Old Mortality is a representation of Robert Paterson, who lived from 1715 to 1801. Sir Walter Scott claims to have met Paterson and, according to the first chapter of Old Mortality, Scott’s Old Mortality reportedly shared many of Scott’s Covenanting memories. Readers learn nothing further of him. Old Mortality disappears from the narrative, but he remains a presence in the novel as its title character.
Old Mortality’s role as title character is symbolic, given that Scott had intended, with a degree of irony, to personify human transience, the incessant change that history represents, and the futility of attempting to resist the ravages of time. The gravestones of the Covenanters will soon erode into nothingness, destroying all memory of them, their cause, and their concerns. In attempting to resuscitate them and their history in his novel, Scott knowingly becomes a kind of Old Mortality himself.
Because of the success of his earlier novels—Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816)—Scott invested more than he should have in a country estate he called Abbotsford. Needing additional income, he changed publishers, invented a second authorial guise for himself, and began developing a series called Tales of My Landlord. This series was ostensibly written by the landlord of the Wallace Inn of Gandercleugh, a fictitious Scottish village about halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. There, a Jedediah Cleishbotham tutors the landlord’s six children. When an inn guest, Pattieson, dies, Cleishbotham finds among his papers a parcel called “Tales of My Landlord,” which Cleishbotham sells to a bookseller to pay Pattieson’s funeral expenses. In an introduction to the tales, Cleishbotham insists that he is not their writer, editor, or compiler. It was Pattieson, Cleishbotham claimed, who had prepared the tales for the press and who was therefore responsible for their departures from historical accuracy.
All this detail is yarn-spinning by Scott, given that no landlord, no Pattieson, and no Cleishbotham, other than Scott himself, had existed. Why Scott thought it necessary to adopt such an elaborate disguise has been variously explained. It was common knowledge that “the author of Waverley” and Tales of My Landlord were written by the same person. The first of these tales was The Black Dwarf (1816), one of Scott’s shorter and less successful efforts. The second was Old Mortality, which Oliver Elton was first to praise as “the swiftest, the most varied, the least alloyed, the most fully alive of all” of Scott’s novels. Critics laud Old Mortality as by far the best constructed. With The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Old Mortality is generally regarded as Scott’s finest work.
The title of the novel seems at first glance to be another of Scott’s subterfuges. Old Mortality is ostensibly a narrative by Pattieson, as edited first by Cleisbotham and then by his publishers. The narrative begins with...
(The entire section is 1248 words.)