Walter Scott, Literary History, and the "Expressive" Tenets of Waverley Criticism

By Smith Iii, Edward C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Walter Scott, Literary History, and the "Expressive" Tenets of Waverley Criticism

Smith Iii, Edward C., Papers on Language & Literature

"In joyous picturesqueness and fellow-feeling, freedom of eye and heart, or to say it in a word, in general healthiness of mind, these Novels prove Scott to have been amongst the foremost writers."

Thomas Carlyle, "The Amoral Scott"

There was no other author in the history of literature who played a more important role in shaping the nineteenth-century novel than Walter Scott (1771-1832). From the publication of Waverley, his first novel, in 1814 until long after his death, his historical novels exerted a power over prose discourse the extent of which is rarely recognized today. This importance derives in large measure from Scott's active formulation of a new mode of historical understanding, an understanding that, in the words of Ian Watt, accepted "the aims of economic individualism" and its "new attitude to society and its law" (95).[1]

Within the dimensions of the cultural shift of modernism, however, Scott's literary reputation suffered tremendously. Many recent studies of Scott have sought to redress this situation; works by such critics as Judith Wilt, Ina Ferris, and Ian Duncan have sought to reestablish him as one of the most seminal writers of the nineteenth century. But the question remains: if Scott is indeed one of the great authors of literary history, why has this resurrection been needed? What critical tenets were employed, consciously or unconsciously, to seal his fate as a second-rate writer for several generations?

Since around the year 1885 in particular Scott's novels have been viewed by critics and readers alike as little more than romantic and "nostalgic boy's adventures, origins of a tradition that descended to the underground of the popular press" (McMaster 1). As early as 1821, the critic Nassau Senior in the Quarterly Review cited most of these familiar criticisms in his survey of Scott's novels published up to that year: "the often sloppy prose, the confused plots, the historical mistakes, the involved and tedious beginnings, the constant re-creation, in book after book, of the same cast of characters" (qtd. in Raleigh 10).[2] Yet such early criticisms were "small voices amid the chorus of adulation for the Author of Waverley" (Waswo 2), for it was overwhelmingly felt that Scott's deficiencies were more than adequately compensated for by "the beauties" (Hadyn 7). Never before or since in Western culture, notes John Henry Raleigh in his study of Scott's meaning to Victorian readers, has "a writer been such a power in his own day and so negligible to posterity" (8).

As can be demonstrated, this meteoric fall is attributable to a modernist mode of criticism informed by certain canonized assumptions about "serious" fiction within some "great tradition" of the novel. The unfortunate result of this criticism was an assessment of Scott as an "unserious," romance writer who comes "out of a bad tradition" (Leavis 6).[3] It was the moralizing tendencies of early nineteenth-century considerations in particular that continue to subject the Waverley Novels to considerable deformation in early and mid-twentieth-century literary histories. Indeed, the "expressive" biases that were the implied premise of these ninetenth-century readings are latent precisely in that twentieth-century criticism that refers to Scott's "imaginative genius" and his exemplary ability to give voice to the "human nature" and "feelings" of his characters. As such, later assessments can be considered never to have moved beyond earlier simplifications. There is a line that can be drawn from the critic Francis Jeffrey's 1814 assertion that "the secret of [Scott's] success" is that he "is a person of genius" (79), through Carlyle's mid-century diatribes against the Waverley Novels' ethics, to Georg Lukacs's 1937 pronouncement that Scott's greatness can be located in his "imaginative" capacity to give "life" to "socio-historical types" (42). Such approaches are symptomatic of a consistent tendency to read Scott in terms of his ability to "express" a single meaning or "message," and it is precisely this tendency that was responsible for the whole climate of literary opinion that came to find Scott negligible. It requires a look at the broad outlines of the tradition of Waverley criticism, however, to delineate the origins of this unjustifiable neglect.

By the time Waverley was published in 1814, genre criticism had developed a working distinction between the categories of the novel and romance, "where novels were characterized by a greater degree of realism than romances" (Welsh 12). The mimetic argument of English literary criticism turned on the dualism of these forms, whereby the novel was lauded for its superior ability to copy a reality considered immediately accessible to perception. In the preface to The Castle of Otranto (1765), for example, Horace Walpole refers to this generic distinction and states that his work was an attempt to blend "two kinds of fiction: the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success" (19). In an early and influential discussion on the difference between the novel and romance, Clara Reeve in The Progress of Romance (1785) stated that

the Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. --The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language describes what never happened nor is likely to happen.--The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things as pass every day before our eyes; . . . and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them seem so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real. (111)

Scott himself refers similarly to this commonly accepted distinction in his "Essay on Romance" from the 1822 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. According to him, romance is "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvelous and uncommon incidents." The novel, on the other hand, is a "fictitious narrative, differing from the romance, because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events, and the modern state of society" (qtd. in Welsh 13). In his privileging of the novel for its superior adherence to the laws of probability and necessity, Scott granted that genre a greater stature based upon normative and socially determined, rather than strictly aesthetic or formal, criteria. In accord with this premise, he sought to express the conceptual norms of "the modern state of society" by accommodating literature to various notions of the contemporary real.

