Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 10.

The Waverley Novels.

In the summer of 1814, Scott took up again and completed — almost at a single heat — a fragment of a Jacobite story, begun in 1805 and then laid aside. It was published anonymously, and its astonishing success turned back again the scales of Scott’s fortunes, already inclining ominously towards a catastrophe. This story was Waverley. Mr. Carlyle has praised Waverley above its fellows. “On the whole, contrasting Waverley, which was carefully written, with most of its followers which were written extempore, one may regret the extempore method.” This is, however, a very unfortunate judgment. Not one of the whole series of novels appears to have been written more completely extempore than the great bulk of Waverley, including almost everything that made it either popular with the million or fascinating to the fastidious; and it is even likely that this is one of the causes of its excellence.

“The last two volumes,” says Scott, in a letter to Mr. Morritt, “were written in three weeks.” And here is Mr. Lockhart’s description of the effect which Scott’s incessant toil during the composition, produced on a friend whose window happened to command the novelist’s study:—

“Happening to pass through Edinburgh in June, 1814, I dined one day with the gentleman in question (now the Honourable William Menzies, one of the Supreme Judges at the Cape of Good Hope), whose residence was then in George Street, situated very near to, and at right angles with, North Castle Street. It was a party of very young persons, most of them, like Menzies and myself, destined for the Bar of Scotland, all gay and thoughtless, enjoying the first flush of manhood, with little remembrance of the yesterday, or care of the morrow. When my companion’s worthy father and uncle, after seeing two or three bottles go round, left the juveniles to themselves, the weather being hot, we adjourned to a library which had one large window looking northwards. After carousing here for an hour or more, I observed that a shade had come over the aspect of my friend, who happened to be placed immediately opposite to myself, and said something that intimated a fear of his being unwell. ‘No,’ said he, ‘I shall be well enough presently, if you will only let me sit where you are, and take my chair; for there is a confounded hand in sight of me here, which has often bothered me before, and now it won’t let me fill my glass with a good will.’ I rose to change places with him accordingly, and he pointed out to me this hand, which, like the writing on Belshazzar’s wall, disturbed his hour of hilarity. ‘Since we sat down,’ he said, ‘I have been watching it — it fascinates my eye — it never stops — page after page is finished, and thrown on that heap of MS., and still it goes on unwearied; and so it will be till candles are brought in, and God knows how long after that. It is the same every night — I can’t stand a sight of it when I am not at my books.’ ‘Some stupid, dogged engrossing clerk, probably,’ exclaimed myself, ‘or some other giddy youth in our society.’ ‘No, boys,’ said our host; ‘I well know what hand it is —’tis Walter Scott’s.’"1

If that is not extempore writing, it is difficult to say what extempore writing is. But in truth, there is no evidence that any one of the novels was laboured, or even so much as carefully composed. Scott’s method of composition was always the same; and, when writing an imaginative work, the rate of progress seems to have been pretty even, depending much more on the absence of disturbing engagements, than on any mental irregularity. The morning was always his brightest time; but morning or evening, in country or in town, well or ill, writing with his own pen or dictating to an amanuensis in the intervals of screaming-fits due to the torture of cramp in the stomach, Scott spun away at his imaginative web almost as evenly as a silkworm spins at its golden cocoon. Nor can I detect the slightest trace of any difference in quality between the stories, such as can be reasonably ascribed to comparative care or haste. There are differences, and even great differences, of course, ascribable to the less or greater suitability of the subject chosen to Scott’s genius, but I can find no trace of the sort of cause to which Mr. Carlyle refers. Thus, few, I suppose, would hesitate to say that while Old Mortality is very near, if not quite, the finest of Scott’s works, The Black Dwarf is not far from the other end of the scale. Yet the two were written in immediate succession (The Black Dwarf being the first of the two), and were published together, as the first series of Tales of my Landlord, in 1816. Nor do I think that any competent critic would find any clear deterioration of quality in the novels of the later years — excepting of course the two written after the stroke of paralysis. It is true, of course, that some of the subjects which most powerfully stirred his imagination were among his earlier themes, and that he could not effectually use the same subject twice, though he now and then tried it. But making allowance for this consideration, the imaginative power of the novels is as astonishingly even as the rate of composition itself. For my own part, I greatly prefer The Fortunes of Nigel (which was written in 1822) to Waverley which was begun in 1805, and finished in 1814, and though very many better critics would probably decidedly disagree, I do not think that any of them would consider this preference grotesque or purely capricious. Indeed, though Anne of Geierstein — the last composed before Scott’s stroke — would hardly seem to any careful judge the equal of Waverley, I do not much doubt that if it had appeared in place of Waverley, it would have excited very nearly as much interest and admiration; nor that had Waverley appeared in 1829, in place of Anne of Geierstein, it would have failed to excite very much more. In these fourteen most effective years of Scott’s literary life, during which he wrote twenty-three novels besides shorter tales, the best stories appear to have been on the whole the most rapidly written, probably because they took the strongest hold of the author’s imagination.

