Sir Walter Scott

Portret van Sit Walter Scott

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Sir Walter Scott.


Letter We have already touched on the more remarkable and distinguished features of the Waverley novels, and the influence which they exercised, not only on this country, but over the whole continent of Europe and the United States of North-America.

That long array of immortal fictions can only be compared with the dramas of Shakspeare, as presenting a vast variety of original characters, scenes, historical situations, and adventures. They are marked by the same universal and genial sympathies, allied to every form of humanity, and free from all selfish egotism or moral obliquity.

In painting historical personages or events, these two great masters evinced a kindred taste, and not dissimilar powers. The highest intellectual traits and imagination of Shakespeare were, it is true, not approached by Scott: the dramatist locked inwardly upon man and nature with a more profound and searching philosophy. He could effect more with his five acts than Scott with his three volumes. The novelist only pictured to the eye what his great prototype stamped on the heart and feelings. Yet both were great moral teachers, without seeming to teach. They were brothers in character and in genius, and they poured out their imaginative treasures with a calm easy strength and conscious mastery, of which the world has seen no other examples.

So early as 1805, before his great poems were produced, Scott had entered on the composition of Waverley, the first of his illustrious progeny of tales. He wrote about seven chapters, evidently taking Fielding, in his grave descriptive and ironical vein, for his model; but, getting dissatisfied with his attempt, he threw it aside. Eight years afterwards he met accidentally with the fragment and determined to finish the story. In the interval between the commencement of the novel in 1805 and its resumption in 1813, Scott had acquired greater freedom and self-reliance as an author.

In Marmion and The Lady of the Lake he had struck out a path for himself, and the latter portion of Waverley partook of the new spirit and enthusiasm. A large part of its materials resembles those employed in The Lady of the Lake – Highland feudalism, military bravery and devotion, and the most easy and exquisite description of natural scenery. He added also a fine vein of humour, chaste yet ripened, and peculiarly his own, and a power of uniting history with fiction, that subsequently became one of the great sources of his strength.

His portrait of Charles Edward, the noble old Baron of Bradwardine, the simple faithful clansman Evan Dhu, and the poor fool Davie Gellatley, with his fragments of song and scattered gleams of fancy and sensibility, were new triumphs of the author. The poetry had projected shadows and outlines of the Highland chief, the gaiety and splendour of the court, and the agitation of the camp and battle-field; but the humorous contrasts, homely observation, and pathos displayed in Waverley, disclosed far deeper observation and more original powers. The work was published in July 1814, Constable giving £700 for the copyright.

Scott did not prefix his name to it, afraid that he might compromise his poetical reputation by a doubtful experiment in a new style – particularly by his copious use of Scottish terms and expressions; but the unmingled applause with which the tale was received was, he says, like having the property of a hidden treasure, „not less gratifying than if all the world knew it was his own.” Henceforward, Scott resolved, as a novelist, to preserve his mask, desirous to obviate all personal discussions respecting his own productions, and aware also of the interest and curiosity which he secrecy would impart to his subsequent productions.

In February 1815 – seven months after Waverley – Scott published his second novel, Guy Mannering. It was the work of six weeks about Christmas, and marks of haste are visible in the construction of the plot and development of incidents. Yet what length of time or patience in revision could have added to the charm or hilarity of such portraits as that of Dandy Dinmont, or the shrewd and witty Counsellor Pleydell – the finished, desperate, sea-beaten villainy of Hatteraick – the simple, uncouth devotion of that gentlest of pedants, poor Dominic Sampson – or the wild savage virtues and crazed superstition of the gipsy-dweller in Derncleugh! The astrological agency and predictions so marvellously fulfilled are undoubtedly excrescenses on the story, though suited to a winter’s tale in Scotland. The love-scenes and female characters, and even Mannering himself, seem also allied to the Minerva Press family; but the Scottish characters are all admirably filled up.