This notion of the novel as both an expressive and a truth-telling activity is closely associated with British society's attempt to locate its identity in a naturally-occurring moral order. As Alexander Welsh notes, fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century was supposed to be a truth-seeking "practice as natural and universal as language itself" (5). Harriet Martineau, for example, writing in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine in 1833, cites the Waverley Novels' exemplary moralism as the embodiment of "truth in fiction" (341). Scott, she states, "has taught us the power of fiction as an agent of morals and philosophy," and he did so by imparting "to certain influential classes the conviction that human nature works alike in all." Among the items she selects for special attention are Scott's "moral science," his "political economy," and the system of "social rights and duties" developed in his novels (340). In her Miscellanies (1836) she insists that he "will teach morals more effectually" than all "our dissenting preachers," and that his influence was just "beginning its course of a thousand years." What moral teachers, she goes on to ask, "will venture to bring their influence into comparison with that of this great lay preacher?" (30).

Yet it is Carlyle's moralizing denunciation in "The Amoral Scott," his unsigned 1838 review of John Gibson Lockhart's Life of Scott, that has had the most unfortunate and far-reaching influence on subsequent Waverley criticism. While Carlyle lauds Scott's expression of a "deep" and "sincere love of the beautiful in Nature and Man" (364), his praise of Scott's "prudence" and "principles" soon takes on a decidedly negative cast. These famed books, writes Carlyle,

are altogether addressed to the every-day mind; that for any other mind there is next to no nourishment in them. Opinions, emotions, principles, doubts, beliefs, beyond what the intelligent country gentleman can carry along with him, are not to be found. It is orderly, customary, it is prudent, decent; nothing more. (365)

Scott's novels, according to Carlyle, were not only devoid of intellect, they were frivolous. Yet in referring to their popularity as the lowest common denominator of taste and leaving it at that, Carlyle shows himself unwilling to address the significance of Scott's successful appeal to the demands and expectations of a contemporary readership. Rather than historicize his assessment by discussing the impact of those narrative forms that may have made Scott's writing appear clumsier than it had to his contemporaries, Carlyle claims that this tremendous popularity was no more than "a blaze of illumination, or alas, of conflagration, kindled round a man" (345). Reality, thought Carlyle, "if rightly interpreted, is grander than fiction" (qtd. in Fleishman xiv), and since Scott proved incapable of expressing reality as it was conceived by Carlyle, it was necessary to reject his narratives as improbable and unnatural aberrations from "truth" itself.

True to such essentializing tenets, Carlyle's most notorious reproach turns on Scott's lack of a "message" that could elucidate the meaning of his novels, the system of virtue and vice, which, by implication, must inform any serious writing:

In this nineteenth century, our highest literary man, who immeasurably beyond all others commanded the world's ear, had, as it were, no message whatever to deliver to the world; wished not the world to elevate itself, to do this or to do that, except simply pay him for the books he kept writing. Very remarkable; fittest, perhaps, for an age fallen languid, destitute of faith and terrified at scepticism. (357)

Carlyle does consider Scott as not "altogether deficient . . . in the . . . highest excellence, of drawing character," which is a result of his "freedom of eye and heart" (364). Yet it is in reference to this "highest excellence" that Carlyle points to Scott's aesthetic inferiority to Shakespeare: the latter, he states, "fashions his characters from the heart outwards; . . . Scott fashions them from the skin inwards, never getting near the heart of them" (365). It is in so arguing that Carlyle establishes the primary terms of subsequent rejections of Scott: he fails to penetrate to the "hearts" of the characters he depicts; what the "contemporary . . . consensus praised as the panoramic, usually 'Shakespearean,' breadth of his novels here becomes their superficiality" (Waswo 3).[4]

Carlyle's tendency to ignore Scott's contemporary popular appeal and to search rather for some expressive virtue or "message" to be derived from the "hearts" of his characters marks an approach toward the Waverley Novels that lost none of its resonance as the historical distance from Scott's writing became ever greater. In his unsigned 1858 review of the Waverley Novels, for example, Walter Bagehot refers to their elucidation of a system of ethical values that reflects what readers could expect to occur in "real" life: Scott's fiction is

subject to laws of retribution which, though not apparent on a superficial glance, are yet in steady and consistent operation. . . . Sagacious men know that this is in its best aspect the condition of life. . . . Most people who ought to succeed, do succeed; most people who do fail, ought to fail. . . . And when we look more closely, we see that these general results are the consequences of certain principles which work half unseen. . . . It is this comprehensive though inexact distribution of good and evil, which is suited to the novelist, and it is exactly this which Scott instinctively adopted. (407)

