Sir Walter Scott
[This is taken from Leslie Stephens’ Hours in a Library.]
The question has begun to be asked about Scott which is asked about every great man: whether he is still read or still read as he ought to be read. I have been glad to see in some statistics of popular literature that the Waverley Novels are still among the books most frequently bought at railway stations, and scarcely surpassed even by ‘Pickwick,’ or ‘David Copperfield.’ A writer, it is said, is entitled to be called a classic when his books have been read for a century after his death. The number of books which fairly satisfies that condition is remarkably small. There are certain books, of course, which we are all bound to read if we make any claim to be decently educated. A modern Englishman cannot afford to confess that he has not read Shakespeare or Milton; if he talks about philosophy, he must have dipped at least into Bacon and Hobbes and Locke; if he is a literary critic, he must know something of Spenser and Donne and Dryden and the early dramatists; but how many books are there of the seventeenth century which are still read for pleasure by other than specialists? To speak within bounds, I fancy that it would be exceedingly difficult to make out a list of one hundred English books which after publication for a century are still really familiar to the average reader. Something like ninety-nine of those have in any case lost the charm of novelty, and are read, if read at all, from some vague impression that the reader is doing a duty. It takes a very powerful voice and a very clear utterance to make a man audible to the fourth generation. If something of the mildew of time is stealing over the Waverley Novels, we must regard that as all but inevitable. Scott will have succeeded beyond any but the very greatest, perhaps even as much as the very greatest, if, in the twentieth century, now so unpleasantly near, he has a band of faithful followers, who still read because they like to read and not because they are told to read. Admitting that he must more or less undergo the universal fate, that the glory must be dimmed even though it be not quenched, we may still ask whether he will not retain as much vitality as the conditions of humanity permit: Will our posterity understand at least why he was once a luminary of the first magnitude, or wonder at their ancestors’ hallucination about a mere will-o’-the-wisp? Will some of his best performances stand out like a cathedral amongst ruined hovels, or will they all sink into the dust together, and the outlines of what once charmed the world be traced only by Dryasdust and historians of literature?
It is a painful task to examine such questions impartially. This probing a great reputation, and doubting whether we can come to anything solid at the bottom, is especially painful in regard to Scott. For he has, at least, this merit, that he is one of those rare natures for whom we feel not merely admiration but affection. We may cherish the fame of some writers in spite of, not on account of, many personal defects; if we satisfied ourselves that their literary reputations were founded on the sand, we might partly console ourselves with the thought that we were only depriving bad men of a title to genius. But for Scott most men feel in even stronger measure that kind of warm fraternal regard which Macaulay and Thackeray expressed for the amiable, but, perhaps, rather cold-blooded, Addison. The manliness and the sweetness of the man’s nature predispose us to return the most favourable verdict in our power. And we may add that Scott is one of the last great English writers whose influence extended beyond his island, and gave a stimulus to the development of European thought. We cannot afford to surrender our faith in one to whom, whatever his permanent merits, we must trace so much that is characteristic of the mind of the nineteenth century. Whilst, finally, if we have any Scotch blood in our veins, we must be more or less than men to turn a deaf ear to the promptings of patriotism. When Shakespeare’s fame decays everywhere else, the inhabitants of Stratford-on-Avon, if it still exist, should still revere their tutelary saint; and the old town of Edinburgh should tremble in its foundation when a sacrilegious hand is laid upon the glory of Scott.
Let us, however, take courage, and, with such impartiality as we may possess, endeavour to sift the wheat from the chaff. And, by way of following an able guide, let us dwell for a little on the judgment pronounced upon Scott by one whose name I would never mention without profound respect, and who has a special claim to be heard in this case. Carlyle is (I must now say was) both a man of genius and a Scotchman. His own writings show in every line that he comes of the same strong Protestant race from which Scott received his best qualities. ‘The Scotch national character,’ says Carlyle himself, ‘originates in many circumstances. First of all, the Saxon stuff there was to work on; but next, and beyond all else except that, in the Presbyterian gospel of John Knox. It seems a good national character, and, on some sides, not so good. Let Scott thank John Knox, for he owed him much, little as he dreamed of debt in that quarter! No Scotchman of his time was more entirely Scotch than Walter Scott: the good and the not so good, which all Scotchmen inherit, ran through every fibre of him.’ Nothing more true; and the words would be as strikingly appropriate if for Walter Scott we substitute Thomas Carlyle. And to this source of sympathy we might add others. Who in this generation could rival Scott’s talent for the picturesque, unless it be Carlyle? Who has done so much to apply the lesson which Scott, as he says, first taught us—that the ‘bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies, and abstractions of men’? If Scott would in old days—I still quote his critic—have harried cattle in Tynedale or cracked crowns in Redswire, would not Carlyle have thundered from the pulpit of John Knox his own gospel, only in slightly altered phraseology—that shams should not live but die, and that men should do what work lies nearest to their hands, as in the presence of the eternities and the infinite silences?
