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No Muckle on the Spule-bane -
  The Bride of Lammermoor

June 25, 2024

The Bride of Lammermoor is an 1819 novel by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott.  The novel is the basis for Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor which Opera Orlando performed in April 2024.  I wrote a whole long thing about the opera here.  


I really liked the opera and it made me curious about the source material.  So here's some thoughts on the book, both in comparison to the opera and on its own merits. 


Short summary:  Book: Good.  Opera Adaptation: Excellent.  Book as companion to opera: Really interesting. 

Book v Opera: Dawn of Adaptation


Note: If I refer to a character by their Italianized name (e.g. Lucia rather than Lucy) I'm talking specifically about their opera version. 


Note 2: I'm not sure this section will make much sense unless you know the opera or have read my previous post on it.


Character Differences


The opera cut out a lot of the book's characters, the most obvious being Lucy's parents Sir William Ashton and Lady Ashton.  The Marquis of A-, a Machiavellian politician manipulating basically everyone, is also absent.  Lot's of other minor characters have been dropped.


The opera's main antagonist, Lucia's brother Enrico, is an extremely minor character in the novel.  He's just her spoiled and annoying teenage brother and he has nothing to do with the events of the book.  The person who pressures Lucy to break off her engagement to Edgar is the, let's say "formidable," Lady Ashton.  The opera's Enrico is an amalgamation of her, Sir William, and Lucy's older brother, Captain Sholto.  


Lucia's doomed husband Arturo, barely a presence in the show, is Bucklaw in the novel, who is a pretty major character introduced early on as an ally of Edgar.




While most of the events in the opera are from the book the entire thing is framed slightly differently.  The main protagonist of the book is definitely Edgar and he and his servants get far more page time than anyone else.  This is in contrast to the opera where the narrative point of view is bent towards the Ashtons.


The conflict between Edgar and the Ashtons has a different character than in the novel as well and has been somewhat depersonalized.  There's a lot of political maneuverings in the book and both the Ashtons and Edgar feel more at the mercy of larger forces beyond their control, with both, for example, being continuously manipulated by the Marquis of A- who is technically Edgar's kinsman.  


Most of Edgardo's dramatic lines about his enmity to the Ashtons are present in book, but they take on a different cast since more of the actual conflict is laid out.  At heart it's a real estate dispute, with Sir William Ashton having legally acquired Edgar's family estate prior to the start of the story.  Edgar does repeatedly talk about how Sir William Ashton murdered his father, as he does in the opera, but given we know what actually happened, it's obvious that it's metaphorical in a way that is not apparent in the opera.  Watching Lucia, I thought maybe Enrico did literally murder Edgardo's father but in the book, though Sir William's legal and political wranglings left Edgar's father in poverty, the man died of natural causes.


The emotional trigger that causes Edgar to swear vengeance is his father's funeral at Castle Ravenswood (now owned by Sir William Ashton) where a Presbyterian priest with approval from Sir William tried to interrupt the service by the Ravenswoods's Episcopal clergyman.


The book is also a lot more comic than the opera, which has almost no levity in it.  There are parts of the book that are legitimately and intentionally funny.


Novel Plot Summary


The novel starts by laying out the background of the conflict between the Ravenwoods and the Ashtons, and the plot kicks off with Edgar saving Lucy and Sir William from a rampaging bull.  (In the opera, Edgardo saved Lucia from a bear prior to the story starting.)  Edgar returns home and makes the acquaintance of Bucklaw who crashes at Wolf's Crag tower with him for a while.


Sir William, having recognizing Edgar, begins to take steps to reconcile with him, both out of gratitude and for self-serving political reasons.  The political mess of the novel is complicated and the details are not all that important but the take home message is that everyone's position at court is unstable and being noncommittal and attempting to create a stable of potential allies is very prudent.


