Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 16. His treatment of love

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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 16. His treatment of love

Generally, it may be said that Scott is least successful with his more morally correct and least eccentric personages. He specially fails to interest us in his lovers—perfectly proper but rather buckram young men, with merely average commonplace characteristics. Of Waverley, he himself said:

  • The hero is a sneaking piece of imbecility, and if he had married Flora, she would have set him up upon the chimney piece, as Count Borowlaski’s wife used to do with him.
  • As for the heroines, their main fault is their faultlessness; they do and say nothing that provokes criticism; and he is more careful that we should respect and admire than understand them. Catherine Seton is clever, witty and sprightly. Diana Vernon is rendered interesting by her peculiar surroundings, and, though in a quite ingenuous fashion, verges on unconventionality. Julia Mannering, Lucy Bertram, Flora Mac-Ivor, Edith Bellenden, Miss Wardour are all charming in a slightly different fashion from each other; but little more than the surface of their natures is revealed to us. On account of the peculiar prominence of the love episode in The Bride of Lammermoor, and its strong tragic characteristics, some have been inclined to pronounce this novel Scott’s masterpiece; but, while the tragic painfulness of portions of the novel is undeniable, and no small art is shown in creating a general atmosphere of tragic gloom and conveying a sense of impending calamity, its tragic greatness is another matter. The chief personalities hardly possess the qualities needful for evoking the highest form of tragic pathos. The almost ludicrous subjection of Sir William to his masterful wife is a serious hindrance to the achievement of the desired effect; while, again, disgust at her besotted prejudice and narrow, stolid pride tends to prevent us from being roused to any other emotion as to its consequences. Then, Lucy Ashton is too weak to win our full sympathy; and her sudden lunacy and mad murderous act shock, rather than impress, us; while, on the other hand, Ravenswood is at once too readily conciliatory and too darkly fierce. And, even if the tragic elements were better compounded than they are, the novel, in other respects, is decidedly inferior to the best of his productions. It has very patent faults—sufficiently accounted for by Scott’s condition of almost perpetual torture when he wrote it—and, except in the case of the weird crones, displays less than his usual graphic felicity in the portrayal of Scottish characters, Caleb Balderstone, for example, being a rather wearisome caricature, and the wit expended on his ingenious devices to hide the extreme destitution of his master’s larder being of the very cheapest kind.

    However admirably he could create a strong and thrilling situation, Scott, in the portrayal of love episodes, fails to interest his readers so much as do many less distinguished novelists. Here, he shows little literary kinship with Shakespeare, with whom he is sometimes compared, with whose influence he was in many respects strongly saturated, from whom he obtained important guidance in regard to artistic methods and whose example is specially apparent in some of his more striking situations. For his almost gingerly method of dealing with love affairs, the exceedingly conventional character of the Edinburgh society in which he moved may, in part, be held responsible. He had an inveterate respect for the stereotyped proprieties. By the time, also, that he began to write his prose romances, love, with him, had mellowed into the tranquil affection of married life. It was mainly in a fatherly kind of way that he interested himself in the amatory interludes of his heroes and heroines, who generally conduct themselves in the same invariably featureless fashion, and do not, as a rule, play a more important part in his narration than that of pawns in a game of chess. With him, romance was not primarily the romance of love, but the general romance of human life, of the world and its activities, and, more especially, of the warring, adventurous and, more or less, strange and curiosity-provoking past. For achieving his best effects, he required a period removed, if even a little less than “sixty years since,” from his own, a period contrasting more or less strongly, but in, at least, a great variety of ways, with it; and he depended largely on the curiosity latent, if not active, in most persons, about old-time fashions, manners, modes of life, personal characteristics and, more especially, dangers and adventures.

    “No fresher paintings of Nature,” says Carlyle, “can be found than Scott’s; hardly anywhere a wider sympathy with man”; but he affirms that, while

  • Shakespeare fashions his characters from the heart outwards, your Scott fashions them from the skin inwards, never getting near the heart of them! The one set become living men and women, the other amount to little more than mechanical cases, deceptively painted automatons.
  • Though a characteristically exaggerated pronouncement, it is undeniable that there is a soupçon of truth in it. Scott would have been the last to liken himself to Shakespeare as a delineator of character. He is a little lacking in depth and subtlety; he has an eye mainly for strongly marked characteristics, and certain of his personages are but superficially delineated. He makes no special intellectual or moral demands on us, as does, for example, Meredith or Thackeray; he had little sense of the finer shades, as had Jane Austen; and he cannot quite compare with Carlyle in the portrayal of historic personages. Further, it is a notable circumstance that few or none of his personages develop under his hands; for the most part, they are, throughout the narrative, exhibited with characteristics which are unmodified by time, experience or events. To analyse character was, in fact, as little his aim, as it was to promulgate any special social dogma. As Carlyle laments, he was not “possessed with an idea”; but, however predominant and effective a part ideas may play in modern drama and fiction, they have their disadvantages; they are apt to prove rather a hindrance than an aid to more than temporary success in the more creative forms of literature. That Scott was not actuated by any more special purpose than that of giving delight to his readers may even be reckoned one of the chief sources of his charm and of the widely beneficent influence he exercises. He attracts us mainly by an exhibition of the multifarious pageantry of life; or, as Carlyle puts it, his was “a genius in extenso, as we may say, not in intenso.”

    Yet, as a delineator of character, he has his strong points. He had thoroughly studied the lowland Scot. If, not knowing Gaelic, he never properly understood the Highlander, and portrays mainly his superficial peculiarities arising from an imperfect command of lowland Scots and a comparative ignorance of the arts of civilised life—portrays him as the foreigner is usually portrayed in English novels—he knew his lowland Scot as few have ever known him. Here are “no deceptively painted automatons,” but “living men and women.” He is more especially successful with the Scot of the humble or burgher class, and with Scottish eccentrics gentle or simple. Jeanie Deans and her Cameronian father David, the theologically dull but practically wide-awake ploughman Cuddie Headrigg and his fanatic mother the covenanting Mause, Meg Merrilies, even if she be a little stagey, the border farmer, Dandie Dinmont, Dominie Sampson, Ritt Master Dalgetty, Baillie Nicol Jarvie, the bedesman Edie Ochiltree, that pitiable victim of litigation, the irrepressible Peter Peebles, the Antiquary himself—these and such as these are all immortals. His success with such characters was primarily owing to his genial intercourse with all classes and his peculiar sense of humour. In depicting eccentrics or persons with striking idiosyncrasies, or those in the lower ranks of life, he displays at once an amazing fecundity and a well-nigh matchless efficacy. Here, he has a supremacy hardly threatened amongst English writers even by Dickens, for, unlike Dickens, he is never fantastic or extravagant. If not so mirth-provoking as Dickens, he is, in his humourous passages, quite as entertaining, and his eccentrics never, as those of Dickens often do, tax our belief in their possible existence. As a humourist, his one drawback—a drawback which, with many, prevents an adequate appreciation of his merits—is that his most characteristic creations generally express themselves in a dialect the idiomatic niceties of which can be fully appreciated only by Scotsmen, and not now by every one of that nationality.