That last parallel reminds us that if there are points of similarity, there are contrasts both wide and deep. The rugged old apostle had probably a very low opinion of moss-troopers, and Carlyle has a message to deliver to his fellow-creatures, which is not quite according to Scott. And thus we see throughout his interesting essay a kind of struggle between two opposite tendencies—a genuine liking for the man, tempered by a sense that Scott dealt rather too much in those same shams to pass muster with a stern moral censor. Nobody can touch Scott’s character more finely. There is a charming little anecdote which every reader must remember: how there was a ‘little Blenheim cocker’ of singular sensibility and sagacity; how the said cocker would at times fall into musings like those of a Wertherean poet, and lived in perpetual fear of strangers, regarding them all as potentially dog-stealers; how the dog was, nevertheless, endowed with ‘most amazing moral tact,’ and specially hated the genus quack, and, above all, that of acrid-quack. ‘These,’ says Carlyle, ‘though never so clear-starched, bland-smiling, and beneficent, he absolutely would have no trade with. Their very sugar-cake was unavailing. He said with emphasis, as clearly as barking could say it, “Acrid-quack, avaunt!”‘ But once when ‘a tall, irregular, busy-looking man came halting by,’ that wise, nervous little dog ran towards him, and began ‘fawning, frisking, licking at the feet’ of Sir Walter Scott. No reader of reviews could have done better, says Carlyle; and, indeed, that canine testimonial was worth having. I prefer that little anecdote even to Lockhart’s account of the pig, which had a romantic affection for the author of ‘Waverley.’ Its relater at least perceived and loved that unaffected benevolence, which invested even Scott’s bodily presence with a kind of natural aroma, perceptible, as it would appear, to very far-away cousins. But Carlyle is on his guard, and though his sympathy flows kindly enough, it is rather harshly intercepted by his sterner mood. He cannot, indeed, but warm to Scott at the end. After touching on the sad scene of Scott’s closing years, at once ennobled and embittered by that last desperate struggle to clear off the burden of debt, he concludes with genuine feeling. ‘It can be said of Scott, when he departed he took a man’s life along with him. No sounder piece of British manhood was put together in that eighteenth century of time. Alas, his fine Scotch face, with its shaggy honesty, sagacity, and goodness, when we saw it latterly on the Edinburgh streets, was all worn with care, the joy all fled from it, ploughed deep with labour and sorrow. We shall never forget it—we shall never see it again. Adieu, Sir Walter, pride of all Scotchmen; take our proud and sad farewell.’
If even the Waverley Novels should lose their interest, the last journals of Scott, recently published by a judicious editor, can never lose their interest as the record of one of the noblest struggles ever carried on by a great man to redeem a lamentable error. It is a book to do one good.
And now it is time to turn to the failings which, in Carlyle’s opinion, mar this pride of all Scotchmen, and make his permanent reputation doubtful. The faults upon which he dwells are, of course, those which are more or less acknowledged by all sound critics. Scott, says Carlyle, had no great gospel to deliver; he had nothing of the martyr about him; he slew no monsters and stirred no deep emotions. He did not believe in anything, and did not even disbelieve in anything: he was content to take the world as it came—the false and the true mixed indistinguishably together. One Ram-dass, a Hindoo, ‘who set up for god-head lately,’ being asked what he meant to do with the sins of mankind, replied that ‘he had fire enough in his belly to burn up all the sins in the world.’ Ram-dass had ‘some spice of sense in him.’ Now, of fire of that kind we can detect few sparks in Scott. He was a thoroughly healthy, sound, vigorous Scotchman, with an eye for the main chance, but not much of an eye for the eternities. And that unfortunate commercial element, which caused the misery of his life, was equally mischievous to his work. He cared for no results of his working but such as could be seen by the eye, and in one sense or other, ‘handled, looked at, and buttoned into the breeches’ pocket.’ He regarded literature rather as a trade than an art; and literature, unless it is a very poor affair, should have higher aims than that of ‘harmlessly amusing indolent, languid men.’ Scott would not afford the time or the trouble to go to the root of the matter, and is content to amuse us with mere contrasts of costume, which will lose their interest when the swallow-tail is as obsolete as the buff-coat. And then he fell into the modern sin of extempore writing, and deluged the world with the first hasty overflowings of his mind, instead of straining and refining it till he could bestow the pure essence upon us. In short, his career is summed up in the phrase that it was ‘writing impromptu novels to buy farms with’—a melancholy end, truly, for a man of rare genius. Nothing is sadder than to hear of such a man ‘writing himself out;’ and it is pitiable indeed that Scott should be the example of that fate which rises most naturally to our minds. ‘Something very perfect in its kind,’ says Carlyle, ‘might have come from Scott, nor was it a low kind—nay, who knows how high, with studious self-concentration, he might have gone: what wealth nature implanted in him, which his circumstances, most unkind while seeming to be kindest, had never impelled him to unfold?’