Edgar reciprocates, both out of appreciation for Sir William's patronage and because of his attraction to Lucy, and the temperature of the conflict decreases significantly.  Edgar stays with the Ashtons at Castle Ravenswood and after making eyes at each other for a while, he and Lucy get a moment alone where they declare their love and get engaged.  (More on this later.)


Sir William's fortunes at court take a bad turn and Edgar's kinsman the Marquis is ascendant, putting the Ashtons's possessions, including their ownership of the Ravenswood estates, at risk.   Into this comes Lady Ashton, arriving from Edinburgh for her first appearance.  Offended by the presence of Edgar Ravenswood, she insults him and throws him out and overrides Lucy's engagement, pushing for her to marry Bucklaw, newly rich via inheritance.


Edgar, carrying out orders from the Marquis, goes abroad for more than a year while Lady Ashton convinces / browbeats Lucy into believing Edgar has abandoned her.  Lucy signs the marriage contract with Bucklaw and Edgar bursts into the castle to confront her, just as in the opera.  Lucy is steamrolled by Lady Ashton and Edgar leaves.  


On the wedding night, Lucy stabs Bucklaw, goes mad, and soon dies.  Bucklaw survives and leaves Scotland.  Edgar shows up at Lucy's funeral and her older brother Sholto challenges him to a duel on the sands under Wolf's Crag tower.   On his way to the duel, Edgar and his horse are swallowed up by the dangerous quicksand on the beach.  The end.  


Excision, Emphasis, and Context


As is not surprising, the opera is very streamlined compare to the book.  The book narrative has a lot of detours, especially focusing on Edgar's butler Caleb and his hijinks with trying to make Wolf's Crag look more affluent than it is and his contentious relationship with commoners of nearby Wolf's Hope.  Caleb takes up a lot of page real estate, but is ultimately pretty unimportant to the actual plot.  The novel's political machinations are also mostly absent in the opera, which is probably a wise choice as they likely wouldn't be very compelling to sing arias about.


Structurally, the book is also very different.  The climax, Edgar's confrontation with Lucy after the marriage contract and her stabbing her husband, happens incredibly late in the novel.  I'm talking like 10 pages from the end.  Her mad "scene" in the book lasts about a page and she only says one sentence before dying.  (More on that later, too.)   In the opera this all happens a bit more than halfway through and the fallout from Lucia murdering Arturo, the "Il dolce suono' scene, is like 20 minutes of a 2.5 hour opera.  It's absolutely the centerpiece of the show and it packs a huge emotional wallop, so it was surprising to have it feel so perfunctory in the book.


Edgar's death in the quicksand also is pretty anticlimactic compared to his suicide in the show, a contrast even more stark considering you don't even see it happen.  Sholto is watching Edgar ride up from a distance and then he's just gone and no one ever finds his body.  The narration isn't even in Edgar's point of view.  


One other thing I think is interesting is the difference in reasoning behind blocking Lucia/Lucy's engagement to Edgardo/Edgar.  In the opera, Enrico wants her to make a political marriage with Arturo to boost the family's waning fortunes, with a side of spite for an old family enemy whom he does not trust.  In the book Lady Ashton's motivation is almost pure contempt for the Ravenwoods.  Given the delicate political situation they are in and the uptick of Edgar's prospects after the Marquis's ascendancy, an alliance with Edgar might actually have been the best political marriage the Ashtons could get and it's one that Sir William would probably have been amenable to, if he wasn't so terrified of his wife.


A lot of the smaller stuff I thought was kind of strange in the plotting of the opera made a lot more sense in the book, both due to the differences in setup and the added context a novel can provide.


For example, Lucy's insistence to Edgar that they keep their engagement secret was really defensible in the novel, where she wanted to delay the announcement until after Edgar had met her mother and had the chance to win her over.  In the opera, since the obstructor was Enrico who already knew Edgardo, the proposed delay was just because.... um...shrug?


