In Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott paints a world in which the public and the private interweave. For the characters, the barriers that separate these spheres begin to blur as the political conflict between the Episcopals and Covenanters impacts on their private lives and in turn their friendships and romantic relationships influence this public clash of ideologies. It is through this personal lens that Scott offers a way for the reader to conceptualize the political landscape of the time in order to better understand it.
The political revolution at the center of the novel would have been as historical in context for Scott’s contemporary reader as it is for today’s modern reader. Neither is likely to have to hand the historical information required to appreciate the political divide between the Episcopals and the Covenanters without further reading or research. However, the story is still immediately accessible to the reader because Scott uses the personal relationships of the characters as a way to explore the conflict. It is through this connection that Scott is able to examine the political divisions and consequences in a way that is relevant to the reader.
Scott does not simply explain the conflict in terms of timelines and facts, but through the story of relationships. At the forefront of this framework is the friendship between Henry Morton and Lord Evandale and the way in which their private connection impacts the public sphere. Although the two men find themselves on opposing sides, they forge a sort of friendship. This private relationship then impacts public outcomes as they each save each other from the consequence of the religious conflict, as Lord Evandale argues to spare Morton from execution (Scott 153) and Morton saves Lord Evandale on the battlefield (Scott 203). Through this relationship, we see that these men are not stand-ins for political ideals or religious sentiment, but instead offer a human approach for understanding the motivations of both sides. It is significant that the story is not focused solely on plot and impersonal references, but is told instead through characters that the reader can relate to. In this way, the conflict becomes more real for the reader. We find that the private actions of each character are actually part of a bigger picture which impact the development of the conflict. In contrast to what we have seen in Jane Austen’s Emma, the public world is not kept at arm’s length, but is blended within the private world of the characters.
The romance between Morton and Edith further develops the merging of the public and private. This is evidenced by the grave public consequences of their private romance. They cannot be together because they are associated with rival groups and so each must consider how their political choices might impact their personal relationship. When faced with the possibility of Morton being put to death, Edith must place her feelings of love above her loyalty to the Kingdom in order to intervene (Scott 147). Scott uses this romance to emphasize the seriousness of politics – it is not just a nameless person facing execution but the heroine’s love interest. It is certainly a more extreme version of a typical courtship.
Through these relationships, Scott makes the point that individuals do not exist in isolation from their environment or from the greater public sphere, but are intimately connected to it. In contrast to the insular world of Austen’s Emma, Scott demonstrates that the public and private cannot be considered as separate from each other. In this way, the reader is able to better understand the political landscape as it is explored through the human story of friendship, kinship, love and loss – a story that we can all relate to.
Images sourced from: