Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 18. His historical inaccuracies

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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 18. His historical inaccuracies

As regards Ivanhoe, it has been shown that he is glaringly at fault in regard to some of the main features of the Norman period, and more particularly as to the relations between Saxons and Normans, on which the main tenor of the narrative depends. Nevertheless, he had so minute a mastery of the manners, customs, cardinal characteristics and circumstances of the chivalric past, and was so profoundly in sympathy with its spirit, that he is able to confer an atmosphere of reality on the period he seeks to illustrate, for which we may look in vain in the records of careful scientific historians.

In the case of the purely Scottish novels, he was more at home and more completely master of his materials; but, for that reason, he was, perhaps, less careful about historic accuracy in details; as he puts it, “a romancer wants but a hair to make a tether of.” No such persons, for example, as Rashleigh, or Francis Osbaldistone, or Miss Vernon, or her father, were associated in the manner these persons are represented to have been with any Jacobite rising; and, in addition, the whole financial story on which the plot turns is hopelessly muddled. Further, Rob Roy, a historical personage, never played any part in connection with Jacobitism at all similar to that assigned him in the novel. Then, in Waverley, the Fergus MacIvor whose ambitions occupy much of our attention is a mere interpolation, and by no means a happy portrait of a Highland chief; and, in Redgauntlet, the second appearance of prince Charlie in the north of England is without foundation either in fact or in tradition. Again, in The Abbot, historic truth is even more wantonly violated—violated after a fashion that tends to bewilder the reader. While the Setons were very devoted followers of queen Mary, the Henry Seton and Catherine Seton of the novel are merely imaginary creations. Although Mary Seton, one of “the four Marys,” was sent for by the queen to attend on her in England, and Lord Seton met her shortly after her escape from Lochleven, no lady of the name of Seton was in attendance on her in Lochleven castle. What is worse, the Lady Mary Fleming, whom Scott represents as in attendance on her there is apt to be confounded either with Lady Fleming, who was the queen’s governess in France, or with Mary Fleming, one of the four Marys, who, by this time, was the wife of Maitland of Lethington. Further, while Scott may partly be excused for his version of the nature of the pressure on the queen to cause her to demit her crown, he is specially unfortunate in representing Sir Robert Melville as deputed by the council to accompany Lord Lindsay on his mission, though his presence undoubtedly adds to the effectiveness of the scene with the queen. Again, in Old Mortality, Scott found it advisable, for artistic purposes, to place Henry Morton in a more immediately dangerous position than could possibly have been his; and, on the other hand, the indulged minister Poundtext, whom he represents as seeking to exercise a moderating influence in the council of the rebels, could not have been there, since none of the indulged ministers took part in the rebellion. Many minor errors of detail in his Scottish novels have also been pointed out by critics; but the important matter is his mastery of the multifarious characteristics of the period with which he deals and his power to bring home to the reader its outstanding peculiarities.

In the non-Scottish novels, and in Scottish novels of earlier periods of history, the spirit of romance is the prevailing element. Here, the portraiture of characters, except in the case of main figures, is generally superficial. Such humorous or eccentric personages as are introduced cannot compare with those who, in the novels of the more modern periods, indulge in the vernacular; they are a kind of hybrid creation, suggested, partly, from the author’s own observation and, partly, by books. In the Scottish novels of the more modern periods, while the romance is of a more homely kind, and has, also, for us, lost its freshness in a manner that the earlier or the foreign element has not, there is included, on the other hand, that immortal gallery of Scottish characters to which allusion has already been made, and the creation of which—however highly his purely romantic genius may be estimated—is the most unequivocal testimony to his greatness.

Great as was the actual achievement of Scott, it has reasonably been doubted whether he made the most of his extraordinary endowments. It was hardly contributory to this that, though by no means a poor man, he set himself with desperate eagerness to enrich himself by literature. While he had a deep enthusiasm for the literary vocation; while the hours he spent in writing were mostly hours of keen delight to him and he never apparently deemed it a toil; yet, his social aspirations seem to have been stronger than his literary ambition. As Lockhart states:

  • “His first and last worldly ambition was himself to be the founder of a distinct branch,” of the clan Scott; “he desired to plant a lasting root, and dreamt not of lasting fame, but of long distant generations rejoicing in the name of ‘Scott of Abbotsford.’ By this idea all his reveries, all his aspirations, all his plans and efforts were overshadowed and controlled.”
  • This ambition was the product of the same romantic sentiment which was the original inspiration of his literary efforts. It was not a mere vulgar striving for opulence and rank; it was associated with peculiar border partialities and enthusiasms; to be other than a border laird and chief and the founder of a new border house had no charms for him. Still, excusable as his ambition may have been, it was to have for him very woeful consequences. Though, without this special incentive, he might not have exerted himself so strenuously in literature as he did, he would have escaped the pecuniary disasters in a herculean effort to remedy which he overtaxed his brain and abruptly shortened his life; and, if the absence of ulterior motives might have lessened his literary production, its fruits might, in quality, have been considerably bettered. True, rapidity of production was one of his special gifts. It was rendered possible by his previous mastery of his materials and the possession of a nervous system which it was almost impossible to tire; and, in his case, the emotional excitement of creation almost demanded celerity of composition; but it was not incumbent on him to omit careful revision of his first drafts. Had he not disdained this, many somewhat wearisome passages might have been condensed, various errors or defects of style might have been corrected, redundances might have been removed, inconsistencies weeded out and the plots more effectively adjusted. How immensely he might have bettered the literary quality of his novels by careful revision there is sufficient proof in that splendid masterpiece Wandering Willie’s Tale, the manuscript of which shows many important amendments.