The Novel in The Age of Wordsworth

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      Scott. We have seen that after ten years of great success as a writer of romances in verse, Scott turned from the romance in verse to prose fiction, and that he was led to make this change in part because the original vein which he had opened up was getting exhausted, and in part because the sudden rise of Byron threatened the supremacy which he had long enjoyed. But though with Waverley (1814) he struck out definitely into a new line, it is quite clear that in his later narrative poems he had been unconsciously gravitating towards the novel. This is shown by a comparison between The Lay of the Last Minstrel and the last important production of the series, Rokeby. The Lay was simply an elaboration of the old ballad form. Rokeby was to all intents and purposes a novel in verse. In this work for the first time, as he himself perceived, the interest was made to center not in incident but in character, and the chief figures were handled in a way much more suitable to the medium of prose than to that of verse. In Rokeby, then, verse was not an aid, but a hindrance, to his powers. The transition from verse to prose was therefore natural. Nor was the idea of writing a prose romance so entirely new to him as is commonly supposed. It had occurred to him, he tells us, before the time of the Lay, which he had entertained “the ambitious desire of composing a tale of chivalry, which was to be in the style of The Castle of Otranto, with plenty of Border characters and supernatural incident”—in fact, a sort of Lay, but in prose.

      Accident turned him to the verse romance instead, and success prompted him to devote his energies to it. A little later, however, the reception accorded to The Lady of the Lake convinced him that there was a large English reading public interested in the Highlands, and conceiving that he might turn his own first-hand knowledge of the Highlands to good account, he ‘threw together’ the opening chapters of Waverley. He did not, however, persevere with this experiment, and the manuscript was thrown aside and forgotten. Then a fresh stimulus came from the Irish Tales of Maria Edgeworth. These Scott read with enthusiasm; he was particularly struck by their detailed pictures of the characters and manners of the Irish people; and it now came to his mind that what Miss Edgeworth had done for Ireland, he might do for Scotland. Once more his interest in prose fiction was awakened, but this time his mind ran in the direction of the novel of contemporary life. Just then, by happy accident, while hunting in a drawer for some fishing tackle, he lighted upon the draft of the first chapters of Waverley. He read them; found that they fell in with his plan; and sat down to complete the work—a task which, by one of his wonderful feats of improvisation, he accomplished in three weeks.

      The history of Scott’s gradual approach to the novel is important because it helps us to realize that two different lines of influence ran together in determining the character of his work. On the one hand, there were all those influences which had combined to make him a romantic poet and to send him back for themes and inspiration to the past. On the other hand, there were all those influences which came to him through his direct contact with and ultimate knowledge of almost every aspect of actual Scottish life. Before Waverley, little attempt had been made to blend the interest of romance and realism the story of chivalry and adventure with the story of character and manners. In Waverley, the two kinds of interest merged. Scott’s work in fiction thus represents the amalgamation of the eighteenth-century novel of manners and the eighteenth-century historical romance. In other words, he set the story of manners for the first time in an historical framework.

      Characteristics of Scott’s Novels. The Waverley Novels, the work of eighteen years of extraordinary creative activity, consist of twenty-seven novels and five tales. Collectively they cover about eight centuries. Arranged in historical order they are as follows: Eleventh century, Count Robert of Paris' twelfth century, The Betrothed, The Talisman, Ivanhoe fourteenth century, Castle Dangerous fifteenth century, The Fair Maid of Perth, Quentin Durward, Anne of Geierstein; sixteenth century, The Monastery, The Ahhot, Kenilworth, Death of the Laird's Jock; seventeenth century, The Fortunes of Nigel, A Legend of Montrose, Woodstock, Peveril of the Peak, Old Mortality, The Bride of Lammermoor, The Pirate; eighteenth century, My Aunt Margaret's Mirror, The Black Dwarf Roh Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley, Redgauntlet, Guy Mannering, The Highland Widow, The Surgeon's Daughter, The Tapestried Chamber, The Two Drovers, The Antiquary; nineteenth century (1812), St. Ronans Well. Most of Scott’s novels are strictly historical in the sense that they include historical events and characters, though some — like Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, and The Bride of Lammermoor (all ranking with his very finest work)—are rather private stories with an historical background. In the range of his historical interest Scott stands alone among English writers, but he is always at his best when dealing with the Scotland of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the regular historical novels his practice is to create some private individual as his nominal hero, to send him out on his adventures, and then to contrive that he shall so be caught up in the great public movements of his time that his fortunes shall be involved in and determined by them. Thus in his first novel, Edward Waverley sets out to join his regiment at Dundee in the critical year 1745, gets entangled in the Jacobite rising, meets the Young Pretender, and fights at Prestonpans and Culloden: his personal doings merging in the great currents of history. In this way, he was enabled to depict the past, not on its large heroic side only, but also on its domestic and unheroic sides, and to make us feel its substantial reality by linking its interests with individuals situated like ourselves. As Carlyle said of his work: “These historical novels have taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history, and others till so taught: that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies, and abstractions of men.”