There is also a captivating youthful feeling and spirit in the description of the wanderings and dangers of Bertram, and the events, improbable as they appear, which restore him to his patrimony; while the gradual decay and death of the old Laird of Ellangowan – carried out to the green as his castle and effects are in tha hands of the auctioneer – are inexpressibly touching and natural. The interest of the tale is sustained throughout with dramatic skill and effect.

In May 1816 came forth The Antiquary, less romantic and bustling in incidents than either of its predecessors, but infinitely richer in character, dialogue and humour. In this work Scott displayed his thorough knowledge of the middle and lower ranks of Scottish life. He confined his story chiefly to a small fishing-town and one or two country mansions.

His hero is a testy old Whig laird and bachelor, and his dramatis personæ are little better than this retired humorist – the family of a poor fisherman, a bluegown mendicant, an old barber, and a few other humble „landward and burrows-town” characters.
The sentimental Lord Glenallan, and the pompous Sir Arthur Wardour, with Lovel the unknown, and the fiery Hector M’intyre – the last a genuine Celtic portrait – are necessary to the plot and action of the piece, but they constitute only a small degree of the reader’s pleasure or the author’s fame.
These rest on the inimitable delineation of Oldbuck, that model of black0letter and Roman-camp antiquaries, whose oddities and conversation are rich and racy as any of the old crusted port that John of the Girnel might have held in his monastic cellars – on the restless, garrulous, kind-hearted gaberlunzie, Edie Ochiltree, who delighted to daunder down the burn-sides and green shaws – on the cottage of the Mucklebackits, and the death and burial of Steenie – and on that scene of storm and tempest by the seaside, which is described with such vivid reality and appaling magnificence.

The amount of curious reading, knowledge of local history and antiquities, power of description, and breath of humour in The Antiquary, render it one of the most perfect of the author’s novels. If Cervantes and Fielding really excelled Scott in the novel (he is unapproached in romance), it must be admitted that The Antiquary ranks only second to Don Quixote and Tom Jones. In none of his works has Scott shewn greater power in developing the nicer shades of feeling and character, or greater felicity of phrase and illustration. A healthy moral tone also pervades the whole – a clear and bracing atmosphere of real life; and what more striking lesson in practical benevolence was ever incalculated than those words of the rough old fisherman, ejaculated while he was mending his boat after his son Steenie’s funeral – „What would you have me do, unless I wanted to see four children starve because one is drowned? It’s weel wi’ you gentles, that can sit in the house wi’ handkerchers at your een, when ye loose a freend, but the like of us maun to our wark again, if our hearts were beating as hard as my hammer.”

In December of the same year, Scott was ready with two other novels, The Black Dwarf, and Old Mortality. These formed the first series of Tales of My Landlord, and were represented, by a somewhat forced and clumsy prologue, as the composition of a certain Mr.Peter Pattieson, assistant-teacher at Gandercleugh, and published after his death by his pedagogue superior, Jedediah Cleishbotham.

The new disguise – to heighten which a different publisher had been selected for the tales – was as unavailing as it was superfluous. The universal voice assigned the works to the author of Waverley, and the second of the collection, Old Mortality, was pronounced to be the greatest of his performances. It was another foray into the regions of history, which was rewarded with the most brilliant spoil.

Happy as he had been in depicting the era of Forty-five, he shone still more in the gloomy and troublous times of the Covenanters. „To reproduce a departed age,”, says Mr.Lockhart, „with such minute and lifelike accuracy as this tale exhibits, demanded a far more energetic sympathy of imagination than had been called for in any effort of his serious verse. It is indeed most curiously instructive for any student of art to compare the Roundheads of Rokeby with the Blue-bonnets of Old Mortality. For the rest, the story is framed with a deeper skill than any of the preceding novels; the canvas os a broader one; the characters are contrasted and projected with a power and felicity which neither he nor any other master ever surpassed; and notwithstanding all that has been urged against him as a disparager of the Covenanters, it is to me very doubtful whether the inspiration of chivalry ever prompted him to nobler emotions then he has lavished on the reanimation of their stern and solemn enthusiasm. This work has always appeared to me the Marmion of his novels.”

