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Scott And His Waverley Novels Post by :fahadhassen Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1418

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Scott And His Waverley Novels


It is as difficult to sum up in a brief article the work and the influence of Sir Walter Scott as it is to make an estimate of Shakespeare, for Scott holds the same position in English prose fiction that Shakespeare holds in English poetry. In neither department is there any rival. In sheer creative force Scott stands head and shoulders above every other English novelist, and he has no superior among the novelists of any other nation. He has made Scotland and the Scotch people known to the world as Cervantes made Spain and the Spaniards a reality for all times.

But he did more than Cervantes, for his creative mind reached over the border into England and across the channel to France and Germany, and even to the Holy Land, and found there historical types which he made as real and as immortal as his own highland clansmen. His was the great creative brain of the nineteenth century, and his work has made the world his debtor. His work stimulated the best story teller of France and gave the world Monte Cristo and The Three Guardsmen. It fired the imaginations of a score of English historical novelists; it was the progenitor of Weyman's A Soldier of France and Conan Doyle's Micah Clarke and The White Company.

Scott's mind was Shakespearean in its capacity for creating characters of real flesh and blood; for making great historical personages as real and vital as our next-door neighbors, and for bursts of sustained story telling that carry the reader on for scores of pages without an instant's drop in interest. Only the supreme masters in creative art can accomplish these things. And the wonder of it is that Scott did all these things without effort and without any self-consciousness. We can not imagine Scott bragging about any of his books or his characters, as Balzac did about Eugenie Grandet and others of his French types. He was too big a man for any small vanities. But he was as human as Shakespeare in his love of money, his desire to gather his friends about him and his hearty enjoyment of good food and drink.

It has become the fashion among some of our hair-splitting critics to decry Scott because of his carelessness in literary style, his tendency to long introductions, and his fondness for description. These critics will tell you that Turgeneff and Tolstoi are greater literary artists than Scott, just as they tell you that Thackeray and Dickens do not deserve a place among the foremost of English novelists. This petty, finical criticism, which would measure everything by its own rigid rule of literary art, loses sight of the great primal fact that Scott created more real characters and told more good stories than any other novelist, and that his work will outlive that of all his detractors. It ignores the fact that Thackeray's wit, pathos, tenderness and knowledge of human nature make him immortal in spite of many defects. It forgets that Dickens' humor, joy of living and keen desire to help his fellow man will bring him thousands of readers after all the apostles of realism are buried under the dust of oblivion.

Scott had the ideal training for a great historical novelist. Yet his literary successes in verse and prose were the result of accident. It is needless here to review his life. The son of a mediocre Scotch lawyer, he inherited from his father his capacity for work and his passion for system and order. From his mother he drew his love of reading and his fondness for old tales of the Scotch border. Like so many famous writers, his early education was desultory, but he had the free run of a fine library, and when he was a mere schoolboy his reading of the best English classics had been wider and more thorough than that of his teachers.

Forced by boyish illness to live in the country, he early developed a great love for the Scotch ballads and the tales of the romantic past of his native land. These he gathered mainly by word of mouth. Later he was a diligent student and collector of all the old ballads. In this way his mind was steeped in historical lore, while by many walking tours through the highlands he came to know the common people as very few have ever known them.

Thus for forty years, while he was a working lawyer and a sheriff of his county, he was really laying up stores of material upon which he drew for his many novels. His literary tastes were first developed by study of German and by the translation of German ballads and plays. This practice led him to write The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and its success was responsible for Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. But great as was his triumph in verse, he dropped the writing of poems when Byron's work eclipsed his own.

Then, in his forty-third year, he turned to prose and began with Waverley; that series of novels which is the greatest ever produced by one man. The success of his first story proved a great stimulus to his imagination, and for years he continued to produce these novels, three of which may be ranked as the best in English literature. The element of mystery in regard to the authorship added to Scott's literary success. It was his habit to crowd his literary work into the early hours from four to eight o'clock in the morning; the remainder of the day was given up to legal duties and the evening to society. His tremendous energy and his power of concentration made these four hours equal to an ordinary man's working day. His mind was so full of material that the labor was mainly that of selection. Creative work, when once seated at his desk, was as natural as breathing. Scott came to his desk with the zest of a boy starting on a holiday, and this pleasure is reflected in the ease and spontaneity of his stories.

But much as he liked his literary work, Scott would not have produced so great a number of fine novels had he not been impelled by the desire to retrieve large money losses. His old school friend, Ballantyne, forced into bankruptcy the printing firm in which Scott was a secret partner. The novelist was not morally responsible for these debts, but his keen sense of honor made him accept all the responsibility, and it drove him to that unceasing work which shortened his life. He paid off nearly all the great debt, and he gave in this task an example of high courage and power of work that has never been surpassed and seldom equaled. You may read the record of those last years in Lockhart's fine Life of Scott. Get the one volume edition, for the full work is too long for these busy days, and follow the old author in his heroic struggle. It will bring tears to your eyes, but it will make you a lover of Scott, the man, who was as great as Scott, the poet and novelist.

Ruskin, when he was making up a list of great authors, put opposite Scott's name, "Every line." That bit of advice cannot be followed in these strenuous times, but one must make a selection of the best, and then, if he have time and inclination, add to this number. To my mind, the four great novels of Scott are Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, The Talisman and The Heart of Midlothian. The first gives you feudal England as no one else has painted it, with a picture of Richard the Lion-Hearted which no historian has ever approached. It contains some of the most thrilling scenes in all fiction.

James Payn, who was a very clever novelist, relates the story that he and two literary friends agreed to name the scene in all fiction that they regarded as the most dramatic. When they came to compare notes they found that all three had chosen the same--the entry of the unknown knight at Ashby de la Zouch, who passes by the tents of the other contestants and strikes with a resounding clash the shield of the haughty Templar. This romance also contains one of Scott's finest women, the Jewess Rebecca, who atones for the novelist's many insipid female characters. Scott was much like Stevenson--he preferred to draw men, and he was happiest when in the clash of arms or about to undertake a desperate adventure.

Quentin Durward is memorable for its splendid picture of Louis XI, one of the ablest as well as one of the meanest men who ever sat on a throne. The early chapters of this novel, which describe the adventures of the young Scotch soldier at the court of France, have never been surpassed in romantic interest. The Talisman gives the glory and the romance of the Crusades as no other imaginative work has done. It stands in a class by itself and is only approached by Scott's last novel, Count Robert of Paris, which gives flashes of the same spirit.

Of the Scotch novels it is difficult to make a choice, but it seems to me The Heart of Midlothian has the widest appeal, although many would cast their votes for Old Mortality, The Antiquary or Rob Roy because of the rich humor of those romances. Scott's dialect, although true to nature, is not difficult, as he did not consider it necessary to give all the colloquial terms, like the modern "kailyard" writers.

If you read three or four of Scott's novels you are pretty apt to read more. It is an easy matter to skip the prolix passages and the unnecessary introductions. This done, you have a body of romance that is far richer than any present-day fiction. And their great merit is that, though written in a coarse age, the Waverley novels are sweet and wholesome. One misses a great source of enjoyment and culture who fails to read the best of Scott's novels. Take them all in all, they are the finest fiction that has ever been written, and their continued popularity, despite their many faults, is the best proof of their sterling merit.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay on: Scott And His Waverley Novels

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