There is undoubtedly some truth in the severer criticisms to which some more kindly sentences are a pleasant relief; but there is something too which most persons will be apt to consider as rather harsher than necessary. Is not the moral preacher intruding a little too much on the province of the literary critic? In fact we fancy that, in the midst of these energetic remarks, Carlyle is conscious of certain half-expressed doubts. The name of Shakespeare occurs several times in the course of his remarks, and suggests to us that we can hardly condemn Scott whilst acquitting the greatest name in our literature. Scott, it seems, wrote for money; he coined his brains into cash to buy farms. Did not Shakespeare do pretty much the same? As Carlyle himself puts it, ‘beyond drawing audiences to the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare contemplated no result in those plays of his.’ Shakespeare, as Pope puts it,
To write for money was long held to be disgraceful; and Byron, as we know, taunted Scott because his publishers combined
He published his first poem of any pretensions at thirty-four, an age which Shelley and Keats never reached, and which Byron only passed by two years. ‘Waverley’ came out when he was forty-three—most of our modern novelists have written themselves out long before they arrive at that respectable period of life. From a child he had been accumulating the knowledge and the thoughts that at last found expression in his work. He had been a teller of stories before he was well in breeches; and had worked hard till middle life in accumulating vast stores of picturesque imagery. The delightful notes to all his books give us some impression of the fulness of mind which poured forth a boundless torrent of anecdote to the guests at Abbotsford. We only repine at the prodigality of the harvest when we forget the long process of culture by which it was produced. And, more than this, when we look at the peculiar characteristics of Scott’s style—that easy flow of narrative never heightening into epigram, and indeed, to speak the truth, full of slovenly blunders and amazing grammatical solecisms, but also always full of a charm of freshness and fancy most difficult to analyse—we may well doubt whether much labour would have improved or injured him. No man ever depended more on the perfectly spontaneous flow of his narratives. Carlyle quotes Schiller against him, amongst other and greater names. We need not attempt to compare the two men; but do not Schiller’s tragedies smell rather painfully of the lamp? Does not the professor of æsthetics pierce a little too distinctly through the exterior of the poet? And, for one example, are not Schiller’s excellent but remarkably platitudinous peasants in ‘William Tell’ miserably colourless alongside of Scott’s rough border dalesmen, racy of speech, and redolent of their native soil in every word and gesture? To every man his method according to his talent. Scott is the most perfectly delightful of story-tellers, and it is the very essence of story-telling that it should not follow prescribed canons of criticism, but be as natural as the talk by firesides, and, it is to be feared, over many gallons of whisky-toddy, of which it is, in fact, the refined essence. Scott skims off the cream of his varied stores of popular tradition and antiquarian learning with strange facility; but he had tramped through many a long day’s march, and pored over innumerable ballads and forgotten writers, before he had anything to skim. Had he not—if we may use the word without offence—been cramming all his life, and practising the art of story-telling every day he lived? Probably the most striking incidents of his books are in reality mere modifications of anecdotes which he had rehearsed a hundred times before, just disguised enough to fit into his story. Who can read, for example, the inimitable legend of the blind piper in ‘Redgauntlet’ without seeing that it bears all the marks of long elaboration as clearly as one of those discourses of Whitfield, which, by constant repetition, became marvels of dramatic art? He was an impromptu composer, in the sense that when his anecdotes once reached paper, they flowed rapidly, and were little corrected; but the correction must have been substantially done in many cases long before they appeared in the state of ‘copy.’
Let us, however, pursue the indictment a little further. Scott did not believe in anything in particular. Yet once more, did Shakespeare? There is surely a poetry of doubt as well as a poetry of conviction, or what shall we say to ‘Hamlet’? Appearing in such an age as the end of the last and the beginning of this century, Scott could but share the intellectual atmosphere in which he was born, and at that day, whatever we may think of this, few people had any strong faith to boast of. Why should not a poet stand aside from the chaos of conflicting opinions, so far as he was able to extricate himself from the unutterable confusion around them, and show us what was beautiful in the world as he saw it, without striving to combine the office of prophet with his more congenial occupation? Carlyle did not mean to urge so feeble a criticism as that Scott had no very uncompromising belief in the Thirty-nine Articles; for that is a weakness which he would share with his critic and with his critic’s idol, Goethe. The meaning is partly given by another phrase. ‘While Shakespeare works from the heart outwards, Scott,’ says Carlyle, ‘works from the skin inwards, never getting near the heart of men.’ The books are addressed entirely to the everyday mind. They have nothing to do with emotions or principles, beyond those of the ordinary country gentleman; and, we may add, of the country gentleman with his digestion in good order, and his hereditary gout still in the distant future. The more inspiring thoughts, the deeper passions, are seldom roused. If in his width of sympathy, and his vivid perception of character within certain limits, he reminds us of Shakespeare, we can find no analogy in his writings to the passion of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ or to the intellectual agony of ‘Hamlet.’ The charge is not really that Scott lacks faith, but that he never appeals, one way or the other, to the faculties which make faith a vital necessity to some natures, or lead to a desperate revolt against established faiths in others. If Byron and Scott could have been combined; if the energetic passions of the one could have been joined to the healthy nature and quick sympathies of the other, we might have seen another Shakespeare in the nineteenth century. As it is, both of them are maimed and imperfect on different sides. It is, in fact, remarkable how Scott fails when he attempts a flight into the regions where he is less at home than in his ordinary style. Take, for instance, a passage from ‘Rob Roy,’ where our dear friend, the Bailie, Nicol Jarvie, is taken prisoner by Rob Roy’s amiable wife, and appeals to her feelings of kinship. ‘”I dinna ken,” said the undaunted Bailie, “if the kindred has ever been weel redd out to you yet, cousin—but it’s kenned, and can be proved. My mother, Elspeth Macfarlane (otherwise Macgregor), was the wife of my father, Denison Nicol Jarvie (peace be with them baith), and Elspeth was the daughter of Farlane Macfarlane (or MacGregor), at the shielding of Loch Sloy. Now this Farlane Macfarlane (or Macgregor), as his surviving daughter, Maggy Macfarlane, wha married Duncan Macnab of Stuckavrallachan, can testify, stood as near to your gudeman, Robin MacGregor, as in the fourth degree of kindred, fur——”
‘The virago lopped the genealogical tree by demanding haughtily if a stream of rushing water acknowledged any relation with the portion withdrawn from it for the mean domestic uses of those who dwelt on its banks?’
