After reviewing a collection of essays on Sir Walter Scott, Andrew Hook
wonders whether aiming to write material that might appeal to the common reader is a potentially promising approach for scholars. Though not scholarly, my fragment on Scott just might interest the common reader. It's a curiosity, if nothing else.
In 2014, Waverley (apparently the only station in the world named after a character in a novel) was enhanced by the addition of a number of quotes from Sir Walter, displayed around the concourse. Etched with skill and care on a glass panel positioned on the walkway over the station is the following: 'Scarce one person out of twenty marries his first love, and scarce one out of twenty of the remainder has cause to rejoice at having done so'.
A HASS (humanities, arts and social sciences) scholar might wonder whether a bad experience of Scott's underlay these sentiments. But STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) scholarship isn't necessary to identify the illogicality in the quote, merely a primary school understanding of set theory. If only 5% of people marry their first love (let's call them 'those who marry'), and the remainder ('those who tarry') do not, then the small number of rejoicers come from the group of people who didn't leap into matrimony in the first place, and therefore have nothing to celebrate.
A long time ago – well, in 2018 – I tried to discover what had happened here. The letters gathered by Grierson in the 1930s include a transcript of the first part of Scott's missive of 12 June 1820 to George Huntly Gordon, which is the source of the quotation. The transcript is word for word what is displayed. Fortunately for the doggedly determined, the original is in the National Library of Scotland. In my first foray into a literary archive, an opportunity available to anyone willing to lay the relevant volume on a special pillow and speak only in a whisper, I inspected the very passage, in Scott's fairly legible handwriting.
Here is the exact piece: 'What you mention of your private feelings on an interesting subject is no doubt distressing but assure yourself that scarce one person out of twenty marries their first love and scarce one out of twenty of the remainder have cause to rejoice having done so'.
Except for a couple of trivial errors, and the changing of Scott's use of a gender-neutral pronoun ('their' first love to 'his'), the transcription is accurate. The muddle was Sir Walter's, chiming perhaps with his own admission that he never read his letters a second time (according to Hesketh Pearson in his 1954 biography of Scott).
Did the letter console George Huntly Gordon in his heartache? I expect it did, though probably more because Sir Walter took the trouble to write than because of what he wrote.
Almost no conclusion of any significance can be drawn from my research, though ascertaining that was itself an interesting exercise. Perhaps a couple of observations can stand, though. An understanding of Venn diagrams is eternally useful, and we should scrutinise the words of great men before we hoist them high. Especially, perhaps, if they concern affairs of the heart.
Perhaps Chancellor Merkel will smile
that a food which is sold by the mile
or fried, boiled or braised by the slice
and has lots of kinds not all that nice
is between islands able to rile...
Be it beef Lorne or Scouse offal porker,
how terribly odd that the banger
should be at the core of such clangour,
and the joke (banger means UK snorker)
sizzle up and burst in this corker!
Some allege that this question was able to rise,
nay swell to the shape of a champion sow
because the UK Prime Minister now
has distributed so many pork pies?
Robert R Calder
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