8 Apr 2013

Charlotte Mason and Walter Scott

It is hard to read Sir Walter Scott without thinking of Charlotte Mason.  It is said that she read from the Bible and the Waverley novels daily through much of her lifetime; whenever she finished reading through all 27 volumes, she simply started again from the start. I don't know where that snippet of trivia comes from, but it is written on the Ambleside Online website, and so I'm sure it must be true!

Regardless of whether she read him daily, she was certainly extremely familiar with his books. Her fourth volume, Ourselves, is peppered with illustrations from his works, and she included his books in her PNEU school programmes.  She certainly held Scott in high regard.

Many of you will be aware that I am reading Rob Roy aloud to my family - it is listed as a free read in AO6.  As I read, I find myself examining the book and wondering what it is that attracted Miss Mason.  I wonder whether she liked Scott's convoluted sentence structure, his imaginative plot development, his fascinating characters.  Did she have a fondness for Scotland?  As I struggle with Andrew Fairservice's broad Scots brogue, I wonder if she ever read his works aloud.  To an audience?  To herself?  Both my husband and I are fluent with the Scots language, but we struggle with the Auld Scots in this book, finding it closer to the Scots dialect of Robert Fergusson than Rabbie Burns.  Did Mason?

Complete collections of Scott novels were once common in erudite homes - you can still find them on Abe.  You can buy this set of 61 books bound in three quarter bound morocco for $12500.00 if you feel inclined, or this full set of all 78 Waverleys bound in full red crushed levant (whatever that may be) for $5625.00.  Nowadays, though, Scott finds himself more commonly on the 'books one no longer reads lists' here, here, here, and here.  He is no longer found on many school syllabuses/syllabi. Which makes us sorta question why we should read him today.

For us Rob Roy forms one of that series of books that pulls you, yelling and screaming, up a reading level.  It's hard, but if you concentrate, your reward is a story as exciting as any mystery novel. It's a great love story, a charming portrait of Scottish lowland life, a marvellous example of Catholicism versus Protestantism, and a thrilling adventure.  If you try really hard with this book, if you slow down and really think about what you are reading, then you will get a true and delightful reward.

The satisfying thing for me is that Rob Roy has been no more difficult for 11 year old Jemimah than for her, ahem, significantly older parents.  At periodic points throughout the story we've found ourselves having to stop and narrate an episode or two in order to grasp what has just occurred.  Sometimes it is Jemimah who has been able to explain to us what has happened; at other times I find myself having to explain to her, or my husband narrates to us both. Next year in year 7 our literature selection will be Scott's Ivanhoe.  I'm relatively confident that Jemimah will be able to handle it maybe not with ease, but without trouble.  That is really thrilling, you know.

Every year Ambleside Online lists one of these hard books - Parables of Nature, Robin Hood, Pilgrim's Progress, Unknown to History, Kidnapped, A Book of Golden Deeds, Kim.  They're all hard.  And every time, on the forum and lists, people complain about them.  Their kids don't like them.  The mums can't read them.  They don't understand them.  And they leave them out, or substitute them for something easier.  And the next year they can't understand the 'hard book' from that year either.  Well, hello?  Have you trained for it?  Have you practiced your reading? 

Okay, okay.  I've written about this before.  It's a bugbear of mine. If you're lifting weights you don't just jump in  at Olympic level - you work your way up slowly.  It's the same with reading.  You can't just jump in at the top and expect to be able to understand.

Today was the first day of AO6 Term 2.  We began Homer's The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles. It's a Uni level book, and Jemimah pronounced it 'easy to understand and narrate'.  Her words.  It is a delightful book.  And for a child raised on Shakespeare it is easy.  For a child who reads Walter Scott in her spare time, The Iliad is a doddle.  That gets me really really excited.

My daughter is not University level in lots of things.  Her handwriting is poor; her spelling abysmal.  I know, I've told you before - it's boring.  But it is also true.  One of the very best bits of homeschooling for me is that I can accelerate my daughter where she needs accelerating, and slow her down where she needs to slow.  I lay a banquet before her and she takes what she needs.  A liberal Charlotte Mason education is wonderful for meeting a child where she is and dragging her up by the bootstrings to the level above. 

And it is books like Rob Roy that do the dragging. 

Mangled Scots word by mangled Scots word.


  1. Yes. Cait's reading was/is always above age level. We did not do Scott or Dickens; Dickens because he drives me insane & I find him hugely depressing; suicidal even. Bad for my head space. Scott because I have history issues [starting with the lowlanders technically are not Scots lol] & some of what transpires is not what I wanted us reading. For me there were better choices for our family. However I do agree with you absolutely that if you want a child to tackle hard books with ease they must cut their teeth on slightly harder books each year. No question. Funny. It was always my kid who had all her Shakespeare lines down pat while the rest of the cast was complaining they made no sense. Because the classics were familiar to her & Shakespeare not unknown! ;)

  2. So true! Today I stand thankful and amazed with how far you can go when you stick at lifting those weights (heavy literature readings), we are toned up well and truly now for the literature selections in AO and we are all loving it. We have continued with 'The Heroes' for now. Joshua is getting a little upset with all the 'off with their heads' at the moment, he even stormed out of the room after 'bloody Mary' and all her wicked events. He returns and we discuss history, life and the how the world rotates when an evil King or Queen is ruling compared to a honorable Kind or Queen. I should really bog about this, but I don't have time today we are heading up the coast.

  3. * should really 'B L O G' not B O G lol

  4. Good thoughts, Jeanne. I think you've broken through your writer's block :)
    Parables of Nature is our heavy one at the moment - 'Why are you reading me that one? I don't understand anything..' but she actually does narrate something at the end of it.

  5. I think Mason did read the Scott books extensively. When I come across an obscure reference in her writing, it often turns out to be a character from one of his novels! :-)

  6. I think I need to set aside a shelf in my library and start collecting some Scott novels! So far I only have two, and both ugly paperbacks...

  7. I have Sir Walter Scott novels for several times. I liked your post actually, the excitement about his novels is approved! Looking forward to rewading your other posts!

  8. Great post - it is amazing what kids can understand, if you let them try. My 10yo is still comparing all books to Robinson Crusoe - a book that was a tough read for me as an adult. But I put it before him, and he found the beauty in it. Thanks!


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