He never surpassed it either for force or variety of character, or in the interest and magnificence of the train of events described. The contrasts are also managed with consummate art. In the early scenes, Morton (the best of all his young heroes) serves as a foil to the fanatical and gloomy Burley, and the changed effected in the character and feelings of the youth by the changing current of events, is traced with perfect skill and knowledge of human nature.

The two classes of actors – the brave and dissolute cavaliers, and the resolute oppressed Covenanters – are not only drawn in their strong distinguishing features in bold relief, but are seperated from each other by individual traits and peculiarities, the result of native or acquired habits. The intermingling of domestic scenes and low rustic humour with the stormy events of the warlike stuggle, gives vast additional effect to the sterner passages of the tale, and to the prominence of its principal actors.

How admirably, for example, is the reader prepared, by contrast, to appreciate that terrible encounter with Burley in his rocky fastness, bt the previous description of the blind and aged widow, intrusted with the secret of his retreat, and who dwelt alone, „like the widow of Zarephath,” in her poor and solitary cottage! The dejection and anxiety of Morton on his return from Holland are no less strikingly contrasted with the scene of rustal peace and comfort which he witnesses on the banks of the Clyde, where Cuddie Headrigg’s cottage sends up its thin blue smoke among the trees, „shewing that the evening meal was in the act of being made ready,” and his little daughter fetches water in a pitcher from the fountain at the root of an old oak-tree!~

The humanity of Scott is exquisitely illustrated by the circumstance of the pathetic verses, wrapping a lock of hair, which are found on the slain body of Bothwell / as to shew that in the darkest and most dissolate characters some portion of our higher nature still lingers to attest its divine origin. In the same sympathetic and relenting spirit, Dirk Hatteraick, in Guy Mannering, is redeemed from utter sordidness and villainy by his one virtue of integrity to his employers. „I was always faithful to my ship-owners – always accounted for cargo to the last stiver.” The image of God is never wholly blotted out of the human mind.

The year 1818 witnessed two other coinages from the Waverley mint, Rob Roy, and The Heart of Mid-Lothian, the latter forming a second series of the Tales of my Landlord. The first of these works revived the public enthusiasm, excited by The Lady of the Lake and Waverley, with respect to Highland scenery and manners.

The sketches in the novel are bold and striking – hit off with the careless freedom of a master, and possessing perhaps more witchery or romantic interest than elaborate and finished pictures. The character of Bailie Nicol Jarvie was one of the author’s happiest conceptions; and the idea of carrying him to the wild tugged mountains, among outlaws and desperadoes – at the same time that he retained a keen relish of the comforts of the Saltmarket of Glascow, and a due sense of his dignity as a magistrate – completed the ludicrous effect of the picture.

None of Scott’s novels was more popular than Rob Roy, yet, as a story, it is the worst concocted and most defective of the whole series. Its success was owing to its characters alone. Among these, however, cannot be reckoned its nominal hero, Osbaldiston, who, like Waverley, is merely a walking-gentleman. Scott’s heroes, as agents in the piece, are generally inferior to his heroines.

The Heart of Mid-Lothian is as essentially national in spirit, language, and actors as Rob Roy, but it is the nationality of the Lowlands. No other author but Scott – Galt, his best imitator in this department, would have failed – could have dwelt so long and with such circumstantial minuteness on the daily life and occurences of a family like that of Davie Deans, the cowfeeder, without disgusting his high-bred readers with what must have seemed vulgar and uninteresting. Like Burns, he made „rustic life and poverty”


Grow beautiful beneath his touch

Duchesses, in their halls and saloons, traced with interest and delight the pages that recorded the pious firmness and humble heroism of Jeanie Deans, and the sufferings and disgrace of her unfortunate sister; and who shall say that, in thus uniting different ranks in one bond of fellowfeeling, and exhibiting to the high and wealthy the virtues that often dwell with the lowly and obscure, Scott was not fulfilling one of the loftiest and most sacred missions upon earth!