The Bailie is as real a human being as ever lived—as the present Lord Mayor, or Dandie Dinmont, or Sir Walter himself; but Mrs. Macgregor has obviously just stepped off the boards of a minor theatre, devoted to the melodrama. As long as Scott keeps to his strong ground, his figures are as good flesh and blood as ever walked in the Saltmarket of Glasgow; when once he tries his heroics, he too often manufactures his characters from the materials used by the frequenters of masked balls. Yet there are many such occasions on which his genius does not desert him. Balfour of Burley may rub shoulders against genuine Covenanters and west-country Whigs without betraying his fictitious origin. The Master of Ravenswood attitudinises a little too much with his Spanish cloak and his slouched hat; but we feel really sorry for him when he disappears in the Kelpie’s Flow. And when Scott has to do with his own peasants, with the thoroughbred Presbyterian Scotchman, he can bring intense tragic interest from his homely materials. Douce Davie Deans, distracted between his religious principles and his desire of saving his daughter’s life, and seeking relief even in the midst of his agonies by that admirable burst of spiritual pride: ‘Though I will neither exalt myself nor pull down others, I wish that every man and woman in this land had kept the true testimony and the middle and straight path, as it were on the ridge of a hill, where wind and water steals, avoiding right-hand snare and extremes, and left-hand way-slidings, as well as Johnny Dodds of Farthy’s acre and ae man mair that shall be nameless’—Davie is as admirable a figure as ever appeared in fiction.
It is a pity that he was mixed up with the conventional madwoman, Madge Wildfire, and that a story most touching in its native simplicity, was twisted and tortured into needless intricacy. The religious exaltation of Balfour, or the religious pigheadedness of Davie Deans, are indeed given from the point of view of the kindly humourist, rather than of one who can fully sympathise with the sublimity of an intense faith in a homely exterior. And though many good judges hold the ‘Bride of Lammermoor’ to be Scott’s best performance, in virtue of the loftier passions which animate the chief actors in the tragedy, we are, after all, called upon to sympathise as much with the gentleman of good family who can’t ask his friends to dinner without an unworthy device to hide his poverty, as with the passionate lover whose mistress has her heart broken. In truth, this criticism as to the absence of high passion reminds us again that Scott was a thorough Scotsman, and—for it is necessary, even now, to avoid the queer misconception which confounds together the most distinct races—a thorough Saxon. He belonged, that is, to the race which has in the most eminent degree the typical English qualities. Especially his intellect had a strong substratum of downright dogged common sense; his religion, one may conjecture, was pretty much that of all men of sense in his time. It was that of the society which had produced and been influenced by Hume and Adam Smith; which had dropped its old dogmas without becoming openly sceptical, but which emphatically took ‘common sense’ for the motto of its philosophy. It was equally afraid of bigotry and scepticism and had manufactured a creed out of decent compromises which served well enough for ordinary purposes. Even Hume, a sceptic in theory, was a Tory and a Scottish patriot in politics. Scott, who cared nothing for abstract philosophy, did not bother himself to form any definite system of opinions; he shared Hume’s political prejudices without inquiring into his philosophy. He thoroughly detested the dogmatism of the John Knox variety, and considered the Episcopal Church to offer the religion for a gentleman. But his common sense in such matters was chiefly shown by not asking awkward questions and adopting the creed which was most to his taste without committing himself to any strong persuasion as to abstract truth. He would, on the whole, leave such matters alone, an attitude of mind which was not to Carlyle’s taste.
In the purely artistic direction, this common sense is partly responsible for the defect which has been so often noticed in Scott’s heroes. Your genuine Scot is indeed as capable of intense passion as any human being in the world. Burns is proof enough of the fact if anyone doubted it. But Scott was a man of more massive and less impulsive character. If he had strong passions, they were ruled by his common sense; he kept them well in hand, and did not write till the period of youthful effervescence was over. His heroes always seem to be described from the point of view of a man old enough to see the folly of youthful passion or too old fully to sympathise with it. They are chiefly remarkable for a punctilious pride which gives their creator some difficulty in keeping them out of superfluous duels. When they fall in love, they always seem to feel themselves as Lovel felt himself in the ‘Antiquary,’ under the eye of Jonathan Oldbuck, who was himself once in love but has come to see that he was a fool for his pains. Certainly, somehow or other, they are apt to be terribly wooden. Cranstoun in the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ Graeme in the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ or Wilton in ‘Marmion,’ are all unspeakable bores. Waverley himself, and Lovel in the ‘Antiquary,’ and Vanbeest Brown in ‘Guy Mannering,’ and Harry Morton in ‘Old Mortality,’ and, in short, the whole series of Scott’s pattern young men, are all chips of the same block. They can all run, and ride, and fight, and make pretty speeches, and express the most becoming sentiments; but somehow they all partake of one fault, the same which was charged against the otherwise incomparable horse, namely, that they are dead. And we must confess that this is a considerable drawback from Scott’s novels. To take the passion out of a novel is something like taking the sunlight out of a landscape; and to condemn all the heroes to be utterly commonplace is to remove the centre of interest in a manner detrimental to the best intents of the story. When Thackeray endeavoured to restore Rebecca to her rightful place in ‘Ivanhoe,’ he was only doing what is more or less desirable in all the series. We long to dismount these insipid creatures from the pride of place, and to supplant them by some of the admirable characters who are doomed to play subsidiary parts. There is, however, another reason for this weakness which seems to be overlooked by many of Scott’s critics. We are often referred to Scott as a master of pure and what is called ‘objective’ story-telling. Certainly I don’t deny that Scott could be an admirable story-teller: ‘Ivanhoe’ and the ‘Bride of Lammermoor’ would be sufficient to convict me of error if I did. But as mere stories, many of his novels—and moreover his masterpieces—are not only faulty, but distinctly bad.
