The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Three Aspects of Scott's Genius

by Mary L. Armitt
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 579-585

I. His Heroines

Often has the critic (masculine) taken exception to the male creations of the woman-novelist: perhaps as often has the feminine reader sighed (though in silence) over the unreal representations of her sex made by the man-writer.

Scott approached his heroines, when he came to draw them in prose fiction, not only from the conventional man's view of woman, but from the poetic view. In his poetry he had been forced to depict her as a miniature-painter does, witl all the acknowledged attributes of her sex worked smoothly into a small compass, where no room is for individuality. On the larger canvas of his novels he began in the same style, working at the early painters did at their Madonnas,—using not only the most beautiful example of face around them, and conventionizing it, but setting it above the stereotyped blue cloak and red dress tradition.

It was no doubt to give relief to this monotony of convention (which probably he felt himself) that Scott drew his first heroines in pairs, with contrasting qualities of physique and mind—dark and light, spirited and soft. He worked woman into two types—both conventional—the one brunette and fiery, the other blonde and yielding; and left it to a great woman-novelist to prove in fiction (by the character of Rosamond Vincy, in Middlemarch), what is often proved in life, that the most fixed and obstinate temperament goes with a light complexion. And so we get Flora and Rose in Waverley, Julia and Lucy in Guy Mannering; and later, Rebecca and Rowena in Ivanhoe, who tempted Thackeray to blaspheme. Of the two types it is perhaps the brunette that the woman-critic finds the most unreal. In Rose, tame as she is, there is something warm and loveable; while in Flora we have the romantic heroine almost at her worst; and in the scene where she is made to cross the gorge by a plank above the enamoured Waverley's head, her harp with her, hieing to the bower where she will sing to him, the feminine reader groans in spirit. Was anything, in prose fiction, more theatrical and unreal? What a contrast in treatment is there between this heroine with a harp, and another drawn much about the same time by a woman, in the character of the inimitable Mary Crawford, of Mansfield Park, who was dark and sprightly too, and who recounts with delightful humour the difficulty she has had in getting her instrument transported in the hay-season. And again, when reading the effusions of the accomplished Julia, one is tempted to wonder if any woman, at any period, was quite so artificial and absurd.

But Scott came to do better than this; and the weakness of delineation in his earlier heroines may have been due in part to a fine trait in his own character. He was afraid, chivalrously afraid, to touch woman too intimately (as Stevenson, long after and with better cause, was afraid); and on the same grounds he refrained from treating the passion of love, conversant with it as he was, subjectively in his heroes. This reticence of his has a noble quality.

And gradually he threw more truth to individual life, more characterization, into his heroines. Isabella Wardour, in The Antiquary, hardly lives indeed in the memory, while the antiquary's niece has no part or action given to her; and in The Black Dwarf there is a relapse to bald type.

It is in Diana Vernon, of Rob Roy, written before the Black Dwarf, that we first reach a convincing reality of womanhood, and find charm and naturalness combined. Scott intended here to depict a woman with faults,—though only the extraneous faults of manner and education. He was bound to draw her, from her circumstances, as unconventional; he succeeded therefore in making her a living personage. The only woman of the story, except for the sibyl-like figure of Helen Macgregor, she is also a central image of the crowded canvas; and she commands (in spite of an occasional artificiality) the sympathy and affection of readers of her own sex, as well as the fealty and admiration of those of the opposite.

Di Vernon is an individual; but Scott rose to even higher art in woman-portraiture than hers. Not in Edith Bellenden, of Old Mortality, indeed—though she shows a decided advance upon the earlier heroines, for she moves to action more spontaneously, and has feelings deep enough to force her to action; while her association with her maid Jenny reaches a higher form of duality, a real contrast of temperament as well as of class. It was in the sisters Jeannie and Effie Deans, of The Heart of Midlothian, that Scott went straight and boldly to nature—nature unadorned, and drew dual and contrasting master-pieces that are true as types as well as individuals. They live on in literature, immortal in their true womanhood; and perpetuate and exalt for us human incident and human life, which is so transitory in reality.

