Ivanhoe to Quasimodo: How Sir Walter Scott saved Notre-Dame de Paris

TENS of millions watched in horror on Monday evening as the 850-year-old Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames.

A view showing Notre-Dame de Paris circa 1858-60. Picture: Freres Bisson/Wikimedia Commons
A view showing Notre-Dame de Paris circa 1858-60. Picture: Freres Bisson/Wikimedia Commons

Despair, however, has turned to relief as it emerges that the damage - while considerable - is far from irreparable.

Restoration, no doubt, will cost hundreds of millions of Euros, but France’s premier Emmanuel Macron is resolute in his pledge that the Gothic marvel will overcome this “terrible tragedy”.

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The cathedral’s world-renowned wooden spire will rise again - much like it did in the 1860s, when it was re-erected after having been unceremoniously dismantled during the French Revolution (as our spire-less early photograph of Notre-Dame from circa 1858 helpfully illustrates).

Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo by Patrick ANIDJAR / AFP)

And, you may not know this, but there is an Edinburgh link in here; an extraordinary claim, even: Notre-Dame de Paris might not exist at all if it was not for the work of one of our most famous sons.

It is said that Victor Hugo, leader of the French romantic movement and author of Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, (1831), was directly influenced by the works of our own poet author, Sir Walter Scott.

When Sir Walter died in 1832 - a year after the publication of Hugo’s masterpiece - he was regarded as the most famous, and therefore most influential, novelist the world had ever known.

Scott’s novel Kenilworth attracted the attention in 1822 of a young Hugo, who agreed with poet Alexandre Soumet to write a five-act drama directly based on it. Others say Scott’s works reignited interest in the Gothic-historical novel and that a clear connection can be made between them and Notre Dame de Paris. 
Victor Hugo declared Ivanhoe, for example, “the true epic of our age”. Scott was a massive influence on the Frenchman.

In 1948, Hector Ronaldson Mackay, a student at the University of British Columbia, submitted a thesis entitled L’influence de Sir Walter Scott sur Victor Hugo, in which he stated: “Hugo, one of the first French writers to come under the influence of the author of Waverley (Scott), was also unquestionably the most strongly-affected.”

Mackay adds: “Furthermore, it was from his first readings of Scott that Hugo conceived the method of novel-writing which he was to use with such great success in his later prose works”.

Published in an edition of The Scotsman, one early 20th century writer claimed: “At an early age Victor Hugo had shown his admiration for the works of Walter Scott. “Notre Dame de Paris” proceeded directly from Scott’s influence and without Scott would never have existed.”

In turn, Victor Hugo’s famous novel featuring a love-struck, bell-ringing hunchback was such a global success that it is credited with saving the cathedral, which was in a ruinous state in the 19th century.

Hugo’s classic sold millions and now boasts more than a dozen film adaptations. As The Washington Post puts it, the novel made people care again “about the eyesore on an island in the middle of Paris”.

While Sir Walter Scott’s supposed saving of Notre-Dame Cathedral may be by proxy, there is sufficient evidence out there to support the assertion.