Discussion Post: Ivanhoe
Hello, everyone! So sorry for the lateness of this post, but late is better than never, eh? Next week we’ll be reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood by the illustrious Dickens before the Classics Challenge goes on hiatus until May. I’ve got a stack of books waiting for reviews during the month of April, so there will still be plenty of posting! For now, though, let’s focus on finishing up Ivanhoe:
Ivanhoe is set in 12th-century England, but was written 600 years later, making it a work of historical fiction. Does Scott stay completely “in period,” so to speak, or is Scott open about his own time period? How does this affect the novel?
To readers used to modern historical fiction (an oxymoron if there ever was one), Scott’s style may seem unusual. Rather than immersing the reader in a fictional time period, Scott is ever-aware that he is writing a novel about 1194 while living in 1819. He does not expect the reader to ignore the fact that they, too, are living in the 19th century, and so he frequently interjects with references to how the medieval practices are different from current ones, or to “old records” which provided him with information.
There are benefits to Scott’s peculiar style. Because he recognizes that his Romantic Era readers would not necessarily be familiar with the dress of medieval yeoman, acknowledging that ignorance allows him to describe the apparel and weaponry in detail. In turn, this detail helps the reader to better imagine the characters and scenes Scott portrays.
Another benefit of Scott’s style is in favor of the modern, rather than the romantic, reader. With Scott’s references to, for example, “ladies then” and “ladies now,” the modern reader can get a general idea of how Scott feels about Romantic Era social norms. Overall, it seems as though Scott is grateful for living in what seems to be a more ‘civilized’ world than that of the Plantagenents.
Much of the novel focuses on the division of the English population between Norman and Saxon, and the difficulties that arise when these cultures clash. Has Scott taken sides in this conflict? If so, whom does he support, and can you tell why? Is there 19th or 18th-century context that might help us understand his stance?
Scott is a Saxon at heart. Most if not all of his Normans (Bois-Guilbert, the Prior, Prince John and his cronies) are either tyrannical or absolutely terrible people. Even King Richard, who has some degree of chivalry and fights with the Saxons for much of this novel, is a king who has abandoned his throne and his subjects in order to fight for glory on some far-away battlefield.
As for context in Scott’s own era, the Napoleonic War had just ended in 1814, and no doubt some Norman resentment in Ivanhoe arose as a result of residual anti-French sentiment. Scott also could have been responding to a fear of what might have happened had Wellington not been as successful as he was and had Napoleon gained power over England. In essence, the English would have been facing another “Norman” conqueror.
Scott has two major female characters, Rebecca the “Jewess” and Rowena the Saxon princess. Is his attitude toward them appropriate to the period his book is set in, or is it more 19th-century? [Note: Ivanhoe was written in 1819, in the reign of George III. Victoria didn’t ascend the throne until 1837. I apologize for the previous error.]
Okay, first, I take back what I said about Rowena being a major female character. She is barely a character, let alone a major one. Additionally, Scott rather pointedly describes her as spoiled, obstinate, and everything a 19th-century woman should not be.
Rebecca, however, is a bit more typical. Yes, she has strength of will, but she only uses it to help others such as Ivanhoe and her father. She is also a bit obstinate, but only when it comes to resisting rape at the hands of a Templar, which I think we can agree is a pretty good justification for stubbornness.
I cannot help but feel that her resistance is more Romantic than medieval, though I have no evidence to back this up; her original objection seems to be not to Bois-Guilbert himself, but on the moral grounds that they cannot marry and therefore she would rather die than become his mistress.
Additionally, her role as nurse to Ivanhoe anticipates the later tableau of the Victorian woman nursing the sick. This theme appears in much of the art and literature of the mid- to late-1800s.
Thanks for reading along! What did you all think of Ivanhoe? Let us know in the comments!