“Widowed wife, and married maid,
Betrothed, betrayer, and betrayed.”
Most of Europe came uneasily together for that First Crusade hinted at in Walter Scott’s “Count Robert of Paris”. Scott’s “The Betrothed,” ( first in a diptych called “Tales of the Crusaders,” along with “The Talisman”) jumps ahead almost a century to the eve of the Third Crusade against Saladin, sometime around 1187. But the setting isn’t Anatolia or Jerusalem: “The Betrothed” is very much a local affair, largely taking part in one British castle and its outskirts.
Sir Raymond Berenger has a beautiful 16-year old daughter, Eveline, who attracts the attention of a neighboring Welsh warlord. The warlord proposes marriage, is rejected, and then his forces proceed to lay brutal siege to the Berenger’s castle. Eveline makes a vow to the Virgin to marry the first man who rescues her from the hopeless situation. In comes Constable Hugo de Lacy to save the day, and Eveline dutifully makes herself available to him. They become the titular betrothed. The problem? Hugo is much older, a rough soldier who is about to depart for the Third Crusades and won’t be able to consummate the bridals until his return. Will pretty young Eveline remain faithful to her religious vows for two long, hormonal years of enforced teenage celibacy? Especially after temptation surfaces in the shape of the Constable’s heroic, handsome, age-appropriate nephew Damian?
Despite the umbrella title of “Tales of the Crusaders,” the novel at its heart deals not with the struggles of Christendom and Islam, but with an equally vicious, divisive fight that probably mattered more to Scott: the one between Anglo-Saxons, Britons, Normans, Danes, Welsh, Scottish, Flemish, Irish, and even Jewish and Italian immigrants.
The centuries have created the illusion of a unified, ethnically and “racially” homogeneous Great Britain to the distanced American eye, but of course many in Ireland and Scotland still have a different story to tell. The violently racist distrust with which all these relative neighbors saw each other at the beginning of the last millennium has a lot to teach our modern world, which persists in replicating the idiocies of the past.
Here’s a sadly relevant exchange between the conservative (Saxon) crone Ermengarde, and the more progressive heroine, Eveline, (somewhat abridged for clarity.)
“May not my Flemish maid Rose and my Norman companion Gillian remain in the apartment with me for this night?” said Eveline.
“Fleming! Norman!” repeated Ermengarde, angrily; “Is thy household thus made up? The Flemings are the cold palsy to Britain, the Normans the burning fever.”
“But the poor Welsh will add,” said Rose, whose resentment began to surpass her awe for the ancient Saxon dame, “that the Anglo- Saxons were the original disease, and resemble a wasting pestilence.”
“Thou art too bold, sweetheart,” said the Lady Ermengarde; “and yet… there is wit in thy words. Saxon, Dane, and Norman have rolled like successive billows over the land, each having strength to subdue what they lacked wisdom to keep. But when shall it be otherwise? We must distrust our enemies!”
“It shall be otherwise when Saxon, and Briton, and Norman, and Fleming,” answered Rose, boldly, “shall learn to call themselves by only one name, and think themselves alike children of the land.”
WISDOM! And also a reminder that despite the general “damsel-in-distress” role of Eveline, she’s quite capable of standing for herself. Scott’s female characters are of a par with his males in intellectual strength and vivacity, and always make a feint at physical courage as well, grabbing swords and readying to fight with the boys – even if dashing knights come at the last minute to talk them out of rushing into manly battle.
As for “The Betrothed”‘s emotional dilemma: Anyone who’s older than 6 will foresee the eventual ending as soon as Damian meets Eveline, but seeing true love triumph on the last page after some knotty plotting always leaves a sucker’s smile on my face.
One of Scott’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson, writes thusly:
“‘The Betrothed’ was clearly composed in a somnolent if not stertorous condition, and would score high marks in a competition to decide which was the dreariest and stupidest book ever produced by a writer of genius.”
Ouch and uncalled for. But considering all the enjoyment I extracted from most of the novel, I find that reassuring: It means I’m into Walter Scott’s oeuvre for the long run. If this and “Count Robert” are some of his worst, I can’t wait for the best. Critics aside, “The Betrothed” was quite popular upon release. It was used by Giuseppe Verdi, along with Bulwer Lytton’s “Harold,” as a source for his opera about Crusaders, “Aroldo.”