Near the beginning of my current draft of “The Jane Austen Project” there is an allusion to “Ivanhoe.” As a matter of principle I have tried to read the books my characters read, and while I long doubted there was much to be gained from reading “Ivanhoe,” I downloaded the free Kindle version onto my phone anyway, just to have something to read in case I accidentally found myself on the subway between library books. This happened, and I started reading it.
I am perhaps a third of the way through, and it’s astonishing. I read “Ivanhoe,” to the best of my recollection, in the seventh grade, more than 30 years ago, and I have hardly thought about it since, though I remember finding it quite entertaining at the time, and being outraged at the injustice of Ivanhoe choosing the insipid Rowena over Rebecca, who was beautiful, kind and smart, but just happened to be Jewish. (It was only recently, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that I learned Thackeray had the same reaction, and wrote a comic sequel where Ivanhoe and Rebecca finally get together.)
I thought I remembered nothing else about the book, but as soon as I began to read I found I remembered it very well: the discussion between the swineherd and the jester about how words for animals are straightforward Saxon/English when they are on the hoof (pig, cow) and Norman/French when they arrive at the table (pork, beef); the cultural clash between Saxon and Norman; the loving descriptions of medieval clothing. I seemed to have absorbed all these things as if I had always known them, forgetting how I knew. But I also was noticing many other things I would not have appreciated at 12.
Do people read “Ivanhoe” anymore? This book is, to put it kindly, bizarre. One of the weirdest things is how it is set in medieval England but — published in 1820 — is so thoroughly of the world of Jane Austen, with its obsessive interest in manners and rank, and its Johnsonian-infused writing style. Here’s a great example from Chapter XV:
No spider ever took more pains to repair the shattered meshes of his web, than did Waldemar Fitzurse to reunite and combine the scattered members of Prince John’s cabal. Few of these were attached to him from inclination, and none from personal regard. If was therefore necessary, that Fitzurse should open to them new prospects of advantage, and remind them of those which they at present enjoyed. To the young and wild nobles, he held out the prospect of unpunished license and uncontrolled revelry; to the ambitious, that of power; and to the covetous, that of increased wealth and extended domains. The leaders of the mercenaries received a donation in gold; an argument most persuasive to their minds, and without which all others would have proved in vain. Promises were still more liberally distributed than money by this active agent; and in fine, nothing was left undone that could determine the wavering, or animate the disheartened.
Is that awesome or what? The depiction of Isaac of York, Rebecca’s father, is equally mesmerizing, although harder to sum up in a quote. I keep reading being totally unable to decide what Scott was up to with this character. On the one hand, the narrator is clearly outraged in describing the treatment of Jews during this period in English history, and the most unlikable characters are also those who treat Isaac the most cruelly. This might make you think he is sympathetic. On the other hand, Isaac himself (usually referred to simply as “the Jew” as if there were only one of him in the world) is a grotesque: equal parts miserliness, shrinking cowardice and a kind of over-the-top emotionality that has him constantly all but rending his garments and crying “Oy gevalt!” I can imagine Zero Mostel playing him in full-on Tevye mode. Except, it’s not really supposed to be funny. Or is it? The Saxons are kind of grotesque in their own crude way (but are presented as inherently noble), while the Normans are so far just comic-book evil, kind of constantly twirling their mustaches and trying to figure out to ravish Rowena. So you could say nobody really comes off very well here except Ivanhoe, Gurth the swineherd, the Robin Hood character, and Rebecca, who I haven’t seen much of yet, one-third of the way into the book, but is just as amazing so far as I remember from seventh grade.
It’s just bizarre. Scott, only a few years older than Jane Austen but outliving her by 15 years, was huge in his day, first as a poet and later as a novelist and romanticizer of Scottish history; he is notable in the world of Jane Austen for favorably reviewing “Emma” and also for confiding to his diary, some years later, that Jane Austen was better than he at depicting ordinary life, even if he flattered himself that he was pretty good at big, dramatic scenes. But who remembers him now? Scottish people for sure still read his books. Does anyone else?