Till near the close of his career as an author, Scott never avowed his responsibility for any of these series of novels, and even took some pains to mystify the public as to the identity between the author of Waverley and the author of Tales of my Landlord. The care with which the secret was kept is imputed by Mr. Lockhart in some degree to the habit of mystery which had grown upon Scott during his secret partnership with the Ballantynes; but in this he seems to be confounding two very different phases of Scott’s character. No doubt he was, as a professional man, a little ashamed of his commercial speculation, and unwilling to betray it. But he was far from ashamed of his literary enterprise, though it seems that he was at first very anxious lest a comparative failure, or even a mere moderate success, in a less ambitious sphere than that of poetry, should endanger the great reputation he had gained as a poet. That was apparently the first reason for secrecy. But, over and above this, it is clear that the mystery stimulated Scott’s imagination and saved him trouble as well. He was obviously more free under the veil — free from the liability of having to answer for the views of life or history suggested in his stories; but besides this, what was of more importance to him, the slight disguise stimulated his sense of humour, and gratified the whimsical, boyish pleasure which he always had in acting an imaginary character. He used to talk of himself as a sort of Abou Hassan — a private man one day, and acting the part of a monarch the next — with the kind of glee which indicated a real delight in the change of parts, and I have little doubt that he threw himself with the more gusto into characters very different from his own, in consequence of the pleasure it gave him to conceive his friends hopelessly misled by this display of traits, with which he supposed that they could not have credited him even in imagination. Thus besides relieving him of a host of compliments which he did not enjoy, and enabling him the better to evade an ill-bred curiosity, the disguise no doubt was the same sort of fillip to the fancy which a mask and domino or a fancy dress are to that of their wearers. Even in a disguise a man cannot cease to be himself; but he can get rid of his improperly “imputed” righteousness — often the greatest burden he has to bear — and of all the expectations formed on the strength, as Mr. Clough says —

“Of having been what one has been,

What one thinks one is, or thinks that others suppose one.”

To some men the freedom of this disguise is a real danger and temptation. It never could have been so to Scott, who was in the main one of the simplest as well as the boldest and proudest of men. And as most men perhaps would admit that a good deal of even the best part of their nature is rather suppressed than expressed by the name by which they are known in the world, Scott must have felt this in a far higher degree, and probably regarded the manifold characters under which he was known to society, as representing him in some respects more justly than any individual name could have done. His mind ranged hither and thither over a wide field — far beyond that of his actual experience — and probably ranged over it all the more easily for not being absolutely tethered to a single class of associations by any public confession of his authorship. After all, when it became universally known that Scott was the only author of all these tales, it may be doubted whether the public thought as adequately of the imaginative efforts which had created them, as they did while they remained in some doubt whether there was a multiplicity of agencies at work, or only one. The uncertainty helped them to realize the many lives which were really led by the author of all these tales, more completely than any confession of the individual authorship could have done. The shrinking of activity in public curiosity and wonder which follows the final determination of such ambiguities, is very apt to result rather in a dwindling of the imaginative effort to enter into the genius which gave rise to them, than in an increase of respect for so manifold a creative power.

When Scott wrote, such fertility as his in the production of novels was regarded with amazement approaching to absolute incredulity. Yet he was in this respect only the advanced-guard of a not inconsiderable class of men and women who have a special gift for pouring out story after story, containing a great variety of figures, while retaining a certain even level of merit. There is more than one novelist of the present day who has far surpassed Scott in the number of his tales, and one at least of very high repute, who has, I believe, produced more even within the same time. But though to our larger experience, Scott’s achievement, in respect of mere fertility, is by no means the miracle which it once seemed, I do not think one of his successors can compare with him for a moment in the ease and truth with which he painted, not merely the life of his own time and country — seldom indeed that of precisely his own time — but that of days long past, and often too of scenes far distant. The most powerful of all his stories, Old Mortality, was the story of a period more than a century and a quarter before he wrote; and others — which though inferior to this in force, are nevertheless, when compared with the so-called historical romances of any other English writer, what sunlight is to moonlight, if you can say as much for the latter as to admit even that comparison — go back to the period of the Tudors, that is, two centuries and a half. Quentin Durward, which is all but amongst the best, runs back farther still, far into the previous century, while Ivanhoe and The Talisman, though not among the greatest of Scott’s works, carry us back more than five hundred years. The new class of extempore novel writers, though more considerable than, sixty years ago, any one could have expected ever to see it, is still limited, and on any high level of merit will probably always be limited, to the delineation of the times of which the narrator has personal experience. Scott seemed to have had something very like personal experience of a few centuries at least, judging by the ease and freshness with which he poured out his stories of these centuries, and though no one can pretend that even he could describe the period of the Tudors as Miss Austen described the country parsons and squires of George the Third’s reign, or as Mr. Trollope describes the politicians and hunting-men of Queen Victoria’s, it is nevertheless the evidence of a greater imagination to make us live so familiarly as Scott does amidst the political and religious controversies of two or three centuries’ duration, to be the actual witnesses, as it were, of Margaret of Anjou’s throes of vain ambition, and Mary Stuart’s fascinating remorse, and Elizabeth’s domineering and jealous balancings of noble against noble, of James the First’s shrewd pedantries, and the Regent Murray’s large forethought, of the politic craft of Argyle, the courtly ruthlessness of Claverhouse, and the high-bred clemency of Monmouth, than to reflect in countless modifications the freaks, figures, and fashions of our own time.

