Academic journal article Theory in Action

Reexamining Sir Walter Scott in the Light of Three Female Scottish Novelists

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Reexamining Sir Walter Scott in the Light of Three Female Scottish Novelists

Article excerpt

Since the 1920s, criticism on Sir Walter Scott, has ironically oscillated between the Scylla of presenting Scott as the progressive founder of the historical novel, and the Charybdis of being considered the first British author of international best sellers of a questionable literary merit. The former view, of course, comes from the work of Hungarian critic Georg Lukács, and more specifically from his groundbreaking The Historical Novel (1947), a book of criticism in which he put forward a critical approach that emphasized how 'great novels' should link their narrative elements (characters mainly, but also all kinds of descriptions, motifs, themes, point of view etc...) to the material conditions of existence of a given historical moment. For Lukács, the genuine historical (or 'total') novel appears with Sir Walter Scott, although this writer's conscious political allegiance was, nevertheless and according to the Hungarian scholar, utterly reactionary (Lukács 8-12). However, the novels of this Scottish author, Lukács argues, present the reader with the progressive disintegration of residual, aristocratic, social forms as a consequence of the emergence of capitalism (the bourgeoise) (3-19). Additionally, Scott - for Lukács -understood how historical events intervene in the affairs of ordinary people, who in his novels appear as characters who are not either modernized or made our contemporaries. In other words, if, until Scott, historical novels had merely portrayed their historical characters with superficial 'historicized' features, and characters had been simply presented in 'historical' settings, Scott went beyond that formula in order to offer his readers a connection with "vividly exposed 'typical' conflicts and dynamics of their societies" (Eagleton 30), becoming, albeit his reactionary character in other respects, a literary figure of gigantic proportions: for Lukács, Scott was the first writer to articulate the true historical novel (Lukács 3).

But - as mentioned above - there is another earlier and similarly influential approach to Scott's fiction, one that presents the Scottish writer as, basically and solely, a good narrator of considerable commercial success, and this comes from another seminal work, namely E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel (1927). In this collection of lectures, Forster developed an approach to Scott's fiction that, far from finding in Scott's narrative any insightful perception of something like the Lukácsian true historical consciousness, emphasized Scott's allegedly superficial and facile story-telling ability. For Forster there was no realization of the historical forces of an epoch "revealing their unfolding potential in its fullest complexity" (Eagleton 28); instead, he argued that Scott has "a trivial mind and a heavy style"; that he "cannot construct" and that he "has neither artistic detachment nor passion" (Forster 44). In Forster's words, Scott "only has a temperate heart and gentlemanly feelings, and an intelligent affection for the countryside" (44). Furthermore, even his integrity as a writer is easily discarded as "commercial integrity" 44). His commercial success is simply a consequence of his being a "reminder of early happines" (45), of his being "entangled with happy sentimental memories" (44-5). All of which, of course, "is not basis enough for great novels" (44)}

The object of such contradictory perceptions, Walter Scott (1771-1832), was the sheriff of Selkirk and son of a magistrate. He eventually became more a humanist than a lawyer: a translator (of Goethe and several French authors) as well as a fluent reader of Cervantes in Spanish and of Ariosto in Italian, an editor of Swift and Dryden, a poet (rival and friend of Byron), an antiquarian and philologist, and, above all, an extremely reputed and successful fiction writer. Interestingly, this dichotomy seems to extend to his self-appointed role as a writer involved in promoting the Union of Scotland and England and advancing the British Empire, to the extent that, in spite of his tremendous success as a fiction writer, it is sometimes difficult to say how seriously he took his own writing from a strictly literary point of view, as we can judge from the following statement reproduced by Thomas Carlyle:

But how soon he had any definite object before him in his researches seems very doubtful. …

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