Taking him purely and simply from that point of view, he is very inferior, for example, to Alexandre Dumas. You cannot follow the thread of most of his narratives with any particular interest in the fate of the chief actors. In the ‘Introductory Epistle’ prefixed to the ‘Fortunes of Nigel’ Scott himself gives a very interesting account of his method. He has often, he says in answer to an imaginary critic, begun by laying down a plan of his work and tried to construct an ideal story, evolving itself by due degrees and ending by a proper catastrophe. But, a demon seats himself on his pen, and leads it astray. Characters expand; incidents multiply; the story lingers while the materials increase; Bailie Jarvie or Dugald Dalgetty leads him astray, and he goes many a weary mile from the regular road and has to leap hedge and ditch to get back. If he resists the temptation, his imagination flags and he becomes prosy and dull. No one can read his best novels without seeing the truth of this description. ‘Waverley’ made an immense success as a description of new scenes and social conditions: the story of Waverley himself is the least interesting part of the book. Everybody who has read ‘Guy Mannering’ remembers Dandie Dinmont and Meg Merrilies and Pleydell and Dominie Sampson; but how many people could explain the ostensible story—the love affair of Vanbeest Brown and Julia Mannering? We can see how Scott put the story together. He was pouring out the most vivid and interesting recollections of the borderers whom he knew so well, of the old Scottish gentry and smugglers and peasants, and the old-fashioned lawyers who played high jinks in the wynds of Edinburgh. No more delightful collection of portraits could be brought together. But he had to get a story as a thread. He started with the legend about an astrological prediction told of Dryden and one of his sons, and mixed it up with the Annesley case, where a claimant turned up with more plausibility than the notorious Orton. This introduced of necessity an impossible and conventional bit of lovemaking and a recognition of a long-lost heir. He is full of long-lost heirs. Equally conventional and impossible stories are introduced in the ‘Antiquary,’ the ‘Heart of Midlothian,’ and the ‘Legend of Montrose’ and elsewhere. Nobody cares about them, and the characters which ostensibly play the chief part serve merely to introduce us to the subordinate actors. ‘Waverley,’ for example, gives a description drawn with unsurpassable spirit of the state of the Highland clans in 1745; and poor Waverley’s love affair passes altogether out of sight during the greatest and most interesting part of the narrative. When Moore said of the poems that Scott intended to illustrate all the gentlemen’s seats between Edinburgh and London, he was not altogether wide of the mark. The novels are all illustrations—not of ‘gentlemen’s seats’ indeed, but of various social states; and it is only by a kind of happy accident when this interest in the surroundings does not put the chief characters out of focus. Nobody has created a greater number of admirable types, but when we run over their names we perceive that in most cases they are the secondary performers who are ousting the nominal heroes and heroines from their places. Dugald Dalgetty, for example, becomes so attractive that he squeezes all the other actors into a mere corner of the canvas. Perhaps nothing more is necessary to explain why Scott failed as a dramatist. With him, Hamlet would have been a mere peg to show us how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern amused themselves at the royal drinking parties.
For this reason, again, Scott bestows an apparently disproportionate amount of imagination upon the mere scene-painting, the external trappings, the clothes, or dwelling-places of his performers. A traveller into a strange country naturally gives us the external peculiarities which strike him. Scott has to tell us what ‘completed the costume’ of his Highland chiefs or mediæval barons. He took, in short, to that ‘buff-jerkin’ business of which Carlyle speaks so contemptuously, and fairly carried away the hearts of his contemporaries by a lavish display of mediæval upholstery. Lockhart tells us that Scott could not bear the commonplace daubings of walls with uniform coats of white, blue, and grey. All the roofs at Abbotsford ‘were, in appearance at least, of carved oak, relieved by coats-of-arms duly blazoned at the intersections of beams, and resting on cornices, to the eye of the same material, but composed of casts in plaster of Paris, after the foliage, the flowers, the grotesque monsters and dwarfs, and sometimes the beautiful heads of nuns and confessors, on which he had doated from infancy among the cloisters of Melrose Abbey.’ The plaster looks as well as the carved oak for a time; but the day speedily comes when the sham crumbles into ashes, and Scott’s knights and nobles, like his carved cornices, became dust in the next generation. It is hard to say it, and yet we fear it must be admitted, that many of those historical novels, which once charmed all men, and for which we have still a lingering affection, are rapidly converting themselves into mere débris of plaster of Paris. Sir F. Palgrave says somewhere that ‘historical novels are mortal enemies to history,’ and we are often tempted to add that they are mortal enemies to fiction.
There may be an exception or two, but as a rule the task is simply impracticable. The novelist is bound to come so near to the facts that we feel the unreality of his portraits. Either the novel becomes pure cram, a dictionary of antiquities dissolved in a thin solution of romance, or, which is generally more refreshing, it takes leave of accuracy altogether and simply takes the plot and the costume from history, but allows us to feel that genuine moderns are masquerading in the dress of a bygone century. Even in the last case, it generally results in a kind of dance in fetters and a comparative breakdown under self-imposed obligations. ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Kenilworth’ and ‘Quentin Durward,’ and the rest are of course audacious anachronisms for the genuine historian. Scott was imposed upon by his own fancy. He was probably not aware that his Balfour of Burley was real flesh and blood, because painted from real people round him, while his Claverhouse is made chiefly of plumes and jackboots. Scott is chiefly responsible for the odd perversion of facts, which reached its height, as Macaulay remarks, in the marvellous performance of our venerated ruler, George IV. That monarch, he observes, ‘thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief.’ The passage recalls the too familiar anecdote about Scott and the wine-glass consecrated by the sacred lips of his king. At one of the portrait exhibitions in South Kensington was hung up a representation of George IV., with the body of a stalwart highlander in full costume, some seven or eight feet high; the face formed from the red puffy cheeks developed by innumerable bottles of port and burgundy at Carlton House; and the whole surmounted by a bonnet with waving plumes. Scott was chiefly responsible for disguising that elderly London debauchee in the costume of a wild Gaelic cattle-stealer, and was apparently insensible of the gross absurdity. We are told that an air of burlesque was thrown over the proceedings at Holyrood by the apparition of a true London alderman in the same costume as his master. An alderman who could burlesque such a monarch must indeed have been a credit to his turtle-soup.