The most striking feature of Scott’s romances is that, for the most part, they are pivoted on public rather than mere private interests and passions. With but few exceptions —(The Antiquary, St. Ronan’s Well, and Guy Mannering are the most important)— Scott’s novels give us an imaginative view, not of mere individuals, but of individuals as they are affected by the public strifes and social divisions of the age. And this it is which gives his books so large an interest for old and young, soldiers and statesmen, the world of society and the recluse, alike. You can hardly read any novel of Scott’s and not become better aware what public life and political issues mean. And yet there is no artificiality, no elaborate attitudinizing before the antique mirrors of the past, like Bulwer’s, no dressing out of clothes-horses like G. P. R. James. The boldness and freshness of the present are carried back into the past, and you see Papists and Puritans, Cavaliers and Roundheads, Jews, Jacobites, and freebooters, preachers, schoolmasters, mercenary soldiers, gipsies, and beggars, all living the sort of life which the reader feels that in their circumstances and under the same conditions of time and place and parentage, he might have lived too. Indeed, no man can read Scott without being more of a public man, whereas the ordinary novel tends to make its readers rather less of one than before.

Next, though most of these stories are rightly called romances, no one can avoid observing that they give that side of life which is unromantic, quite as vigorously as the romantic side. This was not true of Scott’s poems, which only expressed one-half of his nature, and were almost pure romances. But in the novels the business of life is even better portrayed than its sentiments. Mr. Bagehot, one of the ablest of Scott’s critics, has pointed out this admirably in his essay on The Waverley Novels. “Many historical novelists,” he says, “especially those who with care and pains have read up the detail, are often evidently in a strait how to pass from their history to their sentiment. The fancy of Sir Walter could not help connecting the two. If he had given us the English side of the race to Derby, he would have described the Bank of England paying in sixpences, and also the loves of the cashier.” No one who knows the novels well can question this. Fergus MacIvor’s ways and means, his careful arrangements for receiving subsidies in black mail, are as carefully recorded as his lavish highland hospitalities; and when he sends his silver cup to the Gaelic bard who chaunts his greatness, the faithful historian does not forget to let us know that the cup is his last, and that he is hard-pressed for the generosities of the future. So too the habitual thievishness of the highlanders is pressed upon us quite as vividly as their gallantry and superstitions. And so careful is Sir Walter to paint the petty pedantries of the Scotch traditional conservatism, that he will not spare even Charles Edward — of whom he draws so graceful a picture — the humiliation of submitting to old Bradwardine’s “solemn act of homage,” but makes him go through the absurd ceremony of placing his foot on a cushion to have its brogue unlatched by the dry old enthusiast of heraldic lore. Indeed it was because Scott so much enjoyed the contrast between the high sentiment of life and its dry and often absurd detail, that his imagination found so much freer a vent in the historical romance, than it ever found in the romantic poem. Yet he clearly needed the romantic excitement of picturesque scenes and historical interests, too. I do not think he would ever have gained any brilliant success in the narrower region of the domestic novel. He said himself, in expressing his admiration of Miss Austen, “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself, like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” Indeed he tried it to some extent in St. Ronan’s Well, and so far as he tried it, I think he failed. Scott needed a certain largeness of type, a strongly-marked class-life, and, where it was possible, a free, out-of-doors life, for his delineations. No one could paint beggars and gipsies, and wandering fiddlers, and mercenary soldiers, and peasants and farmers and lawyers, and magistrates, and preachers, and courtiers, and statesmen, and best of all perhaps queens and kings, with anything like his ability. But when it came to describing the small differences of manner, differences not due to external habits, so much as to internal sentiment or education, or mere domestic circumstance, he was beyond his proper field. In the sketch of the St. Ronan’s Spa and the company at the table-d’hôte, he is of course somewhere near the mark — he was too able a man to fall far short of success in anything he really gave to the world; but it is not interesting. Miss Austen would have made Lady Penelope Penfeather a hundred times as amusing. We turn to Meg Dods and Touchwood, and Cargill, and Captain Jekyl, and Sir Bingo Binks, and to Clara Mowbray — i. e. to the lives really moulded by large and specific causes, for enjoyment, and leave the small gossip of the company at the Wells as, relatively at least, a failure. And it is well for all the world that it was so. The domestic novel, when really of the highest kind, is no doubt a perfect work of art, and an unfailing source of amusement; but it has nothing of the tonic influence, the large instructiveness, the stimulating intellectual air, of Scott’s historic tales. Even when Scott is farthest from reality — as in Ivanhoe or The Monastery— he makes you open your eyes to all sorts of historical conditions to which you would otherwise be blind. The domestic novel, even when its art is perfect, gives little but pleasure at the best; at the worst it is simply scandal idealized.

