Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott (1823)

I don't always make it a habit to read lesser-known 19th century novels by well-known novelists, but when the Forgotten Bookmarks blog sends you a prize-winning selection of old books (and you are weird like me) then you jump right in and start reading.

In Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward (1823) our titular hero is a young and handsome 15th century Scottish gentleman whose entire noble family was killed and who has gone off to France to make his fortune. His uncle is a member of the Scottish Archers, an elite guard of King Louis XI, and Quentin thinks he might try to find him, although he is wary of working for the King, who has a reputation for cruelty and dirty dealings.

All intentions aside, Quentin's life has a way of working out for the best, and he soon finds himself taken into the elite guard (after poaching on the Duke of Burgandy's land, losing his hawk, falling into a river, getting a free meal, spying on a lovely lady, cutting down a hanging man, and feeling the noose around his own neck). The king takes a liking to Quentin and assigns him a series of important tasks, culminating in escorting the beautiful young Countess of Croye and her aunt to the protection of the Bishop of Liège.

The two women left their lands and went to Louis XI for protection after the Duke of Burgandy proposed an undesirable marriage for the young Countess. Louis is more of the conniving type than protecting type, so he sends them to Liège as part of a big scheme to consolidate his power and diminish that of his upstart follower, the Duke of Burgandy.

No one, of course, counted on Quentin Durward and his old-school chivalry.

You might think a 19th century novel about a 15th century historical event would be dull, but Scott is known for his adventures, and this historical novel is no exception. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Game of Thrones, with much much much less sex. There is humor, love, fun, fighting, and some rather hateful stereotypes of gypsies. Something for everyone!

Here's a taste:

Here the young lovers fall in love, thanks to a chivalrous injury / wound tending.

In modern times, gallants seldom or never take wounds for ladies' sake, and damsels on their side never meddle with the cure of wounds. Each has a danger the less. That which the men escape will be generally acknowledged; but the peril of dressing such a slight wound as that of Quentin's, which involved nothing formidable or dangerous, was perhaps as real in its way as the risk of encountering it.

We have already said the patient was eminently handsome; and the removal of his helmet, or, more properly, of his morion, had suffered his fair locks to escape in profusion, around a countenance in which the hilarity of youth was qualified by a blush of modesty at once and pleasure. And then the feelings of the younger Countess, when compelled to hold the kerchief to the wound, while her aunt sought in their baggage for some vulnerary remedy, were mingled at once with a sense of delicacy and embarrassment; a thrill of pity for the patient, and of gratitude for his services, which exaggerated, in her eyes, his good mien and handsome features.
(p. 205-206)

And check it out, even the end notes are great!:

The learned Monsieur Petitot, editor of the edition of Memoirs relative to the History of France, a work of great value, intimates that Philip des Comines made a figure at the games of chivalry and pageants exhibited on the wedding of Charles of Burgundy with Margaret of England in 1468... I have looked into Oliver de la Marcke, who, in lib. ii, chapter iv., of his Memoirs, gives an ample account of these "fierce vanities," containing as many miscellaneous articles as the reticule of the old merchant of Peter Schleml, who bought shadows, and carried with him in his bag whatever any one could wish or demand in return. There are in that splendid description, knights, dames, pages, and archers, good store besides of castles, fiery dragons, and dromedaries; there are leopards riding upon lions; there are rocks, orchards, fountains, spears broken and whole, and the twelve labours of Hercules. In such a brilliant medley I had some trouble in finding Philip des Comines... (from Note VI: Philip des Comines, p. 466-467)

I know this kind of thing isn't for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Part of that enjoyment came from the physical book -- a lovely 1913 Everyman's Library edition (see the nice woodcut title page above). But you can enjoy it electronically, if you want, since it is in the public domain.

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