Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 15. The characters in his novels

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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 15. The characters in his novels

In his creation of personages, Scott displays a fecundity resembling that of nature herself, a fecundity derived from his comprehensive acquaintanceship with all sorts and conditions of men. Like Burns, he at once placed himself on easy terms with everyone he met. His early raids into Liddesdale, for example, gave him a better insight into the characteristics of the border shepherds and farmers than most strangers could obtain, for the simple reason that he at once became intimate with them. The verdict of one of them, at first disposed to stand in awe of the Edinburgh advocate, was, so soon as Scott had spoken to him, “He’s just a chield like ourselves I think”; and this was the impression he produced in whatever circle he moved. He met everyone on terms of their common human nature; he mingled with his workmen without conveying any sense of patronage, he and they were at home with each other. On animals, he seemed to exercise, unconsciously, a mesmeric influence, founded on their instinctive trust in his goodwill; and a similar glamour, derived from his deep geniality, at once secured him the confidence and regard of nearly every person he met.

  • “I believe,” says Lockhart, “Scott has somewhere expressed in print his satisfaction that, during all the changes of our manners, the ancient freedom of personal intercourse may still be indulged in between a master and an out-of-door’s servant, but in truth he kept up the old fashion even with his domestic servants to an extent which I have hardly seen practised by any other gentleman. He conversed with his coachman if he sat by him, as he often did, on the box, with his footman if he happened to be in the rumble.… Any steady servant of a friend of his was soon considered as a sort of friend too, and was sure to have a kind little colloquy to himself at coming and going.”
  • Referring to the bashful reluctance of Nigel to mix in the conversation of those with whom he was not familiar, Scott remarks:

  • It is a fault only to be cured by experience and knowledge of the world which soon teaches every sensible and acute person the important lesson that amusement, and, what is of more consequence, that information and increase of knowledge are to be derived from the conversation of every individual whatsoever with whom he is thrown into a natural train of communication. For ourselves we can assure the reader—and perhaps if we have been able to afford him amusement it is owing in a great degree to this cause—that we never found ourselves in company with the stupidest of all possible companions in a post-chaise, or with the most arrant cumber-corner that ever occupied a place in the mail-coach, without finding that in the course of our conversation with him we had some idea suggested to us, either grave or gay, or some information communicated in the course of our journey, which we should have regretted not to have learned, and which we should be sorry to have immediately forgotten.
  • Scott’s curiosity as to idiosyncrasies, though kindly and well bred, was minute and insatiable; and it may further be noted that, for his study of certain types of human nature, he had peculiar opportunities from his post of observation as clerk to the court of session. Moreover, he was happily dowered with the power to combine strenuous literary and other labours with an almost constant round of social distractions. His mental gifts were splendidly reinforced by exceptional physical vigour, and, more particularly, by a nervous system so strongly strung that, for many years, it was not seriously disquieted by incessant studious application combined with an almost constant round of conviviality. To almost the last, it enabled him to perform prodigies of literary labour, even after it had begun to show serious signs of breaking up. Though it must be granted that the infesting of his border home by a constant influx of “tourists, wonder hunters and all that fatal species,” was, even from monetary considerations—considerations the importance of which were, in the end, to be calamitously revealed—far from an unmixed blessing, it had certain compensations. If he occasionally found it needful—from the behests of literary composition—to escape from it, the social racket, on the whole, gave him more pleasure than boredom. Lockhart describes the society at Abbotsford as “a brilliant and ever varying” one; and Scott, evidently, enjoyed its diversity; and, while responding to its brilliances, took quiet note of its follies and vanities. Though the “daily reception of new comers” entailed more or less “worry and exhaustion of spirit upon all the family,” he was himself, we are told, proof against this. The immense geniality of Scott, which qualified him for so comprehensive an appreciation of human nature, especially manifests itself in his method of representing character. His standpoint is quite the antipodes of that of Swift or Balzac. Mentally and morally, he was thoroughly healthy and happy; there was no taint of morbidity or bitterness in his disposition; and, if aspiring, he was so without any tincture of jealousy or envy. Though possessing potent satiric gifts, he but rarely has recourse to them. Generally his humour is of an exceptionally kindly and sunny character. He hardly ever—and only when, as in the case of the marquis of Argyll, his political prejudices are strongly stirred—manifests an unfairness that verges on spite. If a somewhat superficial, he is not a narrow, moralist. The existence of human frailties does not seriously oppress him; they appeal, many of them, as much to his sense of humour as to his judiciary temper. He shows no trace of the uneasy cynicism which greatly afflicted Thackeray; and, unlike many modern writers, he displays no absorbing anxiety to explore what they deem the depths of human nature and expose its general unsoundness. On the other hand, he is an expert exponent of its eccentricities and its comical qualities; and, if not one of the most profoundly instructive, he is one of the most wholesomely cheerful, of moralists. At the same time, he can admirably depict certain types of vulgarly ambitious scoundrels, such as the attorney Glossin in Guy Mannering, and he has a keen eye for a grotesque hypocrite like Thomas Turnbull in Redgauntlet. Captain Dirk Hatteraick is, also, a splendid ruffian, although a much less difficult portrait than that of captain Nanty Ewart of “The Jumping Jenny” and his pathetic struggle between good and evil. On the other hand, his merely villainous creations, whether of the diabolically clever order like Rashleigh, or the somewhat commonplace sort of Lord Dalgarno, or the low and depraved kind of his eminence of Whitefriars—grossly impressive after a fashion though he be—are all a little stagey. In historical character, his outstanding successes are Louis XI and James VI and I. Here, of course, he had the advantage of having to deal with very marked idiosyncrasies; but this might well have been a snare to an inferior romancer. Scott’s portraits of them may be more or less incorrect, but both are very masterly and vivid representations of very definite embodiments of peculiar royal traits. With them, he was much more successful than with Mary queen of Scots, whose stilted heroics do not impress us, and, here, he was handicapped by the conflict between his sympathies and his convictions. His strong cavalier bias, also, on other occasions proved a snare to him. For example, he outrageously exaggerates the sinister qualities of the marquis of Argyll; while his Montrose is a featureless and faultless hero, quite overshadowed in interest by captain Dugald Dalgetty. Claverhouse, again—whom, in Old Mortality, he rather infelicitously refers to as “profound in politics,” and whom, inadvertently, he makes to figure there more as an arrogant coxcomb than as the high-hearted royalist he would wish him to be—is, in Wandering Willie’s Tale, very impressively revealed to us as he appears in convenanting tradition. On the other hand, the fanaticism of Burley in Old Mortality is rather overdrawn: the stern indignation which prompted the murder of archbishop Sharp was not allied to any form of mental disorder. Still, if not historically correct, the picturesque luridness of the fanaticism which is ascribed to him is effectively set forth.