The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 12. Border Antiquities

In purely historical writings, Scott’s imaginative genius found itself somewhat cramped. His Tales of a Grandfather (1827–9) only faintly mirror his gift of story-telling. As for his voluminous Life of Napoleon (1827), considering the circumstances in which it was written and the rapidity with which it was achieved, it is a remarkable tour de force; but it cannot claim to be, in almost any respect, a satisfactory biography. On the other hand, his Border Antiquities of England and Scotland (1817) exhibits some of his most characteristic qualities. In compiling it, he gained a very minute mastery of the characteristics of ancient architecture and of the scenic features of a region teeming with ancient martial exploits and exciting adventures. Scott had a very keen eye for the picturesque features of ancient buildings and of their situation and surroundings. While still in his father’s office, one of his chief recreations consisted of long country excursions on foot or on horseback, the principal object of which, he says, was “the pleasure of seeing romantic scenery, or what afforded me at least equal pleasure, the places which had been distinguished by remarkable historical events”; and, though he modestly states that, while none delighted more than he in the general effect of picturesque scenery, he was unable with the eye of a painter to dissect the various parts of the scene, and, from some defects of eye or hand, was unable to train himself to make sketches of those places which interested him; yet,

  • “show me,” he says, “an old castle or a field of battle, and I was at home at once, filled it with its combatants in their proper costume and overwhelmed my hearers with the enthusiasm of my description.”
  • He here touches on one of the cardinal idiosyncrasies of his imaginative productions. Their inspiration is derived partly from their scenes, and their fascination is greatly aided by his exceptional mastery of scenic arrangement. While possessing a minute knowledge of the exteriors and interiors of old keeps and castles, of ancient domestic habits and customs, of the modes of ancient combat, of antique military apparel and weapons and of the observances and pageantry of chivalry, he had, also, to obtain a particular setting, a definite environment, for his incidents before his imaginative genius could be adequately kindled; and an outstanding feature of his novels is the elaborate attention bestowed on what may be termed the theatre of his events. If, as he affirms, his sense of the picturesque in scenery was greatly inferior to his sense of the picturesque in action, he was yet, as he states, able, by very careful study and by “adoption of a sort of technical memory,” regarding the scenes he visited, to utilise their general and leading features with all the effectiveness he desired. But, much more than this may be affirmed. “Wood, water, wilderness itself,” had, he says, “an unsurpassable charm” for him; and this charm he completely succeeds in communicating to his readers. His vivid portrayal of the external surroundings immensely enhances the effect of his narrative art; it greatly heightens its interest, and powerfully assists him in conveying a full sense of reality to the incidents he depicts.