Tom Toremans on ‘The Ghostly Afterlives of Walter Scott’

That authors might experience ‘afterlives’ after their deaths, and that literary works might experience ‘afterlives’ after publication, is a familiar concept. Biographies, studies, and museums; sequels, revivals, and adaptations: authors and their texts might be revisited and ‘resurrected’ in many ways years after their physical and popular demise. Yet, the rather disconcerting thing about the ‘Ghostly Afterlives of Walter Scott’ with which Professor Toremans is concerned, is that that they occurred during Scott’s lifetime. These ‘afterlives’ took the form of pseudo-translations; works which claimed to be translations of novels by Scott, yet were entirely original compositions. In exuberantly claiming Scott’s authorship, such works subjected Scott to an act of authorial ventriloquism, rendering him responsible for writing events, characters and subjects in which his pen had no part.

According to Toremans, France and Germany were the most prolific in the production of pseudo-translations, with Germany alone producing sixteen between 1822 and 1827. Of particular interest, and the focus of Toremans’ research, is a novel which appeared in Germany in 1823. Walladmor was published with an extremely promising title for readers of the Waverley Novels as it claimed to be a work ‘freely translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott’. Published in the height of Scott’s fame as the most celebrated living novelist, the mere mention of his name upon the title page guaranteed immense interest in the work. So too might Scott’s own tremendously prolific rate of production have offered reason enough for the publication of Walladmor, the third ‘Scott’ novel of four published in one year, to remain unquestioned. Yet the work did provoke a great deal of critical debate in Britain as to its authenticity, attracting significant attention from Thomas de Quincey, who would in turn translate Alexis’ work ‘freely…from the German into English’, accompanied with an extremely engaging editorial preface of his own. It was however not until the second edition of the work, published in 1825, Willibald Alexis (pseudonym of Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Häring) was revealed as the real author of Walladmor, an original novel.

As Toremans’ talk made explicit, what is particularly interesting about Walladmor is that Alexis engaged in precisely the sorts of ironic narrative, authorial and paratextual play in which Scott himself repeatedly indulged. Like Scott so frequently would in letters to and from antiquarian correspondents, Alexis offered his readers an editorial introduction in the form of the ‘German Translator’s Dedication to Sir Walter Scott, Bart.’. His plot follows a young German author, the appropriately named Bertram, travel to Wales (when shipwrecked upon his way to England) in order to gather materials for a novel, to be written in the style of Walter Scott. Amidst plots of love and legitimacy, Bertram meets the mysterious character of Thomas Malburne in several opportune and strange circumstances. It is Malburne who reveals Bertram’s identity as the Walladmor heir, yet offers this information in exchange for Bertram’s promise not to publish the novel he has been writing, on the grounds that Malburne himself would publish it. Having exchanged several passages from their respective works, Malburne (as one might have suspected) reveals himself to be ‘the Great Unknown’, author of the Waverley Novels.

In such palpable references to Scott and Scott’s novels, Alexis’ work might be easily discernible as the work of an avid Scott reader; able to be dismissed as merely a literary hoax undertaken by an enthusiastic disciple of the Scottish novelist. Yet there is more to Alexis’ work then mere literary fraudulence. The work was produced in response to a demand for a new Scott novel on the German literary market, when no such novel was available. Alexis had therefore to successfully imitate and replicate the types of narratorial and paratextual characteristics employed by Scott, in order for the work to pass as a Scott novel. His plot in Walladmor was far weaker than his ironic play- a fact made most explicit in de Quincey’s return. Rather, Alexis’ especial intrigue as a pseudo-translator lies in his ability to replicate and engage in the types of authorial games that Scott himself played. That Alexis was successful in doing so might be ascertained in the fact that, as late as 1858, Walladmor was still included in a set of Waverley Novels offered by Dutch booksellers Kruseman, Haarlem. Furthermore, as Toremans suggests, such an ‘afterlife’ as Walladmor might be regarded as being one of Scott’s own making. In his persistent anonymity and cloaks of authorial identity; in his complicated editorial prefaces and antiquarian frameworks, Scott invited the type of mystery which Alexis, if only for a time, successfully imitated (for, although Scott’s authorship was in reality widely known, it was not publicly verified until 1827). Walladmor illuminated in ironic fashion the issues inherent in authenticity and authorship; especially in conjunction with the matter of translation. That Scott responded to the novel in his introduction to The Betrothed (1825), his Welsh novel that Walladmor so very nearly threatened, demonstrates his awareness of and engagement with Alexis’ ironic play. Ultimately, however, by attributing the work to his anti-hero of The Antiquary (1816) Dousterswivel, and opening The Betrothed with historical account of Wales, Scott reclaimed both authorship and authenticity as his own, as the legitimate ‘Author of Waverley’.

Report by Lucy Linforth, PhD student in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Tom Toremans is Assistant Professor of KU Leuven, where he teaches English Literature and literary theory. He is the founding member of the Centre for Reception Studies (CERES).

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