Gothic romancer or rational skeptic? Calculating historian or hapless author seduced by his own fairy visions? The last two hundred years has produced many competing visions of Walter Scott, the founder of the historical novel. Traditionally, critics have often separated his more supernatural works from those of more “legitimate” historical and literary merit. This essay uses the setting of Smailholm Tower, and its current exhibition “Scott and His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,” to present a new construction of Scott’s understanding of history and the purpose of his historical fictions. Because Scott’s earliest exposure to history and national culture came from the oral medium of ballads, family superstitions, and fireside “crack,” Scott’s project to make history live again depends upon the recreation of the historical experiences of gothic terror and rational doubt. Focusing on The Bride of Lammermoor, I argue that Scott employs supernatural traditions and Enlightenment skepticism to manipulate the reader into experiencing the same credulity and doubt as his historical subjects. Through its juxtaposition of valid prophecy and discredited witchcraft, and its focus on the oral sources of family history, The Bride provides the reader with an accurate experience of history by forcing the reader into a position of epistemological ambivalence toward both psychological and supernatural causation. Scott’s deployment of affective reading in instances of prophecy, in turn, suggests that the past can be reactivated in the present, restoring lost social discourse between historical and modern populations.
KEYWORDS:Walter Scott, history, supernatural, oral traditions, The Bride of Lammermoor, rationalism