Let us pass by with a brief lamentation that so great and good a man laid himself open to Carlyle’s charge of sham worship. We have lost our love of buff jerkins and other scraps from mediæval museums, and Scott is suffering from having preferred working in stucco to carving in marble. We are perhaps inclined to saddle Scott unconsciously with the sins of a later generation. Borrow, in his delightful ‘Lavengro,’ meets a kind of Jesuit in disguise in that sequestered dell where he beats ‘the Blazing Tinman.’ The Jesuit, if I remember rightly, confides to him that Scott was a tool of that diabolical conspiracy which has infected our old English Protestantism with the poison of modern Popery. And, though the evil may be traced further back, and was due to more general causes than the influence of any one writer, Scott was clearly responsible in his degree for certain recent phenomena. The buff jerkin became the lineal ancestor of various copes, stoles, and chasubles which stink in the nostrils of honest dissenters. Our modern revivalists profess to despise the flimsiness of the first attempts in this direction. They laugh at the carpenter’s Gothic of Abbotsford or Strawberry Hill, and do not ask themselves how their own more elaborate blundering will look in the eyes of a future generation. What will our posterity think of our masquerading in old clothes? Will they want a new Cromwell to sweep away nineteenth-century shams, as his ancestors smashed mediæval ruins, or will they, as we may rather hope, be content to let our pretentious rubbish find its natural road to ruin? One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting; that, however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will ever want to revive the nineteenth century. But for Scott, in spite of his complicity in this wearisome process, there is something still to be said. ‘Ivanhoe’ cannot be given up. The vivacity of the description—the delight with which Scott throws himself into the pursuit of his knicknacks and antiquarian rubbish, has something contagious about it. ‘Ivanhoe,’ let it be granted, is no longer a work for men, but it still is, or still ought to be, delightful reading for boys. The ordinary boy, indeed, when he reads anything, seems to choose descriptions of the cricket-matches and boat-races in which his soul most delights. But there must still be some unsophisticated youths who can relish ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and the ‘Arabian Nights’ and other favourites of our own childhood, and such at least should pore over the ‘Gentle and free passage of arms at Ashby,’ admire those incredible feats with the long-bow which would have enabled Robin Hood to meet successfully a modern volunteer armed with the Martini-Henry, and follow the terrific head-breaking of Front-de-Bœuf, Bois-Guilbert, the holy clerk of Copmanshurst, and the Noir Fainéant, even to the time when, for no particular reason beyond the exigencies of the story, the Templar suddenly falls from his horse, and is discovered, to our no small surprise, to be ‘unscathed by the lance of the enemy,’ and to have died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions.
If ‘Ivanhoe’ has been exploded by Professor Freeman, it did good work in its day. If it were possible for a critic to weigh the merits of a great man in a balance, and to decide precisely how far his excellences exceed his defects, we should have to set off Scott’s real services to the spread of a genuine historical spirit against the encouragement which he afforded to its bastard counterfeit. To enable us rightly to appreciate our forefathers, to recognise that they were living men, and to feel our close connection with them, is to put a vivid imagination to one of its worthiest uses. It was perhaps inevitable that we should learn to appreciate our ancestors by paying them the doubtful compliment of external mimicry; and that only by slow degrees, and at the price of much humiliating experience, should we learn the simple lesson that a childish adult has not the grace of childhood. Even in his errors, however, Scott had the merit of unconsciousness, which is fast disappearing from our more elaborate affectations; and, therefore, though we regret, we are not irritated by his weakness and deficiency in true insight. He really enjoys his playthings too naïvely for the pleasure not to be a little contagious, when we can descend from our critical dignity. In his later work, indeed, the effort becomes truly painful, tending more to the provocation of sadness than of anger. But that work is best forgotten except as an occasional warning.
Scott, however, understood, and nobody has better illustrated by example, the true mode of connecting past and present. Mr. Palgrave, whose recognition of the charm of Scott’s lyrics merits our gratitude, observes in the notes to the ‘Golden Treasury’ that the songs about Brignall banks and Rosabelle exemplify ‘the peculiar skill with which Scott employs proper names;’ nor, he adds, ‘is there a surer sign of high poetical genius.’ The last remark might possibly be disputed; if Milton possessed the same talent, so did Lord Macaulay, whose ballads, admirable as they are, are not first-rate poetry; but the conclusion to which the remark points is one which is illustrated by each of these cases. The secret of the power is simply this, that a man whose mind is full of historical associations somehow communicates to us something of the sentiment which they awake in himself. Scott, as all who saw him tell us, could never see an old tower, or a bank, or a rush of a stream without instantly recalling a boundless collection of appropriate anecdotes. He might be quoted as a case in point by those who would explain all poetical imagination by the power of associating ideas. He is the poet of association. A proper name acts upon him like a charm. It calls up the past days, the heroes of the ’41, or the skirmish of Drumclog, or the old Covenanting times, by a spontaneous and inexplicable magic. When the barest natural object is taken into his imagination, all manner of past fancies and legends crystallise around it at once.