      It must not of course be supposed that Scott’s treatment of history is entirely accurate. He often takes great liberties with facts and his anachronisms are numerous. When these are anachronisms of detail only they are relatively unimportant; but sometimes they are fundamental, and then they become serious, as in the case of Ivanhoe, which, however brilliant as a romance, is totally untrustworthy as a picture of the life of the middle ages. But in general, he was marvelously successful in reproducing at least the externals of the periods which he describes, in giving us a vivid sense of their men and manners, and in breathing life into the dry bones of history.

      Scott wrote rapidly and often carelessly, and, as he himself frankly confessed, his novels are for the most part very defective in construction. He is at his best in description and action. As an interpreter of character, his method is wholly unlike that of the modern psychological novelist; he does not indulge in elaborate analysis, but paints in broad, bold outlines and with a big brush. When he attempts to deal with complex mental and moral conditions he naturally fails, and he has little power over the stronger passions, except (and the exception is significant) those of patriotism and loyalty. But with simple characters, he achieves remarkable success, and especially with his men and women drawn directly from the Scottish life he knew so well—his lawyers, soldiers, farmers, peasants, old-fashioned serving men, and low comedy figures. His humor is racy, full-blooded, and always genial and wholesome. His historical characters are not always quite faithful as portraits, but he possessed, as few other writers have ever done, the secret of making them vital and human; and his James I, Louis XI, Elizabeth, and the Young Pretender (to mention only a few examples) are fine pieces of imaginative recreation. In his general treatment of life, we note again his lack of spiritual insight and grasp. As he nowhere takes us much beneath the surface of things he gives us little more than the external panorama of history. Yet whatever shortcomings may be pointed out in it, Scott’s work is still very great work. It has emphatically the qualities which ensure permanence in literature; for it is full of creative energy; it keeps us in touch with the large currents of human life; it is manly, robust, and sound.

      Other Novelists of the Time. Scott’s principal contemporaries in prose fiction were three women who worked in a field entirely different from his that of the modern social and domestic novel. The first in order of time was MARIA EDGEWORTH (1767-1849), whose influence on Scott’s own production has already been noted. She was a fairly voluminous writer, but her best work is to be found in some of her short tales and in three Irish novels, Castle Rackrent, The Absentee, and Ormond. Her stories are over-didactic, but they have humor and pathos, and though very unequal, are brightly and simply written. SUSAN EDMONSTONE FERRIER (1782-1854), whose three novels, Marriage, Destiny, and The Inheritance, were also greatly admired by Scott, was a clever painter of Scottish, as Miss Edgeworth was of Irish characters and manners. Midway between these two in date of birth comes JANE AUSTEN (1775-1817) with her Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Miss Austen’s range was narrow, and as she never ventured beyond her own experience and powers, she achieved, as no other English novelist ever has achieved, an even level of perfection. Her books are composed of the most commonplace materials, and are wholly lacking in all the elements of great passion and strong action. They are therefore slight in texture. But her touch was so sure, her humor so subtle, her characterization so life-like, that all competent critics regard her as one of the finest artists that English fiction has ever produced.

      With men-writers, meanwhile, fiction exhibited greater variety of matter and method. CHARLES ROBERT MATURIN (1782-1824) carried on the wildest traditions of the romance of fantasy and horror in a number of tales of which Melmoth the Wanderer was the most successful, while THEODORE HOOK (1788-1841), one of the fun-makers of his generation, produced a string of loosely written novels which, though they seem very flat today, greatly amused the public of their own time. Far more important than the work of either of these men is that of JOHN GALT (1779-1839), whose Ayrshire Legatees and Annals of the Parish contain some admirable pictures of contemporary Scottish life. With THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK (1785-1866), a close friend of Shelley, fiction became the vehicle of witty satiric commentary upon the things and they were many in society and literature which the author disliked. He continued to write till almost the end of his long life, but we name him here because his really characteristic work Headlong Hall, Melincourt, Nightmare Abbey, and Crochet Castle was all done before 1832. As a matter of convenience, we may here also mention two followers of Scott in the historical romance—GEORGE PAYNE RAINSFORD JAMES (1801-1860), and WILLIAM HARRISON AINSWORTH (1805-1882), whose best work appeared before the middle of the century. Neither has the slightest claim to literary distinction, but a few of the former’s almost countless tales such as—Henry Masterton and Richelieu—are still readable; while the latter’s Old Saint Paul's gives a wonderfully vivid description of London in the days of the Plague and the Great Fire.

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