Scott often confessed his contempt for his own heroes. He said of Edward Waverley, for instance, that he was “a sneaking piece of imbecility,” and that “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. I am a bad hand at depicting a hero, properly so called, and have an unfortunate propensity for the dubious characters of borderers, buccaneers, highland robbers, and all others of a Robin–Hood description.”2 In another letter he says, “My rogue always, in despite of me, turns out my hero.”3 And it seems very likely that in most of the situations Scott describes so well, his own course would have been that of his wilder impulses, and not that of his reason. Assuredly he would never have stopped hesitating on the line between opposite courses as his Waverleys, his Mortons, his Osbaldistones do. Whenever he was really involved in a party strife, he flung prudence and impartiality to the winds, and went in like the hearty partisan which his strong impulses made of him. But granting this, I do not agree with his condemnation of all his own colourless heroes. However much they differed in nature from Scott himself, the even balance of their reason against their sympathies is certainly well conceived, is in itself natural, and is an admirable expedient for effecting that which was probably its real use to Scott — the affording an opportunity for the delineation of all the pros and cons of the case, so that the characters on both sides of the struggle should be properly understood. Scott’s imagination was clearly far wider — was far more permeated with the fixed air of sound judgment — than his practical impulses. He needed a machinery for displaying his insight into both sides of a public quarrel, and his colourless heroes gave him the instrument he needed. Both in Morton’s case (in Old Mortality), and in Waverley’s, the hesitation is certainly well described. Indeed in relation to the controversy between Covenanters and Royalists, while his political and martial prepossessions went with Claverhouse, his reason and educated moral feeling certainly were clearly identified with Morton.

It is, however, obviously true that Scott’s heroes are mostly created for the sake of the facility they give in delineating the other characters, and not the other characters for the sake of the heroes. They are the imaginative neutral ground, as it were, on which opposing influences are brought to play; and what Scott best loved to paint was those who, whether by nature, by inheritance, or by choice, had become unique and characteristic types of one-sided feeling, not those who were merely in process of growth, and had not ranged themselves at all. Mr. Carlyle, who, as I have said before, places Scott’s romances far below their real level, maintains that these great types of his are drawn from the outside, and not made actually to live. “His Bailie Jarvies, Dinmonts, Dalgettys (for their name is legion), do look and talk like what they give themselves out for; they are, if not created and made poetically alive, yet deceptively enacted as a good player might do them. What more is wanted, then? For the reader lying on a sofa, nothing more; yet for another sort of reader much. It were a long chapter to unfold the difference in drawing a character between a Scott and a Shakespeare or Goethe. Yet it is a difference literally immense; they are of a different species; the value of the one is not to be counted in the coin of the other. We might say in a short word, which covers a long matter, that your 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.”4 And then he goes on to contrast Fenella in Peveril of the Peak with Goethe’s Mignon. Mr. Carlyle could hardly have chosen a less fair comparison. If Goethe is to be judged by his women, let Scott be judged by his men. So judged, I think Scott will, as a painter of character — of course, I am not now speaking of him as a poet — come out far above Goethe. Excepting the hero of his first drama (Götz of the iron hand), which by the way was so much in Scott’s line that his first essay in poetry was to translate it — not very well — I doubt if Goethe was ever successful with his pictures of men. Wilhelm Meister is, as Niebuhr truly said, “a ménagerie of tame animals.” Doubtless Goethe’s women — certainly his women of culture — are more truly and inwardly conceived and created than Scott’s. Except Jeanie Deans and Madge Wildfire, and perhaps Lucy Ashton, Scott’s women are apt to be uninteresting, either pink and white toys, or hardish women of the world. But then no one can compare the men of the two writers, and not see Scott’s vast preeminence on that side.

I think the deficiency of his pictures of women, odd as it seems to say so, should be greatly attributed to his natural chivalry. His conception of women of his own or a higher class was always too romantic. He hardly ventured, as it were, in his tenderness for them, to look deeply into their little weaknesses and intricacies of character. With women of an inferior class, he had not this feeling. Nothing can be more perfect than the manner in which he blends the dairy-woman and woman of business in Jeanie Deans, with the lover and the sister. But once make a woman beautiful, or in any way an object of homage to him, and Scott bowed so low before the image of her, that he could not go deep into her heart. He could no more have analysed such a woman, as Thackeray analyzed Lady Castlewood, or Amelia, or Becky, or as George Eliot analysed Rosamond Vincy, than he could have vivisected Camp or Maida. To some extent, therefore, Scott’s pictures of women remain something in the style of the miniatures of the last age — bright and beautiful beings without any special character in them. He was dazzled by a fair heroine. He could not take them up into his imagination as real beings as he did men. But then how living are his men, whether coarse or noble! What a picture, for instance, is that in A Legend of Montrose of the conceited, pragmatic, but prompt and dauntless soldier of fortune, rejecting Argyle’s attempts to tamper with him, in the dungeon at Inverary, suddenly throwing himself on the disguised Duke so soon as he detects him by his voice, and wresting from him the means of his own liberation! Who could read that scene and say for a moment that Dalgetty is painted “from the skin inwards”? It was just Scott himself breathing his own life through the habits of a good specimen of the mercenary soldier — realizing where the spirit of hire would end, and the sense of honour would begin — and preferring, even in a dungeon, the audacious policy of a sudden attack to that of crafty negotiation. What a picture (and a very different one) again is that in Redgauntlet of Peter Peebles, the mad litigant, with face emaciated by poverty and anxiety, and rendered wild by “an insane lightness about the eyes,” dashing into the English magistrate’s court for a warrant against his fugitive counsel. Or, to take a third instance, as different as possible from either, how powerfully conceived is the situation in Old Mortality, where Balfour of Burley, in his fanatic fury at the defeat of his plan for a new rebellion, pushes the oak-tree, which connects his wild retreat with the outer world, into the stream, and tries to slay Morton for opposing him. In such scenes and a hundred others — for these are mere random examples — Scott undoubtedly painted his masculine figures from as deep and inward a conception of the character of the situation as Goethe ever attained, even in drawing Mignon, or Klärchen, or Gretchen. The distinction has no real existence. Goethe’s pictures of women were no doubt the intuitions of genius; and so are Scott’s of men — and here and there of his women too. Professional women he can always paint with power. Meg Dods, the innkeeper, Meg Merrilies, the gipsy, Mause Headrigg, the Covenanter, Elspeth, the old fishwife in The Antiquary, and the old crones employed to nurse and watch, and lay out the corpse, in The Bride of Lammermoor, are all in their way impressive figures.