Though it is more difficult to explain how the same glow which ennobled them to him is conveyed to his readers, the process somehow takes place. We catch the enthusiasm. A word, which strikes us as a bare abstraction in the report of the Censor General, say, or in a collection of poor law returns, gains an entirely new significance when he touches it in the most casual manner. A kind of mellowing atmosphere surrounds all objects in his pages, and tinges them with poetical hues. Even the Scottish dialect, repulsive to some ignorant Southrons, becomes musical to his true admirers. In this power lies one secret of Scott’s most successful writing. Thus, for example, I often fancy that the second title of ‘Waverley’—”Tis Sixty Years Since’—indicates precisely the distance of time at which a romantic novelist should place himself from his creations. They are just far enough from us to have acquired a certain picturesque colouring, which conceals the vulgarity, and yet leaves them living and intelligible beings. His best stories might be all described as ‘Tales of a Grandfather.’ They have the charm of anecdotes told to the narrator by some old man who had himself been part of what he describes. Scott’s best novels depend, for their deep interest, upon the scenery and society with which he had been familiar in his early days, more or less harmonised by removal to what we may call, in a different sense from the common one, the twilight of history; that period, namely, from which the broad glare of the present has departed, and which we can yet dimly observe without making use of the dark lantern of ancient historians, and accepting the guidance of Dryasdust. Dandie Dinmont, though a contemporary of Scott’s youth, represented a fast perishing phase of society; and Balfour of Burley, though his day was past, had yet left his mantle with many spiritual descendants who were scarcely less familiar. Between the times so fixed Scott seems to exhibit his genuine power; and within these limits we should find it hard to name any second, or indeed any third.
Indeed, when we have gone as far as we please in denouncing shams, ridiculing men in buff-jerkins, and the whole Wardour Street business of gimcrack and Brummagem antiquities, it still remains true that Scott’s great service was what we may call the vivification of history. He made us feel, it is generally said, as no one had ever made us feel before, that the men of the past were once real human beings; and I can agree if I am permitted to make a certain distinction. His best service, I should say, was not so much in showing us the past as it was when it was present; but in showing us the past as it is really still present. His knights and crusaders and feudal nobles are after all unreal, and the best critics felt even in his own day that his greatest triumphs were in describing the Scottish peasantry of his time. Dandie Dinmont and Jeanie Deans and their like are better than many Front de Bœufs and Robin Hoods. It is in dealing with his own contemporaries that he really shows the imaginative insight which entitles him to be called a great creator as well as an amusing story-teller. But this, rightly stated, is not inconsistent with the previous statement. For the special characteristic of Scott as distinguished from his predecessors is precisely his clear perception that the characters whom he loved so well and described so vividly were the products of a long historical evolution. His patriotism was the love of a country in which everything had obvious roots in its previous history. The stout farmer Dinmont was the descendant of the old borderers; the Deanses were survivals from the days of the Covenanters or of John Knox; every peculiarity upon which he delighted to dwell was invested with all the charm of descent from a long and picturesque history.
When Fielding describes the squires or lawyers of the eighteenth century, he says nothing to show that he was even aware of the existence of a seventeenth, or still less of a sixteenth century. Scott can describe no character without assigning to it its place in the social organism which has been growing up since the earliest dawn of history. This was, of course, no accident. He came at the time when the little provincial centres were just feeling the first invasion of the great movements from without. Edinburgh, whether quite comparable to Athens or not, had been for two or three generations a remarkable centre of intellectual cultivation. Hume and Adam Smith were only the most conspicuous members of a society which monopolised pretty well all the philosophy which existed in the island and a great deal of the history and criticism. In Scott’s time the patriotic feeling which had been a blind instinct was becoming more or less self-conscious. The literary society in which Scott was leader of the Tories, and Jeffrey of the Whigs, included a large proportion of the best intellect of the time and was sufficiently in contact with the outside world to be conscious of its own characteristics. When the crash of the French Revolution came in Scott’s youth, Burke denounced its à priori abstract reasonings in the name of prescription. A traditional order and belief were essential, as he urged, to the well-being of every human society.
What Scott did afterwards was precisely to show by concrete instances, most vividly depicted, the value and interest of a natural body of traditions. Like many other of his ablest contemporaries, he saw with alarm the great movement, of which the French Revolution was the obvious embodiment, sweeping away all manner of local traditions and threatening to engulf the little society which still retained its specific character in Scotland. He was stirred, too, in his whole nature when any sacrilegious reformer threatened to sweep away any part of the true old Scottish system. And this is, in fact, the moral implicitly involved in Scott’s best work. Take the beggar, for example, Edie Ochiltree, the old ‘bluegown.’ Beggars, you say, are a nuisance and would be sentenced to starvation by Mr. Malthus in the name of an abstract principle of population. But look, says Scott, at the old-fashioned beggar as he really was. He had his place in society; he was the depository of the legends of the whole country-side: chatting with the lairds, the confidential friend of fishermen, peasants, and farmers; the oracle in all sports and ruler of village feasts; repaying in friendly offices far more than the value of the alms which he took as a right; a respecter of old privileges, because he had privileges himself; and ready when the French came to take his part in fighting for the old country. There can be no fear for a country, says Scott, where even the beggar is as ready to take up arms as the noble. The bluegown, in short, is no waif and stray, no product of social corruption, or mere obnoxious parasite, but a genuine member of the fabric, who could respect himself and scorn servility as much as the highest members of the social hierarchy. Scott, as Lockhart tells us, was most grievously wounded by the insults of the Radical mob in Selkirk, who cried ‘Burke Sir Walter!’ in the place where all men had loved and honoured him.
