Here we have Nathaniel Hawthorne describing his 1856 visit to Walter Scott’s house. Scott, at this point, had been dead for 24 years, and was the Greatest Novelist Ever.
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.*
Hawthorne, at this point, had written, among other books, three novels and three volumes of stories. The previous novel, The Blithedale Romance, was three years behind him; his last novel, The Marble Faun, was four years and one long trip to Italy ahead of him.
Yesterday I distinguished, vaguely, between novels and romances, just as Hawthorne and the servant did here. No definition completely differentiates the two forms, in part because the modern novel has colonized and swallowed up earlier forms, absorbing them into what we call the novel. Scott himself called the novel “a fictitious narrative… accommodated to the ordinary train of human events,” which ain’t bad but has its problems.** He is trying to distinguish the novel as he understands it from Gothic fantasies or German fairy stories, all texts that, if long enough, whatever that means, we blithely label novels. Still – “ordinary”? Perhaps one could usefully drag in the word “realism,” but I fear that watery concept would not dispel but concentrate the fog.
Well, as a Modernist reading after a century of explicit genre-pushing experimentation, I don’t actually care what a novel is, and I happily call all sorts of strange things novels. I’m trying to get at what Scott and Hawthorne were trying to get at. A clue was provided to me by bibliographing nicole’s recent pieces about The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), in which she reminds me that Scott, like Hawthorne, wrote hybrid novels, blends of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Lammermoor blends old legends, fairy curses, and prophecies of doom with meticulously researched costumes and customs. Like The Blithedale Romance, Scott’s novel is a stagey book, with the author shuffling a handful of characters and settings, or, to borrow from film, sets.
Now, The Bride of Lammermoor is the most romance-like of the seven Scott novels I have read – Ivanhoe is close, I guess. Lammermoor is that much closer to Lancelot wandering through the woods in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) or the nobles disguised as shepherds in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1593, more or less) than to Don Quixote or Clarissa. How much closer? Uh, you know, that much. None of this is clear-cut.
Here’s one way I think of the difference – no, a way I imagine the difference. Every piece of fiction has some sort of complicated relationship with the actual world. Some texts earnestly mimic the real world, some playfully mock it. Romances create stronger boundaries between the book’s world and the real world. A more typical Scott novel, Waverley (1814), say, by using actual historical events and personages, interweaves itself with the real world, while The Bride of Lammermoor is somehow more sealed off from it. Hawthorne deceptively writes “about” Puritans or Brook Farm, but his novels and stories are hermetic fantasies. Like I said, this is an imaginative view. Or – what are some harsher words? – vague, unformed, fallacious, wrong.
* From the long May 10, 1856 entry, Passages from the English Note-books, 1870.
** I found the quotation, ellipses and all, in “Novel, rise of the”, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition, ed. Margaret Drabble, 1985.