part of his own series, Tales of My Landlord, which was attributed to a fictional pseudonym when published.

Title page of Tales of My Landlord, 1816, complete with mention of the fictional editor Jedediah Cleishbotham

We have by no means covered everything and this is the challenge of small-scale exhibitions where you want to inspire and enthuse your audience to find out more without trying to cover too much ground and sacrificing the detail, which is often where the charm is to be found. And this is precisely what we have tried to do here, particularly in selecting the items going on display from the John Murray Archive. You’ll see a tactful letter from Mary Shelley to Scott, correcting his assumption that the author of Frankenstein is male, manuscript reviews of articles on Byron’s poetry and Southey’s edition of Pilgrim’s Progress that reveal something of the process of writing and publishing a review, not to mention rare first editions from the Abbotsford Library of the works sent to Scott to elicit articles for John Murray’s Quarterly Review. Even just comparing the handwriting of Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Scott is electrifying if you are a lover of classic literature.

The signature of Mary Shelley; The exhibition showcases a letter in her hand. Scott's review of Frankenstein, published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

If I was asked what the appeal is of an exhibition about reviewing culture, particularly in relation to Scott, I would say this; Scott sometimes has a somewhat unwarranted reputation for being dry, both as a man and as a writer. To me, in everything I’ve read either by him or about him and everything I understand about his home, he is anything but this; he is warm, affectionate, compassionate and exceptionally quick-witted. This comes across in his anonymous reviews just as much as it does in the Waverley Novels, where the presumed stuffy, cautious and conservative Scott pens the only sympathetic, even progressive review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a review that went very much against the grain but stands alone as being the one that still resonates with us today.

Yes, he presumed the author was Percy B. Shelley, but I think this more likely to be a blunder of speed-reading a letter rather than a comment on the shortcomings of female authors. He lauded Jane Austen’s ability to capture and distil the rhythms and interactions of life with the skill of a Flemish painter, and hailed Ann Radcliffe as a pioneer of the Gothic. In his review of Austen’s Emma he makes a stand for novel reading and writing, attempting to erode some of the distaste for the medium still prevalent in high society at the time.

Portrait of Jane Austen

Scott is also a complex character, ever sidestepping and evading ownership of his own words, partly for the sheer fun of it and partly because he detested a fuss being made when it was in his honour. This is brought vividly to life when you see his anonymous review of his own anonymous work in Rave Reviewer, proclaiming the tale to be ‘unoriginal’ and ‘impotent in its conclusion’.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

Sometimes when the philosophical mood takes me, I think the ‘tangled web’ Scott weaves is a deeper comment on the nature of history itself. Whose story is it? History is a cacophony of voices and stories which may find their way on to the page through one man’s wizardry, but this strange genre of historical fiction that finds its mouthpiece in Scott is a strange beast. The writer of historical fiction attempts to weave a narrative from original source material, anecdotes of a first-hand or often, a second-hand nature and perhaps even folkloric tradition. In Scott’s case, this material was often reaching him through antiquarian friends with their ears to the ground. Perhaps after all of this is taken into account he felt as if these historical novels simply could not belong to one man. A similar effect was created through re-imagining Cartley Hole Farm as Abbotsford, creating a fascinating conglomeration (or ‘strange jumble’) of other buildings, design ideas and relics from sources both genuine and spurious – a place where stories come together and clamour to be heard and you’re never quite sure which one is true!

If you were then to ask me what the challenge is with an exhibition like this, where fantastic manuscripts, books and letters are going on display, I would say quite simply that any exhibition of a literary ilk can struggle with visual appeal, purely because the displays consist of the paper-based ephemera that tells the story and light levels need to be relatively low to protect the original documents from deterioration.

We’ve tried hard with Rave Reviewer to create visual interest elsewhere in the interpretation panels, captions and catalogue, giving it its own visual identity. This is Abbotsford’s first truly collaborative exhibition and we do hope it will be the start of many more to come, so do help us spread the word and encourage people to come and dip their toe in to the waters of early nineteenth-century literary criticism. We want to capture some of the intrigue of this world of presumptions and guesswork, and will be asking visitors to review the exhibition under a pseudonym of their choice. You can help us here by visiting the exhibition and reviewing your own thoughts using the hashtag #RaveReviewer2016, and by following it in turn to see what others have to say.

Let’s create another community of rave reviewers!

Thanks for reading. I shan’t leave it so long next time.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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