Also the opening scene of Act 2 where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel is kind of odd in the opera, as nothing ever comes of it since Edgardo kills himself after Lucia dies.  It was kind of a weird unresolved plot thread.  In the novel, Lucy's brother Sholto challenges Edgar to a duel after Lucy's funeral and it's on the way there that Edgar dies.  Considering how Edgar's fate is changed in the opera, I wonder why the authors thought they needed to include that scene and put it where it is, considering it doesn't have any impact on what follows.


The Book 


The Bride of Lammermoor is a pretty easy read and it's not very long, being just over 200 pages.  It's a little digressive in that it spends a lot of time with the common folk who aren't very important to the actual plot.  As I said in my Moby Dick essay, I personally have "a rather high reading tolerance for a narration just kind of dicking around, but your mileage may very."


And I must mention, while it is generally a quick read, some of the commoners, in particular Caleb who you spend a lot of time with, speak in really strong Scottish brogues that are written in an almost Dickensian eye dialect and they can be *very* hard to parse.  I have more to say about this later, but here's a small taste from Caleb:


"And gude right ye suld gang away as a true man, and so ye shall." (Chapter 8)




The Framing Narrative(s?)


The beginning of this book is ...strange.  In the plot summary I said the novel starts with the description of the conflict between the Ashtons and the Ravenwoods.   This isn't quite true.  There's actually a framing narrative, possibly two.

There's an introduction that tells how this story is the tale of Janet Dalrymple, forced to marry David Dunbar despite being secretly engaged to Lord Rutherford.  She stabbed Dunbar on her wedding night and then died two weeks later.  Whether this story is true or folklore, I honestly can't really tell.  The references to it online are all kind of circular and most refer to the Bride of Lammermoor, so I don't know if these references are saying the story is true because the Introduction to the book says it is.  The introduction spoils the entire plot and even reveals the only thing Lucy says after she stabs Bucklaw.  


Then Chapter 1 starts in first person with a long introduction of a character named Dick Tinto, a struggling artist.  It becomes clear that the narrator is not Walter Scott, but a character named Peter Pattieson, a long time friend of Tinto.  Pattieson is a writer and he relates some his conversations with Tinto about the quality of his own writing.


In one rather funny aside, Pattieson shares an extremely long dialog section between him and Tinto where Tinto criticizes how much pointless dialog Pattieson includes in his narratives.  The characters talk in extremely long and kind of clunky paragraphs, with Pattieson initially making the argument that character is revealed through dialog and then conceding that Tinto is right and he should put less of it in his work.  After he says this, the amount of dialog in this chapter reduces immensely.  It's very funny in a sort of Charlie Kaufman meta joke kind of way.


Pattieson then goes on to say that Tinto had spent some time in Lammermoor hills and compiled notes about a tragic story from the castle there, which Pattieson has decided to compile and write down in memory of his now dead friend.


This is very weird, especially given that we just had an introductory chapter talking about the Dalrymple legend.  Was that introduction Walter Scott the author speaking?  Or was it supposed to be Peter Pattieson the narrator?  The Dalrymple family estates, from what i can tell, aren't in the Lammermoor hills, meaning the tale Tinto heard at Lammermoor isn't diegetically the same as the one from the introduction.


So was the introduction intended to be part of the text or was it added later as a true introduction external to the narrative, similar to how critical editions of classics have essays at the beginning generally spoiling the entire thing?  Did the initial publication of The Bride of Lammermoor include this introduction?


I honestly don't know, and this being a relatively minor novel, I can't really figure it out.  If the introduction is part of the text, why not just make it the framing narrative rather than giving all the details and then layering another framing narrative with different names attached?  


