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Sir Walter Scott. (1771–1832). Guy Mannering.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. V. Walter Bagehot on the Waverley Novels

AS in the imagination of Shakespeare, so in that of Scott, the principal form and object were the structure—that is a hard word—the undulation and diversified composition of human society; the picture of this stood in the center, and everything else was accessory and secondary to it. The old “rows of books” in which Scott so peculiarly delighted were made to contribute their element to this varied imagination of humanity. From old family histories, odd memoirs, old law trials, his fancy elicited new traits to add to the motley assemblage. His objection to democracy—an objection of which we can only appreciate the emphatic force when we remember that his youth was contemporary with the first French revolution and the controversy as to the uniform and stereotyped rights of man—was that it would sweep away this entire picture, level prince and peasant in a common égalité, substitute a scientific rigidity for the irregular and picturesque growth of centuries, replace an abounding and genial life by a symmetrical but lifeless mechanism. All the descriptions of society in his novels—whether of feudal society, of modern Scotch society or of English society—are largely colored by this feeling: it peeps out everywhere, and Liberal critics have endeavored to show that it was a narrow Toryism; but in reality it is a subtle compound of the natural instinct of the artist with the plain sagacity of the man of the world.

It would be tedious to show how clearly the same sagacity appears in his delineation of the various great events and movements in society which are described in the Scotch novels: there is scarcely one of them which does not bear it on its surface. Objections may, as we shall show, be urged to the delineation which Scott has given of the Puritan resistance and rebellions, yet scarcely any one will say there is not a worldly sense in it; on the contrary, the very objection is that it is too worldly and far too exclusively sensible.

The same thoroughly well-grounded sagacity and comprehensive appreciation of human life is shown in the treatment of what we may call anomalous characters. In general, monstrosity is no topic for art. Every one has known in real life characters which if, apart from much experience, he had found described in books, he would have thought unnatural and impossible; Scott, however, abounds in such characters. Meg Merrilies, Edie Ochiltree, Ratcliffe are more or less of that description. That of Meg Merrilies especially is as distorted and eccentric as anything can be; her appearance is described as making Mannering “start,” and well it might.

“She was full six feet high, wore a man’s great-coat over the rest of her dress, had in her hand a goodly sloe-thorn cudgel, and in all points of equipment except her petticoats seemed rather masculine than feminine. Her dark elf-locks shot out like the snakes of the gorgon between an old-fashioned bonnet called a bongrace, heightening the singular effect of her strong and weather-beaten features, which they partly shadowed, while her eye had a wild roll that indicated something like real or affected insanity.”

Her career in the tale corresponds with the strangeness of her exterior. “Harlot, thief, witch, and gipsy,” as she describes herself, the hero is preserved by her virtues; half-crazed as she is described to be, he owes his safety on more than one occasion to her skill in stratagem, and ability in managing those with whom she is connected and who are most likely to be familiar with her weakness and to detect her craft; yet on hardly any occasion is the natural reader conscious of this strangeness. Something is, of course, attributable to the skill of the artist; for no other power of mind could produce the effect, unless it were aided by the unconscious tact of detailed expression. But the fundamental explanation of this remarkable success is the distinctness with which Scott saw how such a character as Meg Merrilies arose and was produced out of the peculiar circumstances of gipsy life in the localities in which he has placed his scene. He has exhibited this to his readers not by lengthy or elaborate description, but by chosen incidents, short comments, and touches of which he scarcely foresaw the effect. This is the only way in which the fundamental objection to making eccentricity the subject of artistic treatment can be obviated. Monstrosity ceases to be such when we discern the laws of nature which evolve it; when a real science explains its phenomena, we find that it is in strict accordance with what we call the “natural type,” but that some rare adjunct or uncommon casualty has interfered and distorted a nature which is really the same into a phenomenon which is altogether different.

Just so with eccentricity in human character; it becomes a topic of literary art only when its identity with the ordinary principles of human nature is exhibited in the midst of and as it were by means of, the superficial unlikeness. Such a skill, however, requires an easy careless familiarity with usual human life and common human conduct. A writer must have a sympathy with health before he can show us how and where and to what extent that which is unhealthy deviates from it; and it is this consistent acquaintance with regular life which makes the irregular characters of Scott so happy a contrast to the uneasy distortions of less sagacious novelists.

