Monday, 10 December 2012

The Black Dwarf - 13 Observations on Walter Scott and Wuthering Heights

This was the 1st of one thousand short blogs on deformity, the monstrous, and the grotesque. It's an ongoing project.

I'm not sure why I wanted to start with one of Scott's least-read fictions. Perhaps reading it recalled Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and my Yorkshire ancestry? Recent critics have indeed claimed to find similarities between the two texts (see further reading, below). After selecting some of the most noteworthy quotations I will be offering 13 observations on the text.

"The ideal being who is here presented as residing in solitude, and haunted by a consciousness of his own deformity and a suspicion of his being generally subjected to the scorn of his fellow men, is not altogether imaginary. An individual existed many years since, under the Author's observation, which suggested such a character. this poor unfortunate man's name was David Ritchie, an native of Tweeddale."

The Introduction to The Black Dwarf also quotes from the Scots Magazine (1817: i.207)

"His skull," says this authority, "which was of an oblong, and rather unusual shape, was of such strength that he could strike it with ease through the panel of a door or the end of a tar barrel. His laugh is said to have been quite horrible; and is screech-owl-voice, shrill, uncouth, and dissonant, corresponded well with his other peculiarities."

"He never wore shoes, being unable to adapt them to his misshapen fin-like feet, but always had both feet and legs quite concealed, and wrapt up with pieces of cloth."

"A jealous, misanthropical, and irritable temper was his most prominent characteristic. The sense of his deformity haunted him like a phantom; and the insults and scorn to which this exposed him had poisoned his heart with fierce and bitter feelings, which, from other traits in his character, do not appear to have been largely infused into his original temperament than that of his fellow-men.

"He detested children, on account of their propensity to insult and persecute him. To strangers he was generally reserved, crabbed, and surly; and though he by no means refused assistance or charity, he on many occasions neither expressed  nor exhibited much gratitude."

The author proceeds to speculate, in his introduction

Nature maintains a certain balance of good and evil in all her works; and there is no state perhaps so utterly desolate which does not possess some source of gratification peculiar to itself. This poor man, whose misanthropy was founded sense of his own preternatural deformity, had yet his own particular enjoyments. driven into solitude, he became an admirer of the beauties of nature. His garden, which he sedulously cultivated, and from a piece of wild moorland made a very productive spot, was his pride and delight; but he was also an admirer of more natural beauty: the soft sweep of the green hill, the bubbling of a clear fountain, or the complexities of a wild thicket, were scenes on which he gazed for hours, and, he said, with inexpressible delight. it was perhaps for this reason that he was fond of Shenstone's pastorals and some parts of Paradise Lost. The Author has heard his most unmusical voice repeat the celebrated description of Paradise, which he seemed fully to appreciate."

"He expressed disgust at the idea of his remains being mixed with the common rubbish, as he called it, of the churchyard, and selected with his usual taste a beautiful and wild spot in the glen where he had his hermitage, in which to take his last repose. He changed his mind, however, and was finally interred in the common burial-ground of Manor parish."

"The Author has invested Wise Elshie with some qualities which made him appear, in the eyes of the vulgar, a man possessed of supernatural power. common fame paid David Ritchie a similar compliment, for some of the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children in the neigbourhood, held him to be what is called 'uncanny.' He himself did not altogether the idea; it enlarged his very limited circle of power, and in so far gratified his conceit; and it soothed his misanthropy, by increasing his means of giving terror or pain. But even in a rude Scottish glen thirty years back the fear of sorcery was very much out of date."

"David Ritchie affected to frequent solitary scenes, especially such as were supposed to be haunted, and valued himself upon his courage in doing so. To be sure, he had little chance of meeting anything more ugly than himself."

"David often received gratuities from strangers, which he never asked, never refused, and never seemed to consider as an obligation. he had a right, indeed, to regard himself as one of Nature's paupers, to whom she gave a title to be maintained by his kind, even by that deformity which closed against him all ordinary ways of supporting himself by his own labour."

"When he died, in the beginning of the present century, he was found to have hoarded about twenty pounds, a habit very consistent with his disposition; for wealth is power, and power was what David Ritchie desired to possess, as a compensation for his exclusion from society."

"Dr Fergusson considered him as a man of a powerful capacity and original ideas, but whose mind was thrown off its just bias by a predominant degree of self-love, and self-opinion, galled by the sense of ridicule and contempt, and avenging itself upon society, in idea at least, by a gloomy misanthropy."

