Nathaniel Hawthorne and the head of Mary Queen of Scots


We were not long in reaching Abbotsford. The house, which is more compact, and of considerably less extent than I anticipated, stands in full view from the road, and at only a short distance from it, lower down towards the river. Its aspect disappointed me; but so does everything. It is but a villa, after all; no castle, nor even a large manor-house, and very unsatisfactory when you consider it in that light. Indeed, it impressed me, not as a real house, intended for the home of human beings,—a house to die in or to be born in,—but as a plaything,— something in the same category as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. The present owner seems to have found it insufficient for the actual purposes of life; for he is adding a wing, which promises to be as extensive as the original structure.

We rang at the front door (the family being now absent), and were speedily admitted by a middle-aged or somewhat elderly man,—the butler, I suppose, or some upper servant,—who at once acceded to our request to be permitted to see the house. We stepped from the porch immediately into the entrance-hall; and having the great Hall of Battle Abbey in my memory, and the ideal of a baronial hall in my mind, I was quite taken aback at the smallness and narrowness and lowness of this; which, however, is a very fine one, on its own little scale. In truth, it is not much more than a vestibule. The ceiling is carved; and every inch of the walls is covered with claymores, targets, and other weapons and armor, or old-time curiosities, tastefully arranged, many of which, no doubt, have a history attached to them,—or had, in Sir Walter’s own mind. Our attendant was a very intelligent person, and pointed out much that was interesting; but in such a multitudinous variety it was almost impossible to fix the eye upon any one thing. Probably the apartment looked smaller than it really was, on account of being so wainscoted and festooned with curiosities. I remember nothing particularly, unless it be the coal-grate in the fireplace, which was one formerly used by Archbishop Sharpe, the prelate whom Balfour of Burley murdered. Either in this room or the next one, there was a glass case containing the suit of clothes last worn by Scott,—a short green coat, somewhat worn, with silvered buttons, a pair of gray tartan trousers, and a white hat. It was in the hall that we saw these things; for there too, I recollect, were a good many walking-sticks that had been used by Scott, and the hatchet with which he was in the habit of lopping branches from his trees, as he walked among them.

From the hall we passed into the study;—a small room, lined with the books which Sir Walter, no doubt, was most frequently accustomed to refer to; and our guide pointed out some volumes of the Moniteur, which he used while writing the history of Napoleon. Probably these were the driest and dullest volumes in his whole library. About mid-height of the walls of the study there is a gallery, with a short flight of steps for the convenience of getting at the upper books. A study-table occupied the centre of the room, and at one end of the table stands an easy-chair, covered with morocco, and with ample space to fling one’s self back. The servant told me that I might sit down in this chair, for that Sir Walter sat there while writing his romances, “and perhaps,” quoth the man, smiling, “you may catch some inspiration.” What a bitter word this would have been if he had known me to be a romance-writer! “No, I never shall be inspired to write romances!” I answered, as if such an idea had never occurred to me. I sat down, however. This study quite satisfied me, being planned on principles of common-sense, and made to work in, and without any fantastic adaptation of old forms to modern uses.

Next to the study is the library, an apartment of respectable size, and containing as many books as it can hold, all protected by wire-work. I did not observe what or whose works were here; but the attendant showed us one whole compartment full of volumes having reference to ghosts, witchcraft, and the supernatural generally. It is remarkable that Scott should have felt interested in such subjects, being such a worldly and earthly man as he was; but then, indeed, almost all forms of popular superstition do clothe the ethereal with earthly attributes, and so make it grossly perceptible.

