Final Years of a Full Life: Sir Walter Scott

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives
January 21 through May 22, 2011
Audio: 

 

Portrait of Sir Walter ScottFinal Years of a Full Life: Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). Sir Walter Scott spent the last years of his life furiously writing himself out of debt and resisting the "cold sinkings of the heart" that periodically dogged him.

About the Diary

"I am enamourd of my Journal. I wish the zeal may last." Scott made this entry the day after opening his new blank book for the first time. "Behold I have a handsome locked volume such as might serve for a Lady's album." He took up the practice of daily personal writing in 1825, at age fifty-four, perhaps inspired by the prolific example of Samuel Pepys, whose diary had just been deciphered and published for the first time. Scott regretted having begun the journal so late in life and resolved to create a record, not only for himself, but also for "my family and the public," to capture the memory of his days. He cited Byron as the model for his style—"throwing aside all pretence to regularity and order and marking down events just as they occurd to recollection."

Scott's zeal for the practice did, indeed, last—until the final months of his life. Over a period of six years, the journal became a crucial outlet for the feelings of despair—the "cold sinkings of the heart"—that had agonized him from the time of his youth. "Is it the body brings it on the mind or the mind inflicts it upon the body?" he wondered, concluding that the two are inseparable: "I fancy I might as well enquire whether the fiddle or the fiddlestick makes the tune." Scott found that the only effective remedy for depression was physical exertion. "Fighting with this fiend is not always the best was to conquer him," he wrote. "I have always found exercize and the open air better than reasoning." His long walks often led to dramatic emotional recovery: "The freshness of the air, the singing of the birds, the beautiful aspect of nature, the size of the venerable trees, gave me all a delightful feeling this morning. It seemd there was pleasure even in living and breathing without anything else."

The famous Sir Walter seemed to know all his prominent contemporaries, from Lord Byron ("I believe that he embellished his own amours considerably") to Lord Buchan ("a person whose immense vanity bordering upon insanity obscured or rather eclipsed very considerable talents"), and he read voraciously, commenting on the works of Jane Austen ("What a pity such a gifted creature died so early") and William Wordsworth ("there is a freshness, vivacity and spring about [his] mind"). Reports of visits with literary luminaries and heads of state stand side by side in Scott's journal with accounts of the everyday country life he passionately preferred: "I wish for a sheep's head and a whiskey-toddy against all the French cookery and Champagne in the world."

Scott began his journal shortly before the country-wide financial crisis that forced him to spend his final years writing himself furiously out of debt. "I am become a sort of writing Automaton," he noted, and his daily entries indeed reveal an astonishing creative stamina. A series of strokes in the early 1830s slowly deprived him of control over his speech and handwriting but not of his awareness of his own decline. "I am not the man that I was," he admits, finally acknowledging that "The plough is coming to the end of the furrow."

Image Caption: 

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), engraved by by M.J. Dansforth after a painting by C.R. Leslie

Cover of the diary of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), 1825–32. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, ca. 1900.