Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2194
First published: 1823
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: Early nineteenth century
Francis Tyrrel, a young Englishman posing as an itinerant painter
The Earl of Etherington, an English nobleman
Clara Mowbray, the daughter of a Scottish laird
John Mowbray, her brother
Mr. Touchwood, an elderly world traveler
Meg Dods, a mistress of the inn at old St. Ronan’s
Lady Penelope Penfeather, a society leader at St. Ronan’s Well
Captain Harry Jekyl, Etherington’s friend
Meg Dods, the proprietress, welcomed Francis Tyrrel, a young Englishman, to her inn at old St. Ronan’s, after she had recognized him as a former visitor to the village and not a traveling salesman. She gladly answered his questions about the Mowbray family, telling him that John had inherited his father’s title of Laird of St. Ronan’s and now spent much of his time gambling at the Well, the fashionable watering place whose growth had caused the old town to fall into ruins. Clara Mowbray, reported to be a little strange, lived with her brother.
Tyrrel saw these old acquaintances a few weeks later when he was invited to tea by Lady Penelope Penfeather, who was delighted to learn that an artist had come into the neighborhood. Her hope that he would be an asset to her social circle was thwarted, for she found him commonplace and was offended that he presumed to sit by her at dinner, far above what she considered his rightful position. Tyrrel was angered to discover that his activities had been the subject of a bet between Sir Bingo Binks and John Mowbray, and only a familiar voice in his ear stopped him from coming to blows with the boorish Sir Bingo.
Leaving the Well, Tyrrel waited in a nearby wood for Clara Mowbray, whose voice he had recognized. When they met, they alluded to mysterious and dreadful past events that the young man immediately realized had unhinged the girl’s mind. Controlling her emotions enough to ask that they meet as friends, Clara invited Tyrrel to a party she and her brother were planning to give at Shaws Castle.
Sir Bingo smarted under Tyrrel’s supposed insult. Encouraged by his friend Captain MacTurk, he sent a challenge to Tyrrel, who accepted it and agreed to a time for an encounter. When Sir Bingo and MacTurk appeared at the appointed place, however, they waited in vain. Although a public statement was issued at the Well to raise Sir Bingo’s status and blacken Tyrrel’s name, the young Englishman failed to come forward to defend his reputation.
Upset by her lodger’s disappearance and convinced that Tyrrel had been murdered by his dueling opponents, Meg Dods went to consult the sheriff at a nearby town. Her attention was diverted from Tyrrel by the entrance into the sheriff’s office of Mr. Touchwood, who told her that he was thoroughly disgusted with the foolish society at the Well, where he had been staying. When Mrs. Dods promised him better service at her own inn, he agreed to move there.
Once he had given detailed instructions about the angle of his bed and the cooking of his food, Mr. Touchwood set out to make new acquaintances. First, he sought out the Reverend Josiah Cargill, an absentminded scholar, but a kind and charitable man. Mr. Cargill, generally vague about the affairs of his parishioners, became unexpectedly agitated when, during a discussion of the Mowbrays’ forthcoming fete, he heard the rumor that Clara was to wed a young nobleman. He agreed to join his friend, Mr. Touchwood, for the party and insisted that he must talk to the girl.
The rumored bridegroom, the Earl of Etherington, had been welcomed at St. Ronan’s Well with special cordiality because of the wounds he claimed he had received at the hands of a highwayman. John Mowbray often gambled with Etherington during his convalescence and would have lost his own fortune and the money he had borrowed from his sister if the earl had not deliberately allowed his opponent to win. He then asked John’s permission to marry his sister and explained that under the will of an eccentric relative, a large fortune would be his if he wed a Mowbray. John gave his consent with the provision that Clara must agree to the match.
The mystery of Tyrrel’s disappearance was partially explained in a letter that Etherington wrote to a friend, Captain Harry Jekyl. The artist and the earl, bitter enemies who were obviously connected in some way, had met in a wood near St. Ronan’s. There they had fought a duel in which Tyrrel had been injured. Etherington said that he knew nothing of Tyrrel’s present whereabouts.
Mr. Touchwood and Mr. Cargill went together to Shaws Castle. They were entertained there with tableaux from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Etherington had chosen the part of Bottom, played in an ass’s head; it was later made obvious that his object was to prevent Clara from seeing his face. After the play, the earl was addressed by the minister as Valentine Bulmer, but the nobleman vigorously denied this name and left abruptly. Mr. Cargill, who had just spoken to Clara and urged her not to sin by considering marriage, was greatly puzzled; knowing his own absentminded nature, however, he did not pursue the matter further.
Etherington again postponed a meeting with Clara by leaving the banquet before she arrived, but he sent word to John the next morning that he wished to meet her that day. When Clara told her brother that she would not see him or any other man who came to propose marriage, John left her alone to look for the bearer of an anonymous note which declared that Etherington had usurped his title. Just then, the earl entered Clara’s room; she screamed as she recognized him and asked why he had broken his promise never to see her again. He answered that the fact that she had spoken to Tyrrel absolved him of his promise.