"The story was intended to be longer, and the catastrophe more artificially brought out; but a friendly critic, to whose opinion I subjected the work in its progress, was of opinion that the idea of the Solitary was of as kind too revolting, and more likely to disgust than to interest the reader. as I had a good right to consider my adviser as an excellent judge of public opinion, I got off my subject by hastening the story to an end as fast as it was possible; and by huddling into one volume a tale which was designed to occupy two, have perhaps produced a narrative as much disproportioned and distorted as the Black Dwarf who is its subject."


  1. Scott’s portrait is multiple and ambiguous
  1. The grotesque seldom partakes of unqualified horror or unmixed disgust. Scott draws on the Ritchie’s aesthetic temperament as a redeeming feature 
  1. Scott has shown that Ritchie’s ill-temper is the product of society’s hostility to him, rather than innate
  1. Ritchie resembles Frankenstein’s monster insofar as there is a link to the appreciation of Nature and poetry, namely John Milton’s Paradise Lost 
  1. But he is also Satan, the outsider and observer of a paradise from which he is excluded. John Milton’s Paradise Lost again
  1. Ritchie is a romantic and solitary figure, located in nature. His physical deformity is a product of nature. (Rather than a result of a supernatural curse.) 
  1. The social fabric of society supports him through charity
  1. Common preconception that the diminutive in size, inevitably seek power. They also suffer from an inward turn. On both counts note period satires on Napoleon Bonaparte. 
  1. Interesting to have a “description” of his voice – the monstrous tends to rely on the visual effigy.
  1. The deformity is physical but it is also phenomenal and gothic; it is something that haunts him. 
  1. He is outside of humanity (“common  rubbish”) but his destiny, in death, is to rejoin it.
  1. The novel is a grotesque. Two in One. Scott also wrote that he was “tired of the ground I had trode so often before I had walked over two thirds of the course. [...] So I quarrelled with my story, & bungled up a conclusion as a boarding school Miss finishes a task which she had commenced with great glee & accuracy” (Letter to Lady Louisa Stuart: 14 November 1816.) 
  1. Further research on legends, the  “Brown Man of the Moors”

Further reading

Boatright, Mody C. "Demonology in the Novels of Sir Walter Scott: A Study in Regionalism." Studies in English (1934): 75-88. "The Black Dwarf is one of the least satisfactory of Scott's tales, and the attempt at mystification with theRadcliffian ending is no small factor in the failure of the work"

Boatright, Mody C. "Witchcraft in the Novels of Sir Walter Scott." Studies in English (1933): 95-112.
Carson, James P. "Scott and the Romantic Dog." Journal for Eighteenth‐Century Studies 33.4 (2010): 647-661.

Garbin, Lidia. ‘Literary Giants and Black Dwarfs’, Scottish Studies Review, 1 (2000), 78-93.

Gordon, Robert C. "The Bride of Lammermoor: A Novel of Tory Pessimism." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12.2 (1957): 110-124. "Two other novels reveal Scott's deepening awareness of the tragic possibilities in the mutations of human history. The Black Dwarf, the most abortive of the Waverley Novels, is a study in the misanthropy of a deformed and embittered man..."

Hendrix, Richard. "Popular Humor and" The Black Dwarf"." The Journal of British Studies 16.1 (1976): 108-128.

Hwang, Jing‐Huey. "Rethinking Britishness in the Fictional Japanese Letters of TJ Wooler's Black Dwarf." Journal for Eighteenth‐Century Studies.

Irvine, Robert P. "Scott's" The Black Dwarf": The Gothic and the Female Author." Studies in Romanticism 38.2 (1999): 223-248.

Jones, Steven E. 'Satiric Performance in The Black Dwarf', in Satire and Romanticism. New York, NY.: St Martin’s Press, 2000., pp. 71-110. Considers how far Thomas J. Wooler's satirical weekly The Black Dwarf (1817-24) may have been inspired by Scott's novel of the same name.

Oda, Yukari. "Wuthering Heights and the Waverley Novels: Sir Walter Scott's Influence on Emily Brontë." Bronte Studies 32.3 (2007): 217-226.

Parsons, Coleman O. "The Original of the Black Dwarf." Studies in Philology 40.4 (1943): 567-575. Reads The Black Dwarf as the 'intentional representation of a Timon-like personality endowed with a Byronic and, possibly, Scottian awareness of physical deformity'.

Smith, Sheila. "'At Once Strong and Eerie': The Supernatural in Wuthering Heights and Its Debt to the Traditional Ballad." Review of English Studies (1992): 498-517.

Truten, Jack. "Sir Walter Scott: Folklore and Fiction." Studies in Scottish Literature 26.1 (1991): 18.

Wooler, Thomas Jonathan, ed. The Black Dwarf. Vol. 6. T. J. Wooler, 1821.

1 comment:

  1. If you're a Walter Scott enthusiast I'd like to hear about other grotesque encounters in his fiction and critical writings.