And even in relation to women of a rank more fascinating to Scott, and whose inner character was perhaps on that account, less familiar to his imagination, grant him but a few hints from history, and he draws a picture which, for vividness and brilliancy, may almost compare with Shakespeare’s own studies in English history. Had Shakespeare painted the scene in The Abbot, in which Mary Stuart commands one of her Mary’s in waiting to tell her at what bridal she last danced, and Mary Fleming blurts out the reference to the marriage of Sebastian at Holyrood, would any one hesitate to regard it as a stroke of genius worthy of the great dramatist? This picture of the Queen’s mind suddenly thrown off its balance, and betraying, in the agony of the moment, the fear and remorse which every association with Darnley conjured up, is painted “from the heart outwards,” not “from the skin inwards,” if ever there were such a painting in the world. Scott hardly ever failed in painting kings or peasants, queens or peasant-women. There was something in the well-marked type of both to catch his imagination, which can always hit off the grander features of royalty, and the homelier features of laborious humility. Is there any sketch traced in lines of more sweeping grandeur and more impressive force than the following of Mary Stuart’s lucid interval of remorse — lucid compared with her ordinary mood, though it was of a remorse that was almost delirious — which breaks in upon her hour of fascinating condescension? —

“‘Are they not a lovely couple, my Fleming? and is it not heart-rending to think that I must be their ruin?’

“‘Not so,’ said Roland Græme, ‘it is we, gracious sovereign, who will be your deliverers.’ ‘Ex oribus parvulorum!’ said the queen, looking upward; ‘if it is by the mouth of these children that heaven calls me to resume the stately thoughts which become my birth and my rights, thou wilt grant them thy protection, and to me the power of rewarding their zeal.’ Then turning to Fleming, she instantly added, ‘Thou knowest, my friend, whether to make those who have served me happy, was not ever Mary’s favourite pastime. When I have been rebuked by the stern preachers of the Calvinistic heresy — when I have seen the fierce countenances of my nobles averted from me, has it not been because I mixed in the harmless pleasures of the young and gay, and rather for the sake of their happiness than my own, have mingled in the masque, the song or the dance, with the youth of my household? Well, I repent not of it — though Knox termed it sin, and Morton degradation — I was happy because I saw happiness around me: and woe betide the wretched jealousy that can extract guilt out of the overflowings of an unguarded gaiety! — Fleming, if we are restored to our throne, shall we not have one blithesome day at a blithesome bridal, of which we must now name neither the bride nor the bridegroom? But that bridegroom shall have the barony of Blairgowrie, a fair gift even for a queen to give, and that bride’s chaplet shall be twined with the fairest pearls that ever were found in the depths of Lochlomond; and thou thyself, Mary Fleming, the best dresser of tires that ever busked the tresses of a queen, and who would scorn to touch those of any woman of lower rank — thou thyself shalt for my love twine them into the bride’s tresses. — Look, my Fleming, suppose then such clustered locks as these of our Catherine, they would not put shame upon thy skill.’ So saying she passed her hand fondly over the head of her youthful favourite, while her more aged attendant replied despondently, ‘Alas, madam, your thoughts stray far from home.’ ‘They do, my Fleming,’ said the queen, ‘but is it well or kind in you to call them back? — God knows they have kept the perch this night but too closely. — Come, I will recall the gay vision, were it but to punish them. Yes, at that blithesome bridal, Mary herself shall forget the weight of sorrows, and the toil of state, and herself once more lead a measure. — At whose wedding was it that we last danced, my Fleming? I think care has troubled my memory — yet something of it I should remember, canst thou not aid me? I know thou canst.’ ‘Alas, madam,’ replied the lady. ‘What,’ said Mary, ‘wilt thou not help us so far? this is a peevish adherence to thine own graver opinion which holds our talk as folly. But thou art court-bred and wilt well understand me when I say the queen commands Lady Fleming to tell her when she led the last branle.’ With a face deadly pale and a mien as if she were about to sink into the earth, the court-bred dame, no longer daring to refuse obedience, faltered out, ‘Gracious lady — if my memory err not — it was at a masque in Holyrood — at the marriage of Sebastian.’ The unhappy queen, who had hitherto listened with a melancholy smile, provoked by the reluctance with which the Lady Fleming brought out her story, at this ill-fated word interrupted her with a shriek so wild and loud that the vaulted apartment rang, and both Roland and Catherine sprung to their feet in the utmost terror and alarm. Meantime, Mary seemed, by the train of horrible ideas thus suddenly excited, surprised not only beyond self-command, but for the moment beyond the verge of reason. ‘Traitress,’ she said to the Lady Fleming, ‘thou wouldst slay thy sovereign. Call my French guards —à moi! à moi! mes Français!— I am beset with traitors in mine own palace — they have murdered my husband — Rescue! Rescue! for the Queen of Scotland!’ She started up from her chair — her features late so exquisitely lovely in their paleness, now inflamed with the fury of frenzy, and resembling those of a Bellona. ‘We will take the field ourself,’ she said; ‘warn the city — warn Lothian and Fife — saddle our Spanish barb, and bid French Paris see our petronel be charged. Better to die at the head of our brave Scotsmen, like our grandfather at Flodden, than of a broken heart like our ill-starred father.’ ‘Be patient — be composed, dearest sovereign,’ said Catherine; and then addressing Lady Fleming angrily, she added, ‘How could you say aught that reminded her of her husband?’ The word reached the ear of the unhappy princess who caught it up, speaking with great rapidity, ‘Husband! — what husband? Not his most Christian Majesty — he is ill at ease — he cannot mount on horseback — not him of the Lennox — but it was the Duke of Orkney thou wouldst say?’ ‘For God’s love, madam, be patient!’ said the Lady Fleming. But the queen’s excited imagination could by no entreaty be diverted from its course. ‘Bid him come hither to our aid,’ she said, ‘and bring with him his lambs, as he calls them — Bowton, Hay of Talla, Black Ormiston and his kinsman Hob — Fie, how swart they are, and how they smell of sulphur! What! closeted with Morton? Nay, if the Douglas and the Hepburn hatch the complot together, the bird when it breaks the shell will scare Scotland, will it not, my Fleming?’ ‘She grows wilder and wilder,’ said Fleming. ‘We have too many hearers for these strange words.’ ‘Roland,’ said Catherine, ‘in the name of God begone! — you cannot aid us here — leave us to deal with her alone — away — away!”