A story of still more sustained and overwhelming pathos is The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819 in conjunction with The Legend of Montrose, and both forming a third series of Tales of my Landlord.

The Bride is one of the most finished of Scott’s tales, presenting a unity and entireness of plot and action, as if the whole were bound together by that dreadful destiny which hangs over the principal actors, and impels them irresistibly to destruction. „In this tale,” says Macaulay, „above other modern productions, we see embodied the dark spirit of fatalism – that spirit which breathes in the writings of the Greek tragedians when they traced the persecuting vengeance of Destiny against the houses of Laius and of Atreus. Their mantle was for a while worn unconsciously by him who shewed to us MacBeth: and here again, in the deepening gloom of this tragic tale, we feel the oppressive influence of this invisible power. From the time we hear the prophetic rhymes, the spell has begun its work, and the clouds of misfortune blacken round us; and the fated course moves solemnly onward, irresistible and unerring as the progress of the sun, and soon to end in a night of horror. We remember no other tale in which no doubt, but certainty, forms the groundwork of our interest.”

If Shakespeare was unconscious of the classic fatalism he depicted with such unrivalled power, Scott was probably as ignorant of any such premeditation and design. Both followed the received traditions of their country, and the novelist, we know, composed his work in intervals of such acute suffering, allayes only by the most violent remedies, that on his recovery, after the novel had been printed, he recollected nothing but the mere outline of his story, with which he had been familiar from his youth. He had entirely forgotten what he dictated from his sick-bed. The main incident, however, was of a nature likely to make a strong impression on his mind, and to this we must impute the grand simplicity and seeming completeness of art in the management of the fable.

The character of the old butler, Caleb Balderston, has been condemned as a ridiculous and incongruous exaggeration. We are not sure that it does not materially heighten the effect of the tragic portion of the tale, by that force of contrast which we have mentioned as one of Scott’s highest attributes as a novelist. There is, however, too much of the butler, and some of his inventions are mere tricks of farce. As Shakespeare descended to quibbles and conceits, Scott loved to harp upon certain phrases – as in Dominie Sampson, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, and the dowagerlady of Tillietudlem – and to make his lower characters indulge in practical jokes, like those of old Caleb and Edie Ochiltree. The proverbs of Sancho, in Don Quixote, may be thought to come under the same class of inferior resources, to be shunned rather than copied by the novelist who aims at truth and originality; but Sancho’s sayings are too rich and apposite to be felt as mere surplusage.

The Legend of Montrose is a brief imperfect historical novel, yet contains one of the author’s most lively and amusing characters, worthy of being ranked with Bailie Jarvi – namely the redoubted Ritt-master, Dugald Dalgetty. The union of the soldado with the pedantic student of Marischal College is a conception as original as the uncle Toby of Sterne.

The historical romance of Ivanhoe appeared in 1820. The scene being laid in England, and in the England of Richard I, the author had to draw largely on his fancy and invention, and was debarred those attractive auxiliaries of everyday life, speech, and manners, which had lent such a charm to his Scottish novels. Here we had the remoteness of antiquity, the old Saxon halls and feasts, the resuscitation of chivalry in all its pomp and picturesqueness, the realisation of our boyish dreams about Coeur-de-Lion, Robin Hood, and Sherwood Forest, with its grassy glades, and silvan sports, and impenetrable foliage. We were presented with a series of the most splendid pictures, the canvas crowded with life and action – with the dark shades of cruelty, vice, and treason, and the brightness of heroic courage, dauntless fortitude, and uncorrupted faith and purity.

The thrilling interest of the story is another of the merits of Ivanhoe. In the hall of Cedric, at the tournament or siege, we never cease to watch over the fate of Rowena and the Disinherited Knight; and the steps of the gentle Rebecca – the meek yet high-souled Jewess – are traced with still deeper and holier feeling. The whole is a grand picturesque pageant, yet full of a gentle nobleness and proud simplicity.

