Romantic Toryism: Scott, Disraeli,
'IT may be asked, it has been asked, “Have we no materials for romance in England? Must we look to Scotland for a supply of whatever is original and striking in this kind?”' wrote Hazlitt in his essay on Sir Walter Scott in The Spirit of the Age (1825). 'Every foot of soil is with us worked up; nearly every movement of the social machine is calculable. We have no room left for violent catastrophes; for grotesque quaintnesses; for wizard spells. The last skirts of ignorance and barbarism are seen hovering (in Sir Walter's pages) over the Border.' Hazlitt might have added that, like the Gothic novels to which they succeeded, Scott's romances were set in an increasingly remote past; and that Scott's fiction beginning with Ivanhoe (1819) had brought historical romance back to England. Nevertheless, the 'England' of Hazlitt's essay is a nation of rational economics and agri-business. Even the gipsies, he says, 'live under clipped hedges, and repose in camp-beds'.1 England in the early nineteenth century had been pacified and brought to order; Scotland and Ireland had not.
The contrast between romance and realism implied by Hazlitt is a contrast between violent landscapes and peaceful ones. Ann Radcliffe's Gothic romance demands the most dramatic mountain scenery, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) takes us to the highest Alps and the remote Arctic ice-fields; Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) begins and ends, however, in a 'happy valley', the lush valley of the Garonne, which is much closer to the well-tilled landscapes of English domestic fiction. Catherine Morland, Jane Austen's avid romance reader in Northanger Abbey, concludes (even as she is becoming somewhat disillusioned with her favourite Gothic authors) that 'human nature' is perhaps different in mountainous regions:
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the
works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least
in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and