And equally fine is the scene in Kenilworth in which Elizabeth undertakes the reconciliation of the haughty rivals, Sussex and Leicester, unaware that in the course of the audience she herself will have to bear a great strain on her self-command, both in her feelings as a queen and her feelings as a lover. Her grand rebukes to both, her ill-concealed preference for Leicester, her whispered ridicule of Sussex, the impulses of tenderness which she stifles, the flashes of resentment to which she gives way, the triumph of policy over private feeling, her imperious impatience when she is baffled, her jealousy as she grows suspicious of a personal rival, her gratified pride and vanity when the suspicion is exchanged for the clear evidence, as she supposes, of Leicester’s love, and her peremptory conclusion of the audience, bring before the mind a series of pictures far more vivid and impressive than the greatest of historical painters could fix on canvas, even at the cost of the labour of years. Even more brilliant, though not so sustained and difficult an effort of genius, is the later scene in the same story, in which Elizabeth drags the unhappy Countess of Leicester from her concealment in one of the grottoes of Kenilworth Castle, and strides off with her, in a fit of vindictive humiliation and Amazonian fury, to confront her with her husband. But this last scene no doubt is more in Scott’s way. He can always paint women in their more masculine moods. Where he frequently fails is in the attempt to indicate the finer shades of women’s nature. In Amy Robsart herself, for example, he is by no means generally successful, though in an early scene her childish delight in the various orders and decorations of her husband is painted with much freshness and delicacy. But wherever, as in the case of queens, Scott can get a telling hint from actual history, he can always so use it as to make history itself seem dim to the equivalent for it which he gives us.

And yet, as every one knows, Scott was excessively free in his manipulations of history for the purposes of romance. In Kenilworth he represents Shakespeare’s plays as already in the mouths of courtiers and statesmen, though he lays the scene in the eighteenth year of Elizabeth, when Shakespeare was hardly old enough to rob an orchard. In Woodstock, on the contrary, he insists, if you compare Sir Henry Lee’s dates with the facts, that Shakespeare died twenty years at least before he actually died. The historical basis, again, of Woodstock and of Redgauntlet is thoroughly untrustworthy, and about all the minuter details of history — unless so far as they were characteristic of the age — I do not suppose that Scott in his romances ever troubled himself at all. And yet few historians — not even Scott himself when he exchanged romance for history — ever drew the great figures of history with so powerful a hand. In writing history and biography Scott has little or no advantage over very inferior men. His pictures of Swift, of Dryden, of Napoleon, are in no way very vivid. It is only where he is working from the pure imagination — though imagination stirred by historic study — that he paints a picture which follows us about, as if with living eyes, instead of creating for us a mere series of lines and colours. Indeed, whether Scott draws truly or falsely, he draws with such genius that his pictures of Richard and Saladin, of Louis XI. and Charles the Bold, of Margaret of Anjou and René of Provence, of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, of Sussex and of Leicester, of James and Charles and Buckingham, of the two Dukes of Argyle — the Argyle of the time of the revolution, and the Argyle of George II., of Queen Caroline, of Claverhouse, and Monmouth, and of Rob Roy, will live in English literature beside Shakespeare’s pictures — probably less faithful if more imaginative — of John and Richard and the later Henries, and all the great figures by whom they were surrounded. No historical portrait that we possess will take precedence — as a mere portrait — of Scott’s brilliant study of James I. in The Fortunes of Nigel. Take this illustration for instance, where George Heriot the goldsmith (Jingling Geordie, as the king familiarly calls him) has just been speaking of Lord Huntinglen, as “a man of the old rough world that will drink and swear:"—