Another weird thing is how much Chapter 1 reminded me of the first chapter of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) which I read in January.   That book starts with a very long first person framing device of a customs house agent who, after like 35 pages of describing the customs house, finds the scarlet letter and some really bare bones notes of what happened with it more than 70 years earlier.  The unnamed narrator, a writer by vocation, decides to write his own version of the events, explicitly acknowledging that he's going to have to make up some details.  When I read it, I had a lot of the same questions I had when I later read The Bride of Lammermoor.   Why the framing narrative?  Why self-consciously acknowledge that a fictional narrator is just making this up from another fictional character's notes?  From a plot and theme perspective both The Scarlet Letter and The Bride of Lammermoor work just fine without the first chapter, and neither the customs house agent nor Peter Pattieson come back at the end to wrap up.


I read these two books within three months of each other through sheer coincidence; it's weird to see such a similar and strange opening chapter in both novels so close together.  


From what I can find online, it seems Nathaniel Hawthorne was a big fan of Sir Walter Scott and told his (Hawthorne's) sister in 1820 that he had read all of Scott's novels except The Abbot, which had just been published.  Recall that Lammermoor was from 1819, so if Hawthorne wasn't exaggerating, he definitely read it.  Is The Scarlet Letter's unusual opening an homage to The Bride of Lammermoor? 


Honestly, I kind of hope so.  It would be like accidentally stumbling on a fun historical Easter Egg. 


Or maybe I'm a lunatic about a week away from a conspiracy board.




After seeing Lucia di Lammermoor, I wondered if Lucia was as passive in the novel as she was on stage.  And the answer is "no."


She's way, way, way more passive in the book.


At times she feels like barely a character and I do believe this was deliberate on Scott's part.  I think a quick examination of Lucy's first appearance in Chapter 3 gives a hint at the author's dramatic intent.


Lucy is first introduced when her father hears her singing.   After she finishes there's a rather long description of her that focuses on her passivity, describing her as being:


of a temper soft and yielding, who, mixed with stronger and more ardent minds, is borne along by the will of others, with as little power of opposition as the flower which is flung into a running stream. (Chapter 3).


The narration relates a rather dismissive assessment from her mother, who is not physically present.  Lady Ashton has 9 lines and 220 words of dialog.  Then Lucy's father enters her chambers and asks her this:


"So, Lucy," said her father, entering as her song was ended, "does your musical philosopher teach you to contemn the world before you know it? That is surely something premature. Or did you but speak according to the fashion of fair maidens, who are always to hold the pleasures of life in contempt till they are pressed upon them by the address of some gentle knight?"


The text does not give Lucy any lines in response, merely saying in summary:


Lucy blushed, disclaimed any inference respecting her own choice being drawn from her selection of a song, and readily laid aside her instrument at her father's request that she would attend him in his walk.


Lucy and Sir William take a walk in the forest and soon encounter Norman, the forester.  Sir William asks him a rather banal question and the two have a full scene of dialog with Norman saying 17 lines and 309 words.


Lucy is the title character and one of the drivers of the entire plot but the narration actively dodges giving her a voice during her introduction yet immediately gives long speaking parts to one character who is not even present and one incredibly unimportant character we will never see again. And at least 75% of Lucy's lines in her first chapter are her explaining to her father who another character is.


This is really revealing, especially given Chapter 1's whole thing about how prone the narrator is to writing too much dialog for his characters. 


In the 16 chapters that Lucy speaks in, there are only 5 where she says more than 5 lines.  In the two chapters that are the dramatic climax of the novel, Chapter 32 where she is confronted by Edgar after signing the marriage contract and Chapter 33 where she stabs her husband, goes mad, and then dies, she has four total lines, one of which is "Yes."  She speaks 22 words in these pivotal chapters, and says only "So, you have ta'en up your bonny bridegroom?" after stabbing Bucklaw.


No other characters, even the minor ones, get so little dialog.  Lady Ashton, who does not even appear until about 70% through the book and is only present in four chapters says almost six times as many words as Lucy does in those chapters.  (1438 vs 256 and that doesn't even count her in absentia lines in Chapter 3).