A good deal of the same criticism may be applied to the delineation which Scott has given us of the poor. In truth, poverty is an anomaly to rich people: it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell. One-half of the world, according to the saying, do not know how the other half lives. Accordingly, nothing is so rare in fiction as a good delineation of the poor; though perpetually with us in reality, we rarely meet them in our reading. The requirements of the case present an unusual difficulty to artistic delineation: a good deal of the character of the poor is an unfit topic for continuous art, and yet we wish to have in our books a lifelike exhibition of the whole of that character. Mean manners and mean vices are unfit for prolonged delineation; the everyday pressure of narrow necessities is too petty a pain and too anxious a reality to be dwelt upon. We can bear the mere description of the “Parish Register”—

  • “But this poor farce has neither truth nor art,
  • To please the fancy or to touch the heart:…
  • Dark but not awful, dismal but yet mean,
  • With anxious bustle moves the cumbrous scene,
  • Presents no objects tender or profound,
  • But spreads its cold, unmeaning gloom around;”
  • but who could bear to have a long narrative of fortunes “dismal but yet mean,” with characters “dark but not awful,” and no objects “tender or profound?” Mr. Dickens has in various parts of his writings been led, by a sort of pre-Raphaelite cultus of reality, into an error of this species: his poor people have taken to their poverty very thoroughly; they are poor talkers and poor livers, and in all ways poor people to read about. A whole array of writers have fallen into an opposite mistake: wishing to preserve their delineations clear from the defects of meanness and vulgarity, they have attributed to the poor a fancied happiness and Arcadian simplicity. The conventional shepherd of ancient times was scarcely displeasing; that which is by everything except express avowal removed from the sphere of reality does not annoy us by its deviations from reality; but the fictitious poor of sentimental novelists are brought almost into contact with real life; half claim to be copies of what actually exists at our very doors, are introduced in close proximity to characters moving in a higher rank, over whom no such ideal charm is diffused, and who are painted with as much truth as the writer’s ability enables him to give. Accordingly, the contrast is evident and displeasing; the harsh outlines of poverty will not bear the artificial rose tint; they are seen through it, like high cheek-bones through the delicate colors of artificial youth. We turn away with some disgust from the false elegance and undeceiving art; we prefer the rough poor of nature to the petted poor of the refining describer. Scott has most felicitously avoided both these errors: his poor people are never coarse and never vulgar. Their lineaments have the rude traits which a life of conflict will inevitably leave on the minds and manners of those who are to lead it; their notions have the narrowness which is inseparable from a contracted experience; their knowledge is not more extended than their restricted means of attaining it would render possible. Almost alone among novelists, Scott has given a thorough, minute, lifelike description of poor persons which is at the same time genial and pleasing. The reason seems to be, that the firm sagacity of his genius comprehended the industrial aspect of poor people’s life thoroughly and comprehensively, his experience brought it before him easily and naturally, and his artist’s mind and genial disposition enabled him to dwell on those features which would be most pleasing to the world in general. In fact, his own mind, of itself and by its own nature, dwelt on those very peculiarities. He could not remove his firm and instructed genius into the domain of Arcadian unreality; but he was equally unable to dwell principally, peculiarly, or consecutively, on those petty, vulgar, mean details in which such a writer as Crabbe lives and breathes. Hazlitt said that Crabbe described a poor man’s cottage like a man who came to distrain for rent: he catalogued every trivial piece of furniture, defects and cracks and all. Scott describes it as a cheerful but most sensible landlord would describe a cottage on his property: he has a pleasure in it. No detail, or few details, in the life of the inmates escape his experienced and interested eye; but he dwells on those which do not displease him. He sympathizes with their rough industry and plain joys and sorrows. He does not fatigue himself or excite their wondering smile by theoretical plans of impossible relief; he makes the best of the life which is given, and by a sanguine sympathy makes it still better. A hard life many characters in Scott seem to lead; but he appreciates and makes his reader appreciate the full value of natural feelings, plain thoughts, and applied sagacity.—From a review of “The Waverley Novels,” 1858.