Walter Scott’s Post-War Europe

Marilyn Butler

  • Walter Scott and the Historical Imagination by David Brown
    Routledge, 239 pp, £9.75, August 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0301 3

Scott perhaps illustrates more clearly than other writers the gap between the ideas of the general educated reader and those of the professional academic. The non-professional thinks of him as the mildly spurious Laird of Abbotsford, the sentimental reviver of a heroic Border and Highland past, who was still in the early 19th century more than half a Jacobite. The literary academic, especially since the appearance in English of Georg Lukacs’s Historical Novel in 1962, has seen him as an intellectual of quite a different cast: the first novelist to represent the historical process, the first portrayer of society in terms that Adam Smith might and Karl Marx did approve.

David Brown makes the academic case admirably. He begins by modestly disclaiming originality: he is developing insights put forward by others in recent years, and only applying them more carefully to a selection of the major novels. This is a service which it would be wrong to underrate. Brown undoubtedly has virtues that Lukacs in particular does not, such as a pleasant style, close familiarity with the novels, and a respect for chronology. Students need clear and consistent accounts of orthodoxies. Like Scott heroes, they are learning how to survive, and while it is best for them not to copy their elders too slavishly, unless they get cannily close they will not excel in examinations. Brown’s book, sensible without being obvious, mainstream without seeming stale, is admirably adapted to pedagogic ends.

The cool light of reason has, however, a way of shining indiscriminately into awkward corners. This competent synthesis performs its best service by finally demonstrating that the case for Scott as primarily a historical novelist is not as interesting as it has looked. An unkind way of summing up the argument would be to say it shows that Scott did not belong intellectually in 1740, or 1640, or 1240 – and then dates him in 1780. It was indeed a rich experience to go to school and university in Edinburgh in the 1780s, but the cultural bonus will not of itself bring readers of the 1980s back to Scott in droves.

How strange it is, after all, to write about that marvellous novel, Old Mortality, as though it stands or falls by its literal representation of Scottish affairs in 1679. Scott makes his closing sequence a kind of epilogue, in which peace has returned to the Scottish countryside following the settlement of 1688, and Cuddie Headrigg and his Jenny have established a kind of pastoral idyll. Brown objects that at the supposed date Scottish peasants were in fact enduring years of dearth which came to be known as ‘King William’s ill times’. This, Brown feels, must be a blunder on Scott’s part: either an ignorant slip or a deliberate falsification of the record. But was Scott bound to defer to the record in setting up his fables? An Old Mortality which ended in the documentary spirit Brown proposes would be unlike the other Scott novels, where standard happy endings generally recall time-worn popular narratives, and imply a greater interest in recurring patterns of experience than in the reconstruction of particular events. Ah yes, the novel tells a story, sighed Forster, pointing at Scott in particular, and it is at least true that with Scott story takes precedence over history.

Scott post-Lukacs has become a kind of centaur, half-man and half-beast. The aspect the academic now prefers to contemplate is rational and modern-minded. But it is best seen from one angle: Brown picks out eight novels, of which seven were written between 1814 (Waverley) and 1819 (The Bride of Lammermoor). Meanwhile there seems little or nothing to do about the distressing nether parts, which are not so much bestial as apparently slightly silly: Gothic Abbotsford, the hard line on Peterloo and on riotous weavers, and at least twice as many more gimcrack, pasteboard novels and poems.

Brown is too honest to pretend that all Scott’s prodigious output is vintage stuff, but he tries not to dwell on the rest. He leaves out the poems with which Scott rose to fame, though The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion have scarcely less history in them than Waverley, and he lumps into a single chapter the medieval sequence of novels beginning with Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward. This is being much more selective than the Hungarian Lukacs, whose discussion partly turned on the superiority of Scott to the ‘legitimist Romantics’ on the other side of the Channel. On the Continent when Scott was writing, feudalism and Christendom were concepts to conjure with, as Jacobitism was not. Paradoxically, as Scott pushed his settings further back in time, he appealed to a wider, more international readership. He was always in some measure topical, but he could be seen more generally to be topical when he wrote of the Middle Ages than when he wrote of 18th-century Scotland.