The fact that this erasure is so singular to Lucy and so obvious that it even occurred to me to count her lines is telling.  


And the above doesn't even take into account how many times the narrator just gives a third person summary of what she replied to a spoken line from another character, or how many of her lines are just conversational connective tissue or, like in Chapter 3, pure exposition.


In my piece on Lucia, I referred to Lucia as "an object to be pitied or fought over."  I don't think she even rises to that level in the novel.  (As I mentioned above, the book's conflict between Edgar and the Ashton's is less personalized than in the opera.)  


Pretty much every other character in this novel, major or minor, is strongly characterized. But not Lucy.


The opera gave me more of a sense that no one was listening to her, but in the book she's either blown around by the will of others or just not present, even when she's standing there.  Some of that, admittedly, is because in the opera, even if Lucia has no lines for a while, she is still visible on stage, where a book character can completely fade if they're not the focus of the narration. 


Lucy's timidity and mutability in the face of stronger characters, traits which none of the characters nor the narrative dispute, actually makes Edgar come across as less of a dick when he thinks she's gone back on her word by signing the wedding contract.   In the opera Edgardo just seems like he's being incredibly self-centered and unempathetic to what was just inflicted on her.  In the book, this possibility occurs to him way earlier that "so ductile as Lucy's might, in absence or difficulties, be induced, by the entreaties or influence of those around her, to renounce the engagement she had formed." (Chapter 21)  So in that context, her signing the marriage contract with Bucklaw is the fulfillment of a deep seated, and apparently accurate, anxiety.


Lucy and Edgar


Lucy and Edgar's relationship is handled with some rather funny ambiguity.  It's really apparent, and magnified by the black hole that is Lucy's inner world, that she and Edgar don't really know each other at all.  They barely speak before they declare their love and get engaged.  They've been in each other's presence a few times, but when they are finally alone together there is literally one page of dialog which is all basically Edgar saying he is going to leave Scotland and Lucy getting upset, followed by this seemingly important key to their courtship that is presented in f*cking summary:


Lucy wept on, but her tears were less bitter. Each attempt which the Master made to explain his purpose of departure only proved a new evidence of his desire to stay; until, at length, instead of bidding her farewell, he gave his faith to her for ever, and received her troth in return.  (Chapter 20)


And I don't think this is romantic shorthand either.  In the next chapter they actually start to get to know each other, though of course we don't see any of the dialog, and the narration says this:


Thus, although their mutual affection seemed to increase rather than to be diminished as their characters opened more fully on each other, the feelings of each were mingled with some less agreeable ingredients. (Chapter 21)


Which is natural enough I guess for young love, but then the narrator says this:


If, indeed, they had so fully appreciated each other's character before the burst of passion in which they hastily pledged their faith to each other, Lucy might have feared Ravenswood too much ever to have loved him, and he might have construed her softness and docile temper as imbecility, rendering her unworthy of his regard. (Chapter 21)


Which is honestly pretty funny, and I think deliberately so.  It's definitely possible that Pattieson, the narrator, thinks these two are being idiots. 




I'm actually really glad Bucklaw survived his stabbing in the book.   As I mentioned above, his opera counterpart Arturo is just sort of standing there for a few minutes and then dies off stage.  Bucklaw, though a little impetuous, is at heart a pretty good guy.  Sure, he is angry at Edgar for how insultingly he was thrown out of Wolf's Crag but he isn't unjustified.  (He never finds out that Caleb shut him out of the castle without Edgar's knowledge or direction.)