II. Tragedy In Scott

Scott dealt with human life—the comedy and tragedy of it, its tears and laughter, its loves and hates—on the largest scale, as Shakespeare did; and like Shakespeare, he was apt to borrow the main incidents of his fiction from history or tradition, or from some singular or tragic circumstance told to him. Only, with a modern conscience and a strong antiquarian bent of mind, he was careful to give in his preface the exact fact or document of which he had made use.

This habit of his enables us to observe, in a ready way, his method of artistic construction. We have the real incident, and the literary presentation of it, side by side; we can compare the two, and note the difference between actual life and the art of a great writer. For art is not life, but life welded into a form, beautiful, permanent, and even real. The artist may turn incident, weave plot, alter and efface, so long as he only enlarges on human possibilities, without entirely transcending them. And Scott's methods of dealing with life and fact are characteristic. In one respect he treated them too lightly, and occasionally indulged his too-great power of story-telling by weaving a continuous tissue of romantic and improbable incidents, in the manner of a fairy tale. Then his cheerful temper, his humane and sanguine spirit, made him averse to a sad fate for his character, even if it might be true to life. He shrank from tragedy.

We know, from his own statement, how much he suffered in carrying poor Lucy Ashton, in The Bride of Lammermoor, on to her tragic doom. He would have escaped it, if he could, but the whole story hinged upon the one frightful incident he had chosen from actuality, and he had prepared for it with the weird inferences, the premonitions, the tragic touches, of a great artist. The catastrophe had to come, and did come, completing the unity of the conception, and giving it dramatic perfection.

But this is, perhaps, the only story where sheer tragedy prevails, and where the principal actors are carried on to the fate that seems their goal. Handel indeed was fain to weep while he set music to "He was despised and rejected," but Scott could not bear to have his heart wrung, even by imaginary woes: he preferred to exercise his prerogative as story-teller to avert the doom that impended. He was an optimist, and would have all go well. Over and over he turned back when he had led his character to the very brink of catastrophe, and arrested what seemed an inevitable course. The hasty and too happy ending to The Antiquary is apparent, as well as the improbability that the Earl could piece a tranquil life—close on to what had gone before. In the same way, it is difficult to believe that the hunted and profligate Georgie Robertson, in The Heart of Midlothian, could have become a settled country gentleman; or that the lovely girl, who stood in the dock arraigned for child-murder, distraught by shame and misery, could have become a lady of society. To Jeannie, indeed, might have been accorded a happy ending (though her prototype died a solitary old maid, extremely poor); it belonged to her nature: but for the two, ship-wrecked on the rocks of sin and remorse, there should have been no saving. The note of tragedy had been pitched too high, too splendidly, to be muffled by the gag of prosperity. Even in the figure of Henry Morton, in Old Mortality (one of the finest, surely, of Scott's heroes), there is a touch of gloom and of fate which makes his return at the last, in time to save Edith from a loveless marriage, seem improbable.

But though Scott refused to carry some of his principal characters to their doom, he allowed his powers of pathos and tragedy full sway in his minor ones. Surely there is nothing more singular and pathetic in literature than the death-bed of poor Madge Wildfire, who flits through the pages of The Heart of Midlothian; while the whole delineation of her mother, hanged at the last, is a masterpiece. The real end to Waverley is in the death of Fergus MacIvor; and the tragic intensity of Flora's grief, as she sews his shroud, effaces (it must be confessed) the romantic artificiality of her former bearing.

In fine, Scott's powers of tragedy were so high, that one tempted to wonder what he would have achieved if he had allowed his art the fullest scope. Prosperous, happy, a man of varied occupations and tastes, he lived his life apart from his books—nay, he even repudiated the authorship of them, till the best were written. Art—the highest art, that demands the whole surrender of the life-retaliated. Had he surrendered himself, might he not have stood with Shakespeare among the immortal few?

Yet we are content; we have not only his stories, that move and delight us, but the man himself above them, living his genial, noble life, himself an inspiration to humanity.