The library, like the study, suited me well,—merely the fashion of the apartment, I mean,—and I doubt not it contains as many curious volumes as are anywhere to be met with within a similar space. The drawing-room adjoins it; and here we saw a beautiful ebony cabinet, which was presented to Sir Walter by George IV.; and some pictures of much interest,—one of Scott himself at thirty-five, rather portly, with a heavy face, but shrewd eyes, which seem to observe you closely. There is a full-length of his eldest son, an officer of dragoons, leaning on his charger; and a portrait of Lady Scott,—a brunette, with black hair and eyes, very pretty, warm, vivacious, and un-English in her aspect. I am not quite sure whether I saw all these pictures in the drawing-room, or some of them in the dining-room; but the one that struck me most—and very much indeed—was the head of Mary, Queen of Scots, literally the head cut off and lying on a dish. It is said to have been painted by an Italian or French artist, two days after her death. The hair curls or flows all about it; the face is of a death-like hue, but has an expression of quiet, after much pain and trouble,—very beautiful, very sweet and sad; and it affected me strongly with the horror and strangeness of such a head being severed from its body. Methinks I should not like to have it always in the room with me. I thought of the lovely picture of Mary that I had seen at Edinburgh Castle, and reflected what a symbol it would be,—how expressive of a human being having her destiny in her own hands,—if that beautiful young Queen were painted as carrying this dish, containing her own woful head, and perhaps casting a curious and pitiful glance down upon it, as if it were not her own.

Also, in the drawing-room, there was a plaster cast of Sir Walter’s face, taken after death; the only one in existence, as our guide assured us. It is not often that one sees a homelier set of features than this; no elevation, no dignity, whether bestowed by nature or thrown over them by age or death; sunken cheeks, the bridge of the nose depressed, and the end turned up; the mouth puckered, and no chin whatever, or hardly any. The expression was not calm and happy; but rather as if he were in a perturbed slumber, perhaps nothing short of nightmare. I wonder that the family allow this cast to be shown,—the last record that there is of Scott’s personal reality, and conveying such a wretched and unworthy idea of it.

Adjoining the drawing-room is the dining-room, in one corner of which, between two windows, Scott died. It was now a quarter of a century since his death; but it seemed to me that we spoke with a sort of hush in our voices, as if he were still dying here, or had but just departed. I remember nothing else in this room. The next one is the armory, which is the smallest of all that we had passed through; but its walls gleam with the steel blades of swords, and the barrels of pistols, matchlocks, firelocks, and all manner of deadly weapons, whether European or Oriental; for there are many trophies here of East Indian warfare. I saw Rob Roy’s gun, rifled and of very large bore; and a beautiful pistol, formerly Claverhouse’s; and the sword of Montrose, given him by King Charles, the silver hilt of which I grasped. There was also a superb claymore, in an elaborately wrought silver sheath, made for Sir Walter Scott, and presented to him by the Highland Society, for his services in marshalling the clans when George IV. came to Scotland. There were a thousand other things, which I knew must be most curious, yet did not ask nor care about them, because so many curiosities drive one crazy, and fret one’s heart to death. On the whole, there is no simple and great impression left by Abbotsford; and I felt angry and dissatisfied with myself for not feeling something which I did not and could not feel. But it is just like going to a museum, if you look into particulars; and one learns from it, too, that Scott could not have been really a wise man, nor an earnest one, nor one that grasped the truth of life; he did but play, and the play grew very sad toward its close. In a certain way, however, I understand his romances the better for having seen his house; and his house the better for having read his romances. They throw light on one another.

We had now gone through all the show-rooms; and the next door admitted us again into the entrance-hall, where we recorded our names in the visitors’ book. It contains more names of Americans, I should judge, from casting my eyes back over last year’s record, than of all other people in the world, including Great Britain.

Bidding farewell to Abbotsford, I cannot but confess a sentiment of remorse for having visited the dwelling-place—as just before I visited the grave of the mighty minstrel and romancer with so cold a heart and in so critical a mood,—his dwelling-place and his grave whom I had so admired and loved, and who had done so much for my happiness when I was young. But I, and the world generally, now look at him from a different point of view; and, besides, these visits to the actual haunts of famous people, though long dead, have the effect of making us sensible, in some degree, of their human imperfections, as if we actually saw them alive. I felt this effect, to a certain extent, even with respect to Shakespeare, when I visited Stratford-on-Avon. As for Scott, I still cherish him in a warm place, and I do not know that I have any pleasanter anticipation, as regards books, than that of reading all his novels over again after we get back to the Wayside.

The English Note-Book, Vol II,  Nathaniel Hawthorne 

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