And even when Lady Ashton is pushing for him to marry Lucy, he still doesn't feel right about how she's being pressured to marry him while she's still engaged to Edgar and he doesn't want her to marry him if she doesn't really want to.  The narrator says that Lady Ashton "was well aware, that if [Buckland] once saw any reluctance on her daughter's part, he would break off the treaty."  (Chapter 32)


And despite his personal conflict with Edgar, he still won't let Lucy's brother stab him dishonorably when Edgar shows up to confront her.  "He shall have nothing but fair play."  (Chapter 32)


Comedy and Commoners


The book doesn't have the mournful ominousness of the opera, where it's really clear early on that this is going the Romeo and Juliet route.  Scott (or, technically Pattieson I guess) has a light touch and there's some definite silliness and amusing descriptions, like when Sir William realizes that next to the Marquis' incoming carriage is his pissed off wife's and he doesn't really know who he would rather deal with first:


Sir William's only chance now remaining was the possibility of an overturn, and that his lady or visitor might break their necks. I am not aware that he formed any distinct wish on the subject, but I have no reason to think that his grief in either case would have been altogether inconsolable. (Chapter 22)


The book has that sort of knife's edge plot like some of Shakespeare's plays, where the same setup will resolve with hijinks and a wedding if it's a comedy or a quadruple homicide if it's a tragedy and, like in Much Ado About Nothing, if you don't already know what kind of story it is you might not know which way it was going to go.  


A lot of the digressions with the servants and commoners reminded me of Shakespeare's histories, particularly the Henry IV series, which spend a lot of time on the shenanigans of commoners speaking in prose between the dramatic scenes of noblemen speaking in verse.


Edgar's servant Caleb reminded me of Shakespeare's lowborn windbags like Pistol with the added difficulty of not being able to tell what the hell he was saying most of the time. It started off a little frustrating but then became really funny the longer it went on, like it shot the moon and became enjoyable.  I liked Caleb's vaguely pointless scenes and the difficulty in parsing his words as he droned on in circles pretty much put me in the same headspace as Edgar.  Edgar has trouble following Caleb's meandering discourse and I as the reader have the same trouble because I literally don't understand him.


It got easier as the book went on, but right when I thought I was getting good at what the narrator described in a different context as "hammer[ing] out all the sense, and almost all the words" (Chapter 8), I'd get hit with something like this:


"Jean maun baith sing her psalms and busk her cockernony the gate the gudeman likes, and nae ither gate; for he's maister and mair at hame, I can tell ye, Mr. Balderstone." "Ay, ay, and does he guide the gear too?" said Caleb, to whose projects masculine rule boded little good. "Ilka penny on't; but he'll dress her as dink as a daisy, as ye see; sae she has little reason to complain: where there's ane better aff there's ten waur." (Chapter 12)




By the end I was smirking as soon as Caleb showed up, sure I wouldn't understand half of it.  And then it caught me off guard when in chapter 13, at a point when he thought he was about to get roughed up, he made this shockingly coherent speech :


"Your master has acted with becoming civility and attention in forwarding the liquors, and I will not fail to represent it properly to my Lord Ravenswood. And, my lad ... you may ride on to the castle, and if none of the servants are returned, whilk is to be dreaded, as they make day and night of it when they are out of sight, ye may put them into the porter's lodge, whilk is on the right hand of the great entry; the porter has got leave to go to see his friends, sae ye will met no ane to steer ye."


Did...did Caleb just drop his accent?!?!  It comes back with a vengeance later so I don't quite know what to make of this, but I actually laughed out loud when I realized there was a possibility that he had been hamming up his accent the whole time.




As usual, I have a lot more I could ramble on about but I'll call it for now.

The Bride of Lammermoor is a good book but I'm not sure it's essential.  If I had to recommend one Walter Scott book it would probably be Ivanhoe, but this was enjoyable and really interesting as a companion to the opera.


I'm glad I read it and it really made me see how good of an adaptation Lucia di Lammermoor is. The creators picked the strongest emotional thread, ran with it, and made some really smart adaptational changes and simplifications to support it.  That they got 'Il dolce suono' from four paragraphs of Chapter 34 in this book is a minor miracle. 


So I'd say read this if you have a soft spot for 19th Century Scottish literature or if you enjoyed Lucia di Lammermoor and want a different take on it.



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