Etherington’s ensuing conversation with John and his second letter to Captain Jekyl explained the complicated relationship between himself, Clara, and Tyrrel. The two young men were half brothers, both claiming to be their father’s legitimate son. At one time, they had been sent to Scotland, where the future earl took the name of Valentine Bulmer. When Tyrrel fell in love with Clara, the two planned a clandestine marriage with Bulmer’s help. Meanwhile, Bulmer had learned of the strange bequest hinging upon his marriage with a Mowbray, and he treacherously substituted himself for the bridegroom in the ceremony performed by Mr. Cargill. When Tyrrel stopped the newlyweds a short distance from the church and fought with his half brother, Bulmer fell under the wheels of his carriage and was seriously injured. Clara had returned home, horrified, and the two young men, both still in their teens, vowed never to see her again. The old earl died soon afterward and, having made no effort to acknowledge Francis Tyrrel’s legitimacy, named Etherington as his heir.
Soon after Etherington’s interview with Clara, Tyrrel returned to the inn, where he was befriended by Mr. Touchwood. When Captain Jekyl came there to try to persuade him to soften his hatred for his brother, Tyrrel showed his visitor a list of documents that proved his legal title to the earldom. He offered to withhold this evidence, however, if Etherington would agree to leave Clara alone for the rest of her life. Captain Jekyl reported this interview to the earl, who denied that such proofs existed. As soon as his friend had gone, however, he plotted with his valet to steal the documents from the post office, thus substantiating Tyrrel’s claim that his brother already knew about the papers.
By coincidence, Lady Penelope led the earl to the deathbed of the one person who could prove his treachery conclusively. She was Hannah Irwin, Clara’s former maid, who had helped him carry out his plot. Etherington kept Lady Penelope from hearing much of the dying woman’s confession, but he was disturbed by the knowledge that his trickery could so easily be disclosed. His consternation increased when the stolen packet was found to contain only copies of the vital documents. In danger of losing his earldom, he was more anxious than ever to acquire the estate that would come with Clara. He gambled again with John Mowbray and won heavily enough to make the young man agree to persuade Clara to accept marriage to a husband she detested.
John first confronted Clara with the ugly rumors about her character, reports spread by Lady Penelope, who based her gossip on Hannah’s half-heard confession. Then he literally forced the poor girl to swear to submit to marriage with the earl. He left her, trembling, in her room and went to greet an unexpected visitor, Mr. Touchwood, who identified himself as the son of the man who had left the estate coveted by Etherington and the senior partner in the law firm that held the documents proving Francis Tyrrel’s legitimacy. Mr. Touchwood had pieced together the complicated affair between Clara and the two young men and told John the whole story, partly extracted from the earl’s servant, Solmes.
Ironically, this revelation came too late. When John went to rouse his sister and tell her that he at last knew the truth, he found that she had fled. Her nightly wandering had led her first to Mr. Cargill’s house, where Hannah Irwin had been moved by Mr. Touchwood. There she heard Hannah ask for forgiveness before she went on, distractedly, to Tyrrel’s room at the inn. She collapsed after begging him to flee with her and died the next morning under the care of Meg Dods. Tyrrel rushed out to take vengeance on the man responsible for the tragedy, only to learn from Mr. Touchwood that John Mowbray had preceded him and had already killed the earl.
In flight to England, John sent back word that the whole town of St. Ronan’s Well should be pulled down. He gradually developed habits of economy, and it was generally believed that he would eventually inherit Mr. Touchwood’s estate. Mr. Touchwood had tried to make a protege of Francis Tyrrel, but the latter said that he had lived too much of his life too young and wanted only a quiet future. Refusing to claim his title, he went to the Continent, where he was reported to have joined a Moravian mission. Mr. Touchwood, who might have forestalled the final tragedy if he had not been so anxious to work everything out himself, lived on, alone, making empty plans and increasing his fortune.
ST. RONAN’S WELL was not favorably received by the critics of its day; in fact, following publication of the novel, Sir Walter Scott’s reputation fell considerably. The unpopularity of the novel may be partly attributed to the fact that the scene of ST. RONAN’S WELL is not Scott’s customary historical setting but rather a contemporary setting, a fashionable watering place. This change no doubt upset many of his readers. In an introduction attached to ST. RONAN’S WELL, Scott defended the setting of his book on the neoclassical basis that it helped him in the imitation of life. The setting, he argued, allowed him to portray contemporary figures. Unfortunately, this argument was not persuasive.
Another problem in the novel was that Scott was forced by his publisher to eliminate a key section. Clara, the aristocratic lady, had been seduced prior to the opening scene of the book. Despite the fact, however, that the seduction was only reported and not described, Scott’s publisher balked. Scott is reported to have objected that if the woman had not been an aristocrat but had been a working girl, the publisher would never have called for a change. Nevertheless, Scott surrendered to the pressure and rewrote more than twenty pages of ST. RONAN’S WELL in order to try to account for the change in motivation. He was not entirely successful, and his “imitation of life” suffered.
There were also other weaknesses apparent in ST. RONAN’S WELL. Since Scott did not choose a historical theme, there was little historical conflict to give resonance to the plot. Thus, the conflict between the brothers, the death of Clara, and the disguises and intrigues seem nakedly melodramatic. Furthermore, although Scott was able to draw some interesting and accurate Scottish and English types, he was not able to portray that variety of social types to which his audience had become accustomed in the Waverley series.
On the positive side, however, Scott’s use of dialect in ST. RONAN’S WELL is less forced and unnatural than in the historical romances. Meg Dods, for example, speaks a fluent Scots, interesting and readable. Since she was a contemporary, Scott did not have to make her language “poetic” or lace it with archaic, figurative expressions.