BLOG #14, SERIES #7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #51
JANE PORTER’S THE SCOTTISH CHIEFS
April 6, 2016
It is a daunting task, late in life, to return to a book you loved in the morning of your life. I grew up devouring entire libraries, consequently most I read I’ve long since forgotten. But not this one. This one I first read when only sixteen.
As I was deciding which of the books I have loved most during my life’s journey, an early spring snowstorm brought Colorado traffic to a near halt; it came in two stages: 33 inches first, then 28 more inches. So why not choose a book I could savor—and just bunker down in it.
So I built a crackling fire in our moss rock fireplace, opened up Scotland-born author Jane Porter’s timeless historical classic; The Scottish Chiefs, sporting stunning full-color illustrations painted by that master of book art, N. C. Wyeth, and stepped back in time to a long-vanished world. Porter lived and wrote from 1776-1850.
Scotland has been much in the news in the last couple of years. Mainly, because there has been a strong movement there to separate itself from England, Wales, and North Ireland, and become completely independent again.
But why, out of all the thousands of books I’ve read in life, would I choose this particular one as our book of the month? Especially an old historical novel, first published in 1810. Furthermore, the setting is much older than that: clear back to 1296-1305.
In no time at all, I lost all track of time as I vicariously reveled in a 700-year-old story about one of the most romantic figures Scotland has ever known, William Wallace.
For this Charles Scribner edition, Kate Douglas Wiggin penned a marvelous introduction; in which she reminisces: “I might have been a child again, hearing my mother’s voice calling me to supper from my nook in the window-seat, while I pleaded, ‘Oh! Only five more minutes, please! Wallace has just rescued Lady Helen and he’s bearing her in his arms over the rushing torrent on a bridge of a single tree!’ . . . . But more than that, “I feel keenly the value of any work of fiction that can awaken in its readers such an ardor of sympathy, such intensity of interest, such a belief in the reality of its characters, such admiration and reverence for their magnificent moments!”
Wiggin notes that the novel was based on prodigious scholarship, keeping in mind that accurate 13th century historical records were sparse indeed. Indeed, printing would not exist until several hundred years later. . . . “If Porter sometimes exaggerated the virtues of the noble Wallace, his achievements never fell upon incredulous years in the days of youth, nor do they now. I heartily believe that Wiggin is right in acclaiming him as “one of the most complete heroes that ever filled the pages of history.”
But as for me in this late-life re-read, I soon realized why the book is still being cherished 200 years after its birth. Even though I knew I wasn’t reading a happily-ever-after or a page-turning whodunit—I simply couldn’t put it down. My soul was inspired once again—something that doesn’t often happen in this jaded world we live in today.
And there are the villains! “Miss Porter had a rare knack at creating villains, and Soulis, DeValence, Hesselrigge, Cressingham, and Monteith are certainly an unequaled quintet. . . . And the Lady Mar, fair Helen’s stepmother, seemed to my youthful mind in every way more malignant than Lady Macbeth.”
I also agree with Wiggin in her contention that “the world has always needed heroes and it needs them sadly now, for the greatest good a hero does to the race is to be a hero and thereby inspire others to heroic living.”
The book is not only timeless, it will be reveled in by all generations. One of our age’s major misconceptions is that one-size-fits-all for each age-group. My mother never made that mistake with her three children: she gave us room to soar, to stretch the mind, to grapple with the deep thoughts of life—even the infinite—or, in Browning’s Andrea del Sarto persona,
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp—
Else what’s a heaven for?”
In conclusion, if you read only this one book in the entire year, and returned to Porter’s well again and again, you’d still feel immeasurably blessed and stretched by the experience.
Be sure and seek out an unabridged copy (a little over 500 pages). And do splurge on one of those stunning N.C. Wyeth-illustrated hardbacks. And take your time—and do let me know if it touches your heart as much as it does mine.
Later this year, for a special birthday celebration, we plan to pay a visit to Scotland ourselves.