Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

To a historical novelist such as Sir Walter Scott, vivid and accurate settings were invaluable tools for summoning a past age. Nowhere in his novels is his masterful use of setting more central to theme and meaning than in Kenilworth. In this novel of love and intrigue in Elizabethan England, the moral statements dramatized by the story are strengthened by their association with either of the two places where all the major action occurs—Cumnor Place and Kenilworth. Both places are described in highly charged images and richly symbolic language. Cumnor Place is like a gilded prison. Lavishly decorated, its rooms sumptuously comfortable and filled with expensive finery, it is nevertheless designed as a place of detainment and hiding. In one vivid, eerie passage, Scott describes its specially designed oaken shutters and thick drapes, which allow the rooms to be ablaze with light without the slightest flicker showing to an observer on the outside. Leicester uses this strictly private place as the hiding place for his wife and as a place of escape from court life for himself. He travels to Cumnor Place in disguise, and while there he sheds the finery that identifies and validates him at court.

By contrast, Kenilworth is a public manor house. With the entire court and nobility preparing for the royal entertainments, it exhibits all the pomp and splendor of a regal palace; it is literally exploding with feverish activity. The atmosphere at Kenilworth is one of unreality; in his initial picture of the place, Scott describes a row of guards along the battlements who are intended to represent King Arthur’s knights—but uncannily, some are real men, some mere pasteboard figures, and it is impossible to distinguish from a distance which are which. A more sinister and frightening instance of the confusion between illusion and reality occurs when Elizabeth encounters Amy in the garden; unable to understand her replies given her supposed understanding of the situation, the queen assumes that Amy is one of the wandering actresses planted throughout the grounds to pay her homage, who has forgotten her lines in embarrassment or fright.

The two major characters—Leicester and Amy—are torn between these two places, and close beside each of them throughout their trials are their personal servants, whose relationships with them point up a major theme in the novel, that of the moral connection or interdependency between masters and their servants; a master, being responsible for his choice of servants, may be judged to a large extent by their attitudes and behavior. Therefore, when Varney interviews Michael Lambourne as a prospective employee for himself—and ultimately for Leicester—he is very pleased with Lambourne’s list of desirable qualities in a courtier’s servant, which includes “a close mouth” and “a blunt conscience.” These are Varney’s qualifications exactly, to which are added cunning, greed, and consuming ambition. The proper scheme of things is turned topsy-turvy early in the story in the symbolically prefigurative scene in which Varney persuades his master to disguise himself as a servant, while he impersonates the master. Leicester’s moral guilt is clear when he recognizes his servant’s true nature yet keeps him in service; he calls Varney a devil, but he is a devil indispensable to the earl’s ambitious plans. In contrast to Leicester’s and Varney’s standards of a good servant are those of the admirable Tressilian, who warns Wayland Smith against knavery, pointing out that transgression committed “by one attending on me diminishes my honour.” In addition to Wayland, Amy’s maidservant offers another example of a loyal servant who reflects her mistress’s worth; Janet Foster is totally devoted, even to the dangerous extreme of aiding her lady’s escape from Cumnor Place in defiance of her father, Amy’s jailer.

Scott said once that the sight of a ruined castle or relic of the medieval period made him wish to construct the life and times represented by the ruin. In Kenilworth, he demonstrates his imaginative powers in setting a vivid scene and creating compelling characters that bring the past to life.

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