Friday, June 6, 2008

A glance back at Scott - his influence, whatever that means

Charles Dickens had begun thinking about a novel centered on the Gordon riots years before he wrote it. Most writers at the time probably thought about writing historical novels. They were popular, and they were relatively prestigious. Novels were still inferior to poems, but historical novels were somehow classier than domestic novels. Because they required research, I guess.

For a while, almost everyone was influenced by Walter Scott in some way. The phenomenon extended throughout America and Europe, although there's an irony that in most countries Scott was read in hasty, sloppy French translations. Alexandre Dumas and James Fennimore Cooper were direct imitators, although they found their own voices over time. The first novel Balzac put his name on, Les Chouans, is pure Scott, and it's no coincidence that Balzac has young Lucien of Lost Illusions bring two manuscripts to Paris: a book of sonnets, and a historical novel, The Archer of Charles IX. And there was a mound of others - Ainsworth, Bulwer-Lytton - names from literary encyclopedias; Gogol, Pushkin - names still very much alive.

Influence can be a slender thing, though. My two favorite historical novels of the early 19th century are Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris (1831) and Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1827). Both are big, lively, exciting books, dramatic and humorous. Both contain complete imaginative worlds. Scott, or the imitators of Scott, may have planted the idea of writing a historical novel, but any influence ends there. These writers didn't need Scott's help with anything.*

At some point, the popularity of the genre made Scott's influence too diffuse to be noticed. I doubt War and Peace (1869), or Salammbo (1862), or maybe even The Tale of Two Cities (1859) owe much to Scott.

But there may have been another way that Scott left his mark, more important than his affect on the popularity of a particular genre. To differentiate then from now - a primary goal of historical fiction, one would think - the novelist must detail the differences. Clothes, food, speech, coaches and houses have to be described in some detail. Customs, laws, society, those, too, but also the physical world. Attentive readers of Fielding or Richardson or Austen's earliest novels will understand how new this level of detail is. John Galt, for example, understood that he could write in similar detail about contemporary life in Scotland. I think he picked this up from Scott. Although, come to think of it, his masterpiece The Entail (1823) covers a García Márquez-like hundred years, which sounds a bit historical.

Anyway, maybe there are a few more traces of Scott in Flaubert and Tolstoy than one would guess.

*Manzoni's framing narrator may have an element of parody of Scott. Manzoni later wrote a book length essay on the genre (On the Historical Novel), which I have not read, and should.


  1. To differentiate then from now - a primary goal of historical fiction, one would think - the novelist must detail the differences. Clothes, food, speech, coaches and houses have to be described in some detail.

    I think, too, that beyond these details of surfaces, Scott can be very smart about the way people themselves internalize history--that is, moving away from the idea of a universal human nature that characterizes a lot of earlier writing about the past. In Waverley, for example, he spends a lot of time making clear that Fergus's character develops as it does because of when he lives, at a particular moment when certain specific proclivities (for lack of a better term) find specific outlets or directions and not others.

    George Eliot (who loved Scott) is also very good about this. Dorothea Brooke born at some other time would have developed in a different way. And yet when she tried to go really overtly historical, in Romola, even she struggled to bring the humanity of the past out from behind all the surface trappings of history. (Though I forgive it its flaws for the brilliance of some awesome moments in it, like the moment when Tito sees Baldassare again...)

    Some critic (I forget who, exactly) suggested that many Victorian novels can fruitfully be thought of as historical novels about the present. I think that would be because of Scott.

    However do you find the time to have read so much?! "Amateur" indeed.

  2. "Historical novels about the present" - this describes Balzac, for example, perfectly. And the point about Waverley's Highlanders is well made - this may be a failing of Barnaby Rudge, that the Dickens characters of 1780 are exactly like the Dickens characters of 1741.

    As for my Amateur status, I want to distinguish myself from the pros - the scholars, book reviewers, and whatnot. But I'll admit I'm not a Normal Reader. The specialization is the weird part. Maybe 9 of 10 (19 of 20?) books I've read in the last 5 years or so have been related to the 19th century, almost all primary texts.

  3. It's interesting the way Scott is so very, very influential, and yet he doesn't get a ton of attention from literary critics these days -- he's so important but also kind of neglected.

  4. I've been told that there has been a real resurgence of scholarly work on Scott - maybe it's even peaked now. See, for example, a recent post by The Little Professor on a very interesting passage from "The Monastery". But I haven't seen this attention make its way into the non-academic literary world.

  5. I am 47% into Ivanhoe. I am troubled/puzzled wondering if experts take it as anti-Semetic. I did a word count check on "Jew", it occurs 361 times. I am over all enjoying it. Is Scott attacking anti-Semeticism, exposing it or just reflecting what his readers thought was the truth?

  6. Anti-Semitic, yes. But also philo-Semitic, through Rebecca.