It was the meeting of the old and new, and the revelation to Scott in brutal terms of the new spirit which was destroying all the old social ties. Scott and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey and their like saw in fact the approach of that industrial revolution, as we call it now, which for good or evil has been ever since developing. The Radicals denounced them as mere sentimentalists; the solid Whigs, who fancied that the revolution was never to get beyond the Reform Bill of 1832, laughed at them as mere obstructives; by us, who, whatever our opinions, speak with the advantage of later experience, it must be admitted that such Conservatism had its justification, and that good and far-seeing men might well look with alarm at changes whose far-reaching consequences cannot yet be estimated. Scott, meanwhile, is the incomparable painter of the sturdy race which he loved so well—a race high-spirited, loyal to its principles, surpassingly energetic, full of strong affections and manly spirits, if crabbed, bigoted, and capable of queer perversity and narrow self-conceit. Nor, if we differ from his opinions, can anyone who desires to take a reasonable view of history doubt the interest and value of the conceptions involved. Scott was really the first imaginative observer who saw distinctly how the national type of character is the product of past history, and embodies all the great social forces by which it has slowly shaped itself. That is the new element in his portraiture of human life; and we may pardon him if he set rather too high a value upon the picturesque elements which he had been the first to recognise. One of the acutest of recent writers upon politics, the late Mr. Bagehot, has insisted upon the immense value of what he called a ‘solid cake of customs,’ and the thought is more or less familiar to every writer of the evolutionist way of thinking. Scott, without any philosophy to speak of, political or otherwise, saw and recognised intuitively a typical instance. He saw how much the social fabric had been woven out of ancient tradition; and he made others see it more clearly than could be done by any abstract reasoner.
When naturalists wish to preserve a skeleton, they bury an animal in an ant-hill and dig him up after many days with all the perishable matter fairly eaten away. That is the process which great men have to undergo. A vast multitude of insignificant, unknown, and unconscious critics destroy what has no genuine power of resistance, and leave the remainder for posterity. Much disappears in every case, and it is a question, perhaps, whether the firmer parts of Scott’s reputation will be sufficiently coherent to resist after the removal of the rubbish. We must admit that even his best work is of more or less mixed value, and that the test will be a severe one. Yet we hope, not only for reasons already suggested, but for one which remains to be expressed. The ultimate source of pleasure derivable from all art is that it brings you into communication with the artist. What you really love in the picture or the poem is the painter or the poet whom it brings into sympathy with you across the gulf of time. He tells you what are the thoughts which some fragment of natural scenery, or some incident of human life, excited in a mind greatly wiser and more perceptive than your own. A dramatist or a novelist professes to describe different actors on his little scene, but he is really setting forth the varying phases of his own mind. And so Dandie Dinmont, or the Antiquary, or Balfour of Burley, is merely the conductor through which Scott’s personal magnetism affects our own natures. And certainly, whatever faults a critic may discover in the work, it may be said that no work in our literature places us in communication with a manlier or more lovable nature. Scott, indeed, setting up as the landed proprietor at Abbotsford, and solacing himself with painted plaster of Paris instead of carved oak, does not strike us, any more than he does Carlyle, as a very noble phenomenon. But luckily for us, we have also the Scott who must have been the most charming of all conceivable companions; the Scott who was idolised even by a judicious pig; the Scott, who, unlike the irritable race of literary magnates in general, never lost a friend, and whose presence diffused an equable glow of kindly feeling to the farthest limits of the social system which gravitated round him. He was not precisely brilliant; nobody, so far as we know, who wrote so many sentences has left so few that have fixed themselves upon us as established commonplaces; beyond that unlucky phrase about ‘my name being MacGregor and my foot being on my native heath’—which is not a very admirable sentiment—I do not at present remember a single gem of this kind. Landor, I think, said that in the whole of Scott’s poetry there was only one good line, that, namely, in the poem about Helvellyn referring to the dog of the lost man—
Scott is not one of the coruscating geniuses, throwing out epigrams at every turn, and sparkling with good things. But the poetry, which was first admired to excess and then rejected with undue contempt, is now beginning to find its due level. It is not poetry of the first order. It is not the poetry of deep meditation or of rapt enthusiasm. Much that was once admired has now become rather offensive than otherwise. And yet it has a charm, which becomes more sensible the more familiar we grow with it, the charm of unaffected and spontaneous love of nature; and not only is it perfectly in harmony with the nature which Scott loved so well, but it is still the best interpreter of the sound healthy love of wild scenery. Wordsworth, no doubt, goes deeper; and Byron is more vigorous; and Shelley more ethereal. But it is, and will remain, a good thing to have a breath from the Cheviots brought straight into London streets, as Scott alone can do it. When Washington Irving visited Scott, they had an amicable dispute as to the scenery: Irving, as became an American, complaining of the absence of forests; Scott declaring his love for ‘his honest grey hills,’ and saying that if he did not see the heather once a year he thought he should die. Everybody who has refreshed himself with mountain and moor this summer should feel how much we owe, and how much more we are likely to owe in future, to the man who first inoculated us with his own enthusiasm, and who is still the best interpreter of the ‘honest grey hills.’ Scott’s poetical faculty may, perhaps, be more felt in his prose than his verse. The fact need not be decided; but as we read the best of his novels we feel ourselves transported to the ‘distant Cheviot’s blue;’ mixing with the sturdy dalesmen, and the tough indomitable puritans of his native land; for their sakes we can forgive the exploded feudalism and the faded romance which he attempted with less success to galvanise into life. The pleasure of that healthy open-air life, with that manly companion, is not likely to diminish; and Scott as its exponent may still retain a hold upon our affections which would have been long ago forfeited if he had depended entirely on his romantic nonsense. We are rather in the habit of talking about a healthy animalism, and try most elaborately to be simple and manly. When we turn from our modern professors in that line, who affect a total absence of affectation, to Scott’s Dandie Dinmonts and Edie Ochiltrees, we see the difference between the sham and the reality, and fancy that Scott may still have a lesson or two to preach to this generation. Those to come must take care of themselves.