“‘O Geordie!’ exclaimed the king, ‘these are auld-warld frailties, of whilk we dare not pronounce even ourselves absolutely free. But the warld grows worse from day to day, Geordie. The juveniles of this age may weel say with the poet —

“Ætas parentum pejor avis tulit

Nos nequiores —”

This Dalgarno does not drink so much; aye or swear so much, as his father, but he wenches, Geordie, and he breaks his word and oath baith. As to what ye say of the leddy and the ministers, we are all fallible creatures, Geordie, priests and kings as weel as others; and wha kens but what that may account for the difference between this Dalgarno and his father? The earl is the vera soul of honour, and cares nae mair for warld’s gear than a noble hound for the quest of a foulmart; but as for his son, he was like to brazen us all out — ourselves, Steenie, Baby Charles, and our Council, till he heard of the tocher, and then by my kingly crown he lap like a cock at a grossart! These are discrepancies betwixt parent and son not to be accounted for naturally, according to Baptista Porta, Michael Scott de secretis, and others. Ah, Jingling Geordie, if your clouting the caldron, and jingling on pots, pans, and veshels of all manner of metal, hadna jingled a’ your grammar out of your head, I could have touched on that matter to you at mair length.’ . . . Heriot inquired whether Lord Dalgarno had consented to do the Lady Hermione justice. ‘Troth, man, I have small doubt that he will,’ quoth the king, ‘I gave him the schedule of her worldly substance, which you delivered to us in the council, and we allowed him half an hour to chew the cud upon that. It is rare reading for bringing him to reason. I left Baby Charles and Steenie laying his duty before him, and if he can resist doing what they desire him, why I wish he would teach me the gate of it. O Geordie, Jingling Geordie, it was grand to hear Baby Charles laying down the guilt of dissimulation, and Steenie lecturing on the turpitude of incontinence.’ ‘I am afraid,’ said George Heriot, more hastily than prudently, ‘I might have thought of the old proverb of Satan reproving sin.’ ‘Deil hae our saul, neighbour,’ said the king, reddening, ‘but ye are not blate! I gie ye licence to speak freely, and by our saul, ye do not let the privilege become lost, non utendo— it will suffer no negative prescription in your hands. Is it fit, think ye, that Baby Charles should let his thoughts be publicly seen? No, no, princes’ thoughts are arcana imperii: qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare. Every liege subject is bound to speak the whole truth to the king, but there is nae reciprocity of obligation — and for Steenie having been whiles a dike-louper at a time, is it for you, who are his goldsmith, and to whom, I doubt, he awes an uncomatable sum, to cast that up to him?”

Assuredly there is no undue favouring of Stuarts in such a picture as that.

Scott’s humour is, I think, of very different qualities in relation to different subjects. Certainly he was at times capable of considerable heaviness of hand — of the Scotch “wut” which has been so irreverently treated by English critics. His rather elaborate jocular introductions, under the name of Jedediah Cleishbotham, are clearly laborious at times. And even his own letters to his daughter-inlaw, which Mr. Lockhart seems to regard as models of tender playfulness and pleasantry, seem to me decidedly elephantine. Not unfrequently, too, his stereotyped jokes weary. Dalgetty bores you almost as much as he would do in real life — which is a great fault in art. Bradwardine becomes a nuisance, and as for Sir Piercie Shafton, he is beyond endurance. Like some other Scotchmen of genius, Scott twanged away at any effective chord till it more than lost its expressiveness. But in dry humour, and in that higher humour which skilfully blends the ludicrous and the pathetic, so that it is hardly possible to separate between smiles and tears, Scott is a master. His canny innkeeper, who, having sent away all the peasemeal to the camp of the Covenanters, and all the oatmeal (with deep professions of duty) to the castle and its cavaliers, in compliance with the requisitions sent to him on each side, admits with a sigh to his daughter that “they maun gar wheat flour serve themsels for a blink,”— his firm of solicitors, Greenhorn and Grinderson, whose senior partner writes respectfully to clients in prosperity, and whose junior partner writes familiarly to those in adversity — his arbitrary nabob who asks how the devil any one should be able to mix spices so well “as one who has been where they grow;"— his little ragamuffin who indignantly denies that he has broken his promise not to gamble away his sixpences at pitch-and-toss because he has gambled them away at “neevie-neevie-nick-nack,”— and similar figures abound in his tales — are all creations which make one laugh inwardly as we read. But he has a much higher humour still, that inimitable power of shading off ignorance into knowledge and simplicity into wisdom, which makes his picture of Jeanie Deans, for instance, so humorous as well as so affecting. When Jeanie reunites her father to her husband by reminding the former how it would sometimes happen that “twa precious saints might pu’ sundrywise like twa cows riving at the same hayband,” she gives us an admirable instance of Scott’s higher humour. Or take Jeanie Deans’s letter to her father communicating to him the pardon of his daughter and her own interview with the Queen:—