The next works of Scott were of a tamer cast, though his foot was on Scottish ground. The Monastery and The Abbot, both published in 1820, are defective in plot, and the first disfigured by absurd supernatural machinery.

The character of Queen Mary in The Abbot is, however, a correct and beautiful historical portrait; and the scenery in the neighbourhood of the Tweed – haunted glens and woods – is described with the author’s accustomed felicity.

A counterpart to Queen Mary, still more highly finished, was soon afforded in the delineation of her great rival, Elizabeth, in the romance Kenilworth. This work appeared in Januari 1821, and was ranked next to Ivanhoe. There was a profusion of rich picturesque scenes and objects, dramatic situations, and a wellarranged, involved, yet interesting plot.

None of the plots in the Waverley novels are without blemish. „Non,” as Macauley remarks, „have that completeness which constitutes one of the chief merits of Fielding’s Tom Jones: there is always either an improbability, or a forced expedient, or an incongruous incident, or an unpleasant break, or too much intricacy, or a hurried conclusion; they are usually languid in the commencement, and abrupt in the close; too slowly opened, and too hastily summed up.”

The spirit and fidelity of the delineations, the variety of scenes, and the interest of particular passages bearing upon the principal charcaters, bind the reader to these defects, at least on a first perusal. This was eminently the case with Kenilworth; nor did this romance, amidst all its courtly gaieties, ambition, and splendour, fail to touch the heart: the fate of Amy Robsart has perhaps drawn as many tears as the story of Rebecca.

The close of the same year witnessed another romantic, though less powerful tale – The Pirate. In this work Scott painted the wild sea-scenery of Shetland, and gave a beautiful copy of primitive manners in the person and household of the old Udaller, Magnus Troil, and his fair daughters, Minna and Brenda. The latter are flowers too delicate for such a cold and stormy clime, but they are creations of great loveliness, and are exquisitely discriminated in their individual characters. The novel altogether opened a new world to the general reader, and was welcomed with all the zest of novelty.

Another genuine English historical romance made its appearance in May 1822. The Fortunes of Nigel afforded a complete panorama of the times of James I., executed with wonderful vigour and truth. The fullness and variety of the details shew how closely Scott had studied the annals of this period, particularly all relating to the city and the court of London. His accounts of Alsatia surpasses even the scenes of Ben Jonson, and the dramatic contemporaries of Ben, descriptive of similar objects; and none of his historical likenesses are more faithful, more justly drawn, or more richly cioloured, than his portrait of the poor, and proud, and pedantic King James. Scott’s political predilactions certainly did not in this case betray him into any undue reverence for sovereignity.

In 1823, no less than three seperate works of fiction were issued – Peverill of the Peak, Quentin Durward, and St Ronan’s Well.

The first was a work longer than any of its predecessors, and was more than proportionally heavy in style, though evincing in parts undiminished strength and talent.

Quentin Durward was a bold and succesful raid into French history. The delineations of Louis XI and Charles the Bold may stand comparison with any in the whole range of fiction or history for force and discrimination. They seemed literally called up to a new existance, to play their part in another drama of life, as natural and spirit-stirring as any in which they had been actors. The French nation exulted in this new proof of the genius of Scott, and led the way in enthusiastic admiration of the work.

St Ronan’s Well is altogether a secondary performance of the author, though it furnishes one of his best low comic characters, Meg Dodds of the Cleikum Inn. Redgaundlet (1824) must be held to belong to the same class as St Ronan’s Well, in spite of much vigorous writing, humorous as well as pathetic – for the career of Peter Peebles supplies both – and notwithstanding that it embodies a great deal of Scott’s own personal history and experiences. The tales of the Crusaders, published in 1825, comprised two short stories, The Bethrothed and The Talismann, the second a highly animated and splendid Eastern romance.