III. The Humour of Scott

In Scott there is surely every dramatic element to be found. There is tragedy; there is melodrama (low be it spoken! yet is it not the melodramatic touch in his villains that renders them unreal?): there is comedy, if not farce; and there is humour.

Of comedy, the opening scene in The Antiquary, where the passengers wait for the coach, is a fine example. The race of the two chariots for precedence in the avenue of Ravenswood (Bride of Lammermoor), witnessed by the perturbed Lord Keeper, who sees with chagrin the return of his wife to defeat his schemes and spoil his hospitality, is truly comic, in spite of its serious issue. There is high comedy in Scott's fools and country magistrates, and comedy verging on farce in Dumbiedike's pursuit of Jeannie with the money. Then has not the resurrection of Athelstane, in Ivanhoe, a farcical element in it? At least, it comes upon the reader with such a shock of surprise, such a ludicrous effect of strong contrast between funereal pomp for the departed and absurdity in the risen figure, as to provoke that spasmodic laughter that belongs to farce. But it is in the humour of Scott that the modern reader, bred upon the subtleties of the modern novelist, chiefly delights. Scott is a true humourist in the way he sketches for us the oddities, the little infirmities of mind, the absurdities of human nature; yet his humour is never unkind. Compared with the lightning-like flash of some humour, that scorches while it reveals, his is like the sunshine, strongly illuminative yet warmly beneficent. The bull's-eye lantern of Thackeray's humour, darting into the dark recesses of his characters' thoughts, makes us wince, as we realize how petty, vain and egotistic may be the thought of the human heart. But Scott had no sardonic pleasure in meanness; he saw good and bad together, and loved the human nature that lay behind the absurdity. The hobby-horse for him was not a wooden mechanism, invariable in its contortions, as it was with Dickens, but a ridiculous creature ridden by a human soul of varying mood. Lady Margaret Bellenden's story of royalty, that recurs so frequently in the pages of Old Mortality, does indeed get a little tiresome, but, in an aged person, repetition is nature. As a rule, we smile indulgently when Scott displays the vanity of his subject; and we think no worse of Rose because she ran, when out of Waverley's sight, to have time to smarten herself.

Perhaps it is in the portrayal of the peculiar forms of Scotch vanity that Scott excels. He has a whole range of humourous characters of the religiously conceited order, of whom David Deans, the father of the sisters in The Heart of Midlothian, is possibly drawn with the most careful analysis. He has another range among the lawyers, and men who are braggarts over law and Latin phrases. In Andrew Fairservice, the gardener in Rob Roy, he draws a pragmatical conceit that loves even its own vices. But in drawing the conceit of rank and birth Scott seems to fall below Miss Austen; or at least the rude Sir Arthur Wardour, of The Antiquary, is a far less subtle and convincing picture than Sir Walter Elliott in Persuasion.

Yet Jane Austen, princess of humourists as she is (for who but she can depict a scene, a person, without one striking eccentricity, yet in which the humour is lambent?)—Jane Austen, the creator of Miss Bates, of Mrs. Elton, of proud Mr. Darcy (who lived in the hope that he could not be laughed at)—even she falls below Scott in a certain quality of humour. We see this most clearly in the dull or weak-minded order of character, whom Miss Austen displays with simple exactness; whereas Scott gives to the stupidity of Dumbiedike, and to the shrewd dullness of Cuddie Headriff, in Old Mortality, a touch that lifts them, real as they are, above actual life. Even when drawing a mind feeble and deranged, like Madge Wildfire, he lends it a pathos that thrills us with pity.

The reason of this is to be looked for beyond Scott's love of human nature, that irradiated his humour; it lies in the poetic quality of that humour. Scott came straight to his prose art from poetry,—whereby it suffered in some sort maybe, for his hand was cramped with the use of conventional types; and the old tools of encrusted romance lay too ready to that hand. But his humour was the greater for it. Poetry makes life sublime; and the spirit of poetry, that informed Scott's humour, lifted it into an epic atmosphere.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Hana 'ia i Hawai'i, October 2008