Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It would be impossible to mention any author, the tone of whose works is so thoroughly healthy and pure as Sir Walter Scott’s

The writers collected in The Victorian Art of Fiction are concerned, mostly, with the Victorian art of fiction.  But hovering over or buried under every piece is the shelf of novels by the Author of Waverley.  Walter Scott is omnipresent, he or one of his characters referred to in passing, repeatedly, as if the reader were obviously familiar with Scott’s Collected Works.  Scott has the largest entry in the index, followed closely by Shakespeare, Dickens, and Thackeray (and then: C. Brontë, G. Eliot, E. Bulwer-Lytton, J. Austen).

I’ve gone on and on and on some more about Scott’s enormous place in literary history, far out of proportion to the quality of his novels.  When literature professor David Masson claimed, in 1859, that "[Scott’s] influence is more widely diffused through certain departments of European and American literature than that of any individual writer that has recently lived…" (161), he did not need to argue his case.  Everyone knew it.

Working my way through these essays I learned that Scott was actually more important than I had thought.  Scott singlehandedly transformed the debate over the moral worth of the novel.  Before Waverley (1814), the novel was a morally dubious and/or artistically null form, brushing aside certain exceptions. After Waverley - not immediately after, but soon - the weight of the argument, the momentum, turned. Now the exception that had to be denied was Walter Scott, who somehow was no longer the exception but the rule.

The anonymous author of “The Progress of Fiction as Art” (1853) writes “In the whole range of fiction it would be impossible to mention any author, the tone of whose works is so thoroughly healthy and pure as Sir Walter Scott’s” (68) and means it.  Not Dickens, for example, or Austen, or Samuel Richardson.  "Thouroughly healthy and pure" is not quite the recommendation it used to be.

Masson argues that Scott’s stature as a poet was crucial, that he was able to transfer his acknowledged worth as a poet onto prose fiction, something not available to Austen or Maria Edgeworth.  I have no idea if this is right, but it’s plausible.  The result, according to Masson: “Prose Fiction assumed, in consequence, a higher relative dignity; nay Prose itself could be conscious of having advanced its several stages nearer to the very citadel of Poesy” (162).

The high value of Scott recurs throughout The Art of Victorian Fiction.  Walter Bagehot (“The Novels of George Eliot”, 1860) can pay Eliot no higher compliment than incessantly comparing her to Scott.  Henry Mansel (1863), amusingly, indicts the readers of sensation novels for not reading Scott (209).  John Ruskin’s head-on attack on the very practice of novel reading carves out an enormous exception for Scott.  It’s all been downhill since Walter Scott, Ruskin writes in 1880, sixty-six years after the publication of Waverley.

Today’s readers of Waverley and other Scott novels will find this curious, but it has little to do with Scott’s novels themselves.  Today’s readers of Jane Austen, Scott’s exact contemporary, will say “Excuse me!  Over here!  Even better novels, also morally serious!”  Literary history is not fair.*

I want to note that, unlike his role in the spread of the historical novel, Scott’s influence on notions of the moral value of fiction does not appear to be an international phenomenon.  By the time Scott turned to fiction, Goethe, for example, had published three novels, one of them forty years in the past, and a wide range of German Romantic fiction writers were working in all sorts of fascinating directions.  German fiction needed no assistance from Walter Scott.

* Austen, in these essays, is universally loved.  Everyone goes gushy over Austen.  George Henry Lewes (1852): “as an artist, Miss Austen surpasses all the male artists that ever lived” (49).  That’s typical.


  1. There's an interesting example of the Scott comparison being used against Eliot in an 1860 essay by J. C. Robertson. He compares Adam Bede to Heart of Midlothian (for obvious reasons) and objects to Eiot's choice to focus so intensely on Hetty's experience, including "her thoughts throughout the whole course of the seduction" and "her despairing hardness in the prison":

    "That all this is represented with extraordinary force we need not say; and doubtless the partisans of 'George Eliot' would tell us that Scott could not have written the chapters in question. We do not think it necessary to discuss that point, but we are sure that in any case he would not have written them, because his healthy judgment would have rejected such matters as unfit for the novelist's art."

  2. Scott is certainly someone I need to read one of these days, but it's precisely (my suspicion of) his "enormous place in literary history, far out of proportion to the quality of his novels" that puts me off. I'm kind of tired of dealing with stuff like that, but I know I need to.

    Yeah, now I just feel like I shouldn't read anything else from 19th century Britain until I do.

  3. I don't think any apology is needed for the quality of Waverley or Old Mortality or The Heart of Midlothian--and maybe a couple of others. That leaves, oh, 20-odd novels most of us don't really want to read! The Bride of Lammermoor is fun (and relatively short).

  4. Isn't that interesting - the Hetty-focused chapters are just what a modern reader is likely to find most morally valuable, not the ideal lives of Adam and Dinah. I'm more likely to criticize Scott for thinking the subject is "unfit."

    As for Scott's influence - I really approach the ratio from the other direction. Even if Waverley were Anna Karenina combined with Ulysses, its importance in international literary history would be vastly disproportionate to its quality. The Scott boom was an amazing phenomenon.

    But: Scott became diffused and absorbed very quickly, so direct knowledge of his books is not so important. They should be read because they're good, not because they're important.

    Rohan is fundamentally right - Scott's best books are excellent. Having just read The Antiquary, which I would not call one of the best, I am only beginning to appreciate Scott's experimental side. He was not content (at least early on) to simply repeat his own formula. Many of the flaws of his novels come form the same place as the virtues, his curiosity about how the novel works.

    Nicole, Old Mortality and parts of The Heart of Midlothian will look even more interesting after reading Hogg!

  5. Hmm, I am certainly coming around. Powerful recommendations here and all.

  6. It sounds like I really must add Scott to my Victorian summer reading list.

  7. Thoroughly healthy and pure - Scott is like spring water. Perfect for the summer.