So, I've embarked on a comprehensive re-read of Water Scott. Waverley and Guy Mannering are under my belt, and I'm halfway through The Antiquary, and it's proving quite the eye-opener. I'd read most (not, if I'm honest, absolutely all) of his novels before, some when I was an undergraduate, a chunk more soon after I started work as an academic, but my memory of even the more famous of them is patchy, and I ought to know them better. I ought because the novels themselves are, I'm discovering as I re-read, much more fascinating and complex and rich than I realised; and I ought to because no Romanticist or Victorianist can excuse an ignorance of Scott. Back then, everybody read him. He was the first global superstar of the novel. It's the Rule 34 of 19th-century literary studies: Everybody read Scott, no exceptions. Henry Crabb Robinson was always reading Scott; going through all the novels and, when he finished Castle Dangerous (1831) starting again on Waverley (1815) in an endless loop. Dickens's great dream, when he began writing fiction, was to do what Scott did. According to the old story, which may be apocryphal, though one hopes not, the Russian ambassador assumed Scotland had been named after Scott, to honour her most famous son.
Nowadays nobody reads him, and that's a puzzling thing. (Ann Rigney's recent The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (OUP 2012) is all about how and why Scott fell from popular favour). I used to think this has something to do with his prolixity, undeniably a feature of his writing. One does need to be able to take pleasure in sinking into the warm bath of Scott's prose fully to enjoy him. But the bath is a very pleasant one, and to step into any 21st-century bookshop is to be struck by just how many fat-spined long, long novels get sold today. People don't mind reading great long novels, or sinking into prose by Rowling, Meyers, Martin et al even though such prose is not a patch on Scott's. So maybe it's something else.
One of the things my re-read is reinforcing in me is a sense of the varieties of irony. Maybe that has something to do with it, since irony is rather out of fashion now. Not in my house, mind: I have a high regard for irony, aesthetically speaking; and, more, I consider it a crucial artistic feature of modernity. It acquires a significant momentum in Romantic and post-Romantic culture (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and all that). Indeed, I've half a mind to write a book about a particular two-horned manifestation of it in the Romantic novel. On the one hand: Jane Austen. On the other: Walter Scott. I suppose we don’t often think of Scott as a particularly ironic writer—he does foursquare, prosy historical adventure stories, in which a ‘wavering’ character (hence: 'the Waverley novels') is positioned at some Big Historical Pivot Time: the Crusades; the English Civil War; the Jacobite Rebellion. There is peril, and questing, and journeying; there are battles and duels, and oodles of local colour and vividness. And Scott's success and influence parleyed this mix into later literary offshoots. There’s a reason that description—character caught up in big events, questing/fighting/adventure, lots of local colour—describes a hefty proportion of all the Space Opera and Adventure SF written.
Of course, only a fool would deny that Scott, despite his many excellences, lacks the sophistication and maturity of Austen at her best. To read Scott's books after reading Austen is to be struck by a kind of coarseness and flatness. Austen writes stories not about improbable adventures but about the probable dilemmas of everyday life, stories all readers can test against their own experience. But that’s not the crucial thing. It’s not that Austen writes about falling in love and marrying with sensitivity and charm—of course, that’s exactly what she does do; but there's more to it than that. It’s that she is one of the first creative artists in the world to understand characterisation in ironic terms. Emma Woodhouse simultaneously is handsome, clever and rich and a short-sighted, rather spoilt young woman. The glory of Emma as a novel is the way Austen expertly, beautifully traces her growth in self-knowledge and maturity, correlating it to her awareness of whom it is she really loves. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …’ is a very clever sentence; because it both is and isn’t true—isn’t because not all men see marriage as central to life the way Austen’s women do, and is because love is much more important and resonant and human than questing/fighting/adventuring—and in the world of Austen’s novel this truth acquires a universality that derives by definition from the parameters of her art. It's what her novels are about.
Scott has no characters like this. His heroes are heroic all the way through; his villains similarly villainous. They stalk about their stage-sets acting entirely in character from start of story to happy ending. The Waverley novels construe a WYSIWYG universe of reassuring moral absolutes. And yet, and yet: there is something in Scott that responded to the change in the times. He lacked the technical skill to portray the ironies of individual subjectivity the way Austen could, in part because his approach to character was wholly externalised. But in some of his novels he found a way of articulating something that approaches Austenian doubleness of character.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In The Talisman (1825) noble characters are constantly gadding about in disguise. King Richard Coeur-de-lion goes disguised as a slave. When King Richard falls sick he is attended, and healed, by an Arab physician called El Hakim. At the end of the novel we discover that this physician was actually Sultan Saladin himself, Richard’s enemy, all along. All this disguise gubbins is Scott’s way of intimating that a character like Saladin might be both the enemy of Christendom and an honourable, gallant individual at the same time. It’s a device that externalises what happens more naturally, and more persuasively, as interiorised characterisation in Austen’s novels. But it can be a very effective textual; strategy for all that; and there are versions of this device, or variants upon it, throughout the Waverley novels. Edward Waverley's own bivalve political affiliation for example; or the complex games of prophesy and history, false-names and true identities, in Guy Mannering; the manifest and latent paired narratives of Heart of Midlothian.
Another, related matter: Lukács is right. Scott invents the Historical Novel not because nobody before him had ever written a novel set in the past, but because he creates a way formally of realising historical change as a lived-through dialectic: almost all his historical novels centre on a middling, unremarkable character who gets caught up in some big historical hinge point, who meets famous historical individuals (although those famous people are always secondary characters in the novel), who is offered a choice between 'the old ways' of feudal romanticism and the inevitable, coming social logic of bourgeois respectability and who chooses the latter.
Which brings me to: The Lord of the Rings. During my recent re-read of Waverley I found myself repeatedly put in mind of Tolkien's big book: the discursive style, the inset ballads and poems, the way a texture of lived-experience is created, but most of all the central shape—a middling character who leaves his comfortable English home, in part motivated by a imaginative curiosity about more romantic, older modes of life, and who gets caught up in the Great Events of the Day, which turn out to be the hinge upon which History itself turns. The whole narrative is a there-and-back-again journey, through a landscape peopled with various different tribes (English, Borderers, Lowland Scots, Highlanders) and different idioms and, in some cases, languages; the descriptions of mountains and battles, above all the elegaic sense of an old world passing away. But of course the LotR is Scott-like, since Tolkien grew up reading Scott as did all his class and generation. And because of Tolkien's influence on the development of Fantasy that means the default template for a great amount of Modern Fantasy is: the Waverley novels. Everybody interested in Fantasy should read them.
There's one more thing, which gives me the excuse to quote my favourite passage of Chesterton's critical prose, where he compares Scott and Dickens. It came back to me today, because The Antiquary, from where Chesterton takes the lines by Arthur Wardour and the beggar, is what I'm presently re-reading. But, really, the whole passage is on to something important about Scott; and one of the things I'm thinking about is how a 21st-century critic might reframe and develop the insights here:
Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.The response the beggar gives Sir Arthur Wardour is so brilliant and powerful, Chesterton is absolutely right to pick it out. Sends chills up my spine. But the properly salient passage here is this one: 'Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.'
These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.
In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.
In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make you rich." . . . "Our riches will soon be equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.
Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not, like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more passionate, more universal as he grows more intense.