Shortly after this period came the calamitous wreck of Scott’s fortunes – the shivering of his houdehold gods – amidst, declining health and the rapid advances of age. His novel of Woodstock (1826) was hastily completed, but is not unworthy of his fame. The secret of the paternity of the novels was now divulged – how could it ever have been doubted? – and there was some satisfaction in having the acknowledgment from his own lips, and under his own hand, ere death had broken the wand of the Magician.

The life of Napoleon, in nine volumes, was the great work of 1827; but at the commencement of the following year, Scott published the Chronicles of the Canongate, first series, containing The Two Drovers, The Highland Widow, and The Surgeon’s Daughter. The second of these short tales is the most valuable, and is pregnant with strong pathetic interest and Celtic imagination. The preliminary introductions to the stories are all finely executed, and constitute some of the most pleasing of the author’s minor contributions to the elucidation of past manners and society.

A number of literary tasks now engaged the attention of Scott, the most important of which were his Tales of a Grandfather, a History of Scotland for Lardner’s Cyclopædia, Letters on Demonology, and new introductions and notes to the collected edition of the novels. A second series of the Chronicles of the Canongate appeared in 1828, with only one tale, but that conceived and executed with great spirit and in his best artistic style – The Fair Maid of Perth.

Another romance was ready by May 1829, and was entitled Anne of Geierstein. It was less energetic than the former – more like an attempt to revive old forms and images than as evincing the power to create new ones; yet there are in its pages, as Mr.Lockhart justly observes, „occasional outbreaks of the old poetic spirit, more than sufficient to remove the work to an immeasurable distance from any of its order produced in this country in our own age.”

Indeed, the various play of fancy in the combination of persons and events, and the airy liveliness of both imagery and diction, may well justify us in applying to the author what he beautifully says of King Rene:

A mirthful man he was; the snows of age
Fell, but they did not chill him, Gaiety,
Even in life’s closing, touched him teeming brain
With such wild visions as the setting sun
Raises in front of some hoar glacier,
Painting the bleak ice with a thousand hues.

The gaiety of Scott was the natural concomitant of kindly and gentle affections, a sound judgment, and uninterrupted industry. The minds of poets, it is said, never grow old, and Scott was hopeful to the last. Disease, however was fast undermining his strength. His last work of fiction, published in 1831, was a fourth series of Tales of my Landlord, containing Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous. They were written after repeated shocks of paralysis and apoplexy, and are mere shadows of his former greatness.

And with this effort closed the noble mind that had so long swayed the sceptre of romance. The public received the imperfect volumes with tenderness and indulgence, as the farewell offering of the greatest of their contemporaries – the last feeble gleams of a light soon to be extinguished:

A wandering witch-note of the distant spell;
And now ’tis silent all! Enchanter, fare-thee-well!

Quotation from works so well known, and printed in so many cheap forms, seems almost unnecessary. But we may note the wonderful success of the novels as a mercantile speculation. When Sir Walter died in 1832, and his life insurances were realised, there was still a balance due of £30,000. This debt, the publisher of Scott#39;s works, Mr.Robert Cadell, ultimately took on himself, receiving in return the copyright of the works; and before his death in 1849, Mr.Cadell had set the estate of Abbotsford free from encumbrance, had purchased for himself a small estate (Ratho, near Edinburgh), and was able to leave to his family a fortune of about £1000.000. Within the comparatively short period of twenty-two years, he had been able, as was remarked by a writer in the Athenæum, to make as large a fortune through the works of one author alone as old Jacob Tonson succeeded in scraping together after fifty years’ dealings with at least fifty authors, and with patent rights for government printing, whicj Mr.Cadell never had.

Shortly before his death, Mr.Cadell sold the remainder of his copyrights to their latest possesors, Messrs Adam Black and Co, for a sum of £17,000. The remission of the paper-duty enabled the publishers to issue the novels at a greatly reduced rate, and the sale, both in this country and in America, has been immense. Millions of the sixpenny edition have been sold. The poetry of Scott, too, seems equally popular, and there has been an keen rivalry among London publishers to reproduce editions ion various forms.