It is easy to assume, as Brown does, that a novel set in the present is more urgent than one set in the past: the further back in the past, the less relevant, in geometric progression. But this is to overlook the special topicality of the past when the Waverley novels began to appear in 1814. The Catholic monarchs restored after Napoleon’s fall were supported by arguments from history – of a kind. Their apologists presented them as symbols of continuity with the past, of faith in the indivisibility of a nation’s experience and in the naturalness of hierarchy. And yet Scott, though by taste a historian, by politics a Tory, does not use history to uphold legitimacy. His emphasis on historical evolution rather than on historical continuity is, in the immediate post-war period, more progressive than reactionary. In the first three novels, Waverley, Guy Mannering and The Antiquary, the leading characters are brought to welcome a somewhat inglorious peace and what feels like a liberal settlement. All three heroes end facing the future in a complex modern society which has changed and is by implication to go on changing. This is more than the gesture of a good winner, holding out a promise of reconciliation to the vanquished. It tacitly questions the reality of the conservative victory, and quite denies the usual claim of the conservative and historically-minded of the Restoration period, that the clock could be turned back, the revolution eradicated.

There is an element of half-humorous auto-biography in these first novels. Scott’s more important characters are often projections of his own political inclinations, his Toryism; Waverley is his wryly-observed romantic boyhood self; Bradwardine, Oldbuck or even Sir Arthur Wardour are himself playing at ancestor worship and finicky antiquarianism. Ruefully but firmly, the follies of such characters are seen in the plain light of contemporary common day. They pay a price when they give up their sentimental toying with the past, but the author is unmistakably bent on exacting it.

It may be said that magnanimity can come easily to a victor. The society-building in Scott’s early fiction nevertheless seems more flexible and statesmanlike than the social visions of other creative English conservatives in the same years. Wordsworth in The Excursion and even more Coleridge in Zapolya and The Lay Sermons glance back nostalgically to the integrated, hierarchical never-never-England dreamed up by Burke. For Scott, the Age of Chivalry was not merely dead: it had never existed. The real significance of the play of Scott’s ‘historical imagination’ is that it contradicts the simplifications of popular historicism. The European novel took a different course because he chose to be a dealer in experience rather than a pedlar of systems.

The essence of Scott’s medievalism was unfortunately less imitable than the excrescence. It is hard now to see the more lavish costume dramas except in the company of scores of garish romances, operettas and screenplays. The division of Scott’s work into near-modern and medieval has become a cliché, obscuring other distinctions between novel and novel. Well before Ivanhoe Scott seems to have lost his guarded post-war faith in progress and his hope of social cohesion. From 1817, he witnessed outbreaks of class conflict and may also have absorbed Ricardo’s perception of their probable inevitability; certainly, the settlements envisaged by his novels become more precarious, the cost to individual major characters greater. The heroes of the first three novels grow up and enter upon a secure inheritance; Ravenswood in The Bride of Lammermoor dies an outcast from his land, and other heroes – Henry Morton in Old Mortality, Roland Graeme in The Abbot, Nigel Olifaunt in The Fortunes of Nigel – perceive their worlds, with varying bitterness of spirit, as unaccommodating, coercive, friendless and homeless. The specific historical settings of these heroes belonged to times past: their malaise was surely representative of the mood of post-war Europe. Scott was concerned, and the 19th-century novel after him, neither with the documentation of particular societies, nor with the analysis of all societies, but with the experience of living in society as his readers also knew it.

Lukacs was surely right – though the remark puzzles Brown – when he said that Scott’s objectivity was not impaired but heightened by his conservatism. He remained the best critic of his own side. Poor derided Ivanhoe is in its way a splendid deconstruction of the mystique of chivalry, and in 1820, when the monarchs of the Holy Alliance were stretching their claims of sanctity and legitimacy too far for British taste, it was bang up to the minute. The medieval world of Ivanhoe is as unorganic, as riven by class, sect and interest-groups, as all Scott’s societies. His representative knight, the Templar, easily reconciles his oaths to his Order with his desire to rape Rebecca. It is a vision of feudalism which consorts interestingly with Coleridge’s wish in 1817 to see again a healthy, loyal English tenantry, ‘ready to march off at the first call of their country with a Son of the House at their head’.

Coleridge, Southey and Cobbett were all in due course to romanticise the monasteries, as key institutions of society in a less competitive, more interdependent phase. Scott’s monastery in The Abbot is invaded by a ribald mob headed by the Abbot of Misrule. The Church is as vulnerable to violence and anarchy as any other institution. Pitiably so, Scott evidently feels of this occasion, when the Scottish monasteries were on the point of collapse: yet he also observes that the Catholic Church’s provision for misrule was an instance of its practical political wisdom. It is an unusual comment on the medieval and, when all due comparisons are made, not a bit silly.