“DEAREST AND TRULY HONOURED FATHER. — This comes with my duty to inform you, that it has pleased God to redeem that captivitie of my poor sister, in respect the Queen’s blessed Majesty, for whom we are ever bound to pray, hath redeemed her soul from the slayer, granting the ransom of her, whilk is ane pardon or reprieve. And I spoke with the Queen face to face, and yet live; for she is not muckle differing from other grand leddies, saving that she has a stately presence, and een like a blue huntin’ hawk’s, whilk gaed throu’ and throu’ me like a Highland durk — And all this good was, alway under the Great Giver, to whom all are but instruments, wrought for us by the Duk of Argile, wha is ane native true-hearted Scotsman, and not pridefu’, like other folk we ken of — and likewise skeely enow in bestial, whereof he has promised to gie me twa Devonshire kye, of which he is enamoured, although I do still haud by the real hawkit Airshire breed — and I have promised him a cheese; and I wad wuss ye, if Gowans, the brockit cow, has a quey, that she suld suck her fill of milk, as I am given to understand he has none of that breed, and is not scornfu’ but will take a thing frae a puir body, that it may lighten their heart of the loading of debt that they awe him. Also his honour the Duke will accept ane of our Dunlop cheeses, and it sall be my faut if a better was ever yearned in Lowden.”—[Here follow some observations respecting the breed of cattle, and the produce of the dairy, which it is our intention to forward to the Board of Agriculture.]—“Nevertheless, these are but matters of the after-harvest, in respect of the great good which Providence hath gifted us with — and, in especial, poor Effie’s life. And oh, my dear father, since it hath pleased God to be merciful to her, let her not want your free pardon, whilk will make her meet to be ane vessel of grace, and also a comfort to your ain graie hairs. Dear Father, will ye let the Laird ken that we have had friends strangely raised up to us, and that the talent whilk he lent me will be thankfully repaid. I hae some of it to the fore; and the rest of it is not knotted up in ane purse or napkin, but in ane wee bit paper, as is the fashion heir, whilk I am assured is gude for the siller. And, dear father, through Mr. Butler’s means I hae gude friendship with the Duke, for there had been kindness between their forbears in the auld troublesome time byepast. And Mrs. Glass has been kind like my very mother. She has a braw house here, and lives bien and warm, wi’ twa servant lasses, and a man and a callant in the shop. And she is to send you doun a pound of her hie-dried, and some other tobaka, and we maun think of some propine for her, since her kindness hath been great. And the Duk is to send the pardon doun by an express messenger, in respect that I canna travel sae fast; and I am to come doun wi’ twa of his Honour’s servants — that is, John Archibald, a decent elderly gentleman, that says he has seen you lang syne, when ye were buying beasts in the west frae the Laird of Aughtermuggitie — but maybe ye winna mind him — ony way, he’s a civil man — and Mrs. Dolly Dutton, that is to be dairy-maid at Inverara: and they bring me on as far as Glasgo’, whilk will make it nae pinch to win hame, whilk I desire of all things. May the Giver of all good things keep ye in your outgauns and incomings, whereof devoutly prayeth your loving dauter,

“JEAN DEANS.”

This contains an example of Scott’s rather heavy jocularity as well as giving us a fine illustration of his highest and deepest and sunniest humour. Coming where it does, the joke inserted about the Board of Agriculture is rather like the gambol of a rhinoceros trying to imitate the curvettings of a thoroughbred horse.

Some of the finest touches of his humour are no doubt much heightened by his perfect command of the genius as well as the dialect of a peasantry, in whom a true culture of mind and sometimes also of heart is found in the closest possible contact with the humblest pursuits and the quaintest enthusiasm for them. But Scott, with all his turn for irony — and Mr. Lockhart says that even on his death-bed he used towards his children the same sort of good-humoured irony to which he had always accustomed them in his life — certainly never gives us any example of that highest irony which is found so frequently in Shakespeare, which touches the paradoxes of the spiritual life of the children of earth, and which reached its highest point in Isaiah. Now and then in his latest diaries — the diaries written in his deep affliction — he comes near the edge of it. Once, for instance, he says, “What a strange scene if the surge of conversation could suddenly ebb like the tide, and show us the state of people’s real minds!

‘No eyes the rocks discover

Which lurk beneath the deep.’

Life could not be endured were it seen in reality.” But this is not irony, only the sort of meditation which, in a mind inclined to thrust deep into the secrets of life’s paradoxes, is apt to lead to irony. Scott, however, does not thrust deep in this direction. He met the cold steel which inflicts the deepest interior wounds, like a soldier, and never seems to have meditated on the higher paradoxes of life till reason reeled. The irony of Hamlet is far from Scott. His imagination was essentially one of distinct embodiment. He never even seemed so much as to contemplate that sundering of substance and form, that rending away of outward garments, that unclothing of the soul, in order that it might be more effectually clothed upon, which is at the heart of anything that may be called spiritual irony. The constant abiding of his mind within the well-defined forms of some one or other of the conditions of outward life and manners, among the scores of different spheres of human habit, was, no doubt, one of the secrets of his genius; but it was also its greatest limitation.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iv. 171–3.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iv. 175–6.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iv. 46.

4 Carlyle’s Miscellaneous Essays, iv. 174–5.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29