This week marks the bicentenary of Sir Walter Scott’s twelfth novel The Abbot, published in Edinburgh on 2 September 1820 and in London two days later. Alone among the Waverley Novels, it was presented not as a stand-alone narrative but as the sequel to an earlier volume, The Monastery, which had appeared just six months earlier. Set in the early years of the Scottish Reformation, The Monastery had sold well but had disappointed many readers and reviewers. Criticism was directed, in particular, at the pivotal role played by the ghostly White Lady, guardian spirit of the House of Avenel. Contrary to widespread belief, Scott rarely resorts to the supernatural, and his use of the White Lady struck many as an incongruous Gothic throwback.
The White Lady appearing to Halbert Glendinning, engraved by Charles Heath after Richard Westall (Corson P.3000)
Scott later hinted that the decision to set a second novel in the Reformation stemmed from frustration with the relative failure of The Monastery and a determination to show that the period provided fertile subject-matter. Accepted by most of his biographers, this account has been called into question by Christopher Johnson, editor of the recent Edinburgh Edition of The Abbot (2000). Johnson shows that the contract for a sequel was signed before the completion of The Monastery, and that Scott had simply found that he had enough narrative materials for two novels. The idea of depicting the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots at Loch Leven Castle—The Abbot’s central episode—had occurred to Scott as early as summer 1817.
Last weekend I was in Leuven at the Annual Conference of the Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education (BAAHE), where I’d been invited to give a paper on translations of Walter Scott in our Corson Collection. While there, I took the opportunity to display two images from another University Collections item which vividly illustrates the extent of ‘Scottomania’ in 1820s Belgium. These are from an album of hand-coloured lithographs by Marcellin Jobard (later Belgium’s first photographer) showing the Ivanhoe-inspired costumes for a fancy dress ball hosted by the Prince and Princess of Orange in Brussels on 5 February 1823.
Belgium was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, whose court resided in The Hague and Brussels in alternate years. A report in the Lady’s Monthly Museum (May 1823) noted that while the Queen’s balls were very ‘showy and stately’, those held by the Crown Prince and Princess were ‘recherché and graceful’. The 5 February ball was held in honour of the British community, to whom the young royals were ‘remarkably attentive’. Three weeks notice was given
during which period, you may be sure, the hammers of the armourers of old, on the eve of a battle, were never plied with more skill and industry than were our own fancies and our maids’ needles, to prepare for these promised fêtes
A party of thirty-two guests went as characters from Ivanhoe, dancing a quadrille which caused such a sensation that they were invited to repeat the performance at the next Queen’s Ball. Three months later, a report in The Repository of Arts, Literatures, Fashions, Manufactures, &c declared that the Ivanhoe costumes remained ‘the principal topic of conversation at Brussels’. They clearly made sufficient impression for the costumes to be immortalized by the country’s leading lithographic press. The images show the costumes for Ivanhoe himself, for the ‘Black Knight’ (aka Richard the Lionheart), and for their rivals Prince John and Maurice de Bracy. We also hold hand-coloured engravings for a similar Scott-inspired costume ball in Vienna in 1826.