Thus for Bagehot, the value of Scott's narratives was in their effective demonstration of a moral system of legitimate success and deserved failure. The world of the Waverley Novels, so Bagehot argues, moves "according to laws which are always producing their effect. . . . Good sense produces its effect, as well as good intuition; ability is valuable as well as virtue" (407). In accord with this timeless system of moral values, Bagehot contends that no one could have expressed, as Scott did in Waverley, a more "statesman-like analysis, of the various causes which led to the momentary success, and to the speedy ruin, of the enterprise of Charles Edward" (400). The moral implication here is obvious: Scott has contained history's anomalies by contextualizing and condemning them in terms of society's rightful reprisal for political excess. In reference to such "anomalous" and "unnatural" characters as Charles Edward, Bagehot argues that they are credible only insofar as they are shown to arise out of their own "peculiar circumstances": eccentricity "in human character," he maintains, "becomes a topic of literary art only when its identity with the ordinary principles of human nature is exhibited in the midst of, and, as it were, by means of, the superficial unlikeness" (403).

Bagehot's moralizing rhetoric is also evident in his reference to the imaginative "presence" Scott's characters are able to "incite" to the novelist's own mind:

The character of Charles Edward, his adventurous undertaking, his ancestral rights, the mixed selfishness and enthusiasm of the Highland chiefs, the fidelity of their hereditary followers, their striking and strange array, the contrast with the Baron of Bradwardine and the Lowland gentry . . . are unceasingly and without effort present to the mind of the writer, and incite with their historical interest the susceptibility of his imagination. (398)

It is precisely Scott's presentation of a wide range of characters within the context of a panoramic vision, so Bagehot argues, that enabled him to adhere more closely to reality than was the case in previous fiction. Yet as with Carlyle before him, the inherent moralism of his praise of Scott's "comprehensive appreciation of human life" ultimately reverts to a wholesale questioning of the ethics of the Waverley Novels as products of the Toryism of Scott's "romantic imagination" (411): "The strongest unsensible feeling in Scott was perhaps his Jacobitism, which . . . was, so to say, the emotional aspect of his habitual Toryism" (400).

While early- and mid-century criticism like that of Carlyle and Bagehot judged the Waverley Novels in terms of their identification with or divergence from a naturally-occurring moral order, by the Victorian period this association was no longer possible. This critical rejection is largely referable to their displacement as a form that could no longer meaningfully structure the desires and expectations of a late-century readership. Scott's popular eclipse is attributable furthermore to the gradual emergence of a scientific historiography that underscored the Waverley Novels' fictionality, i.e. their "romantic improbability," in contrast to the former's apparent facticity and objectivity. These considerations help account for one of the ironies of literary history, that is, the Waverley Novels' increasingly recurrent identification with the genre of romance instead of with the novel. Leslie Stephen, for example, was able to speak in 1871 of the "good and evil results of that romanticism of which Scott was the great English founder" (453). In so doing, he simply echoed Bagehot's 1858 reference to "the special characteristic for which [the Waverley Novels] are most remarkable: their romantic sense" (397). These critics could not properly assess Scott's liberation of narrative from the improbable and "unnatural" constraints of romance, nor could later readers adequately appreciate it. Neglecting to consider Scott's tremendous success in accommodating narrative to "the modern state of society," Victorian critics, in a typically moral gesture, reacted rather to what they considered a dangerous mixing of problems and styles. The arguments of these critics often turned on the necessity of keeping fiction from contaminating some presumed "truth" that lay apart and beyond Scott's texts. More precisely, it was argued that the Waverley Novels proffered romantic and false versions of Scottish history that were unfit for readers to consume. The important point here, however, is that the meaning and structure underlying the late nineteenth-century opposition between fiction and non-fiction remained essentially identical to the early-century moral opposition between novel and romance--both posit a dichotomous system of antinomies in which one of the two terms has critical hegemony.[5]

As the century drew to a close, Scott's critical reputation continued its downward descent, leading eventually to a general denigration of the Waverley Novels in terms of their childish and sub-literary quality.[6] This relegation of the Waverley Novels to the oblivion of literary history is perhaps best understood in terms of a late nineteenth-century shift in cultural taste that privileged individual consciousness and personal emotion above all else. In his essay on Scott, for example, Richard Waswo has argued that the modern structural centrality of the individual consciousness is essentially a further development of "the ideology of bourgeois individualism." This ideology was characterized by an increasing "escape into art or connoisseurship" in response to "the social and political revolutions of nineteenth century experience and to the major discoveries of its thought"(7). The fiction and criticism it produced was marked by an approach to literature that first and foremost

takes the depiction of 'character' to be the 'highest excellence' of the novelist's art; second, locates such 'character' in the interior motions of the human 'heart,' i.e. its passions and sentiments; and third, demands that the art of dealing with such emotions be evident in a highly unified plot and a highly self-conscious style--by implication the opposite of easy, popular and fluent. (4)

This criticism , Waswo maintains, "approves only the kinds of 'style' that serve the purpose of interiorizing character as personal emotion" (5). This modern critical valorization of the private emotions and passions of characters has led to analyses of the Waverley Novels that attempt to assess Scott's ability to express the ideal goal of complete self-awareness. Yet like earlier considerations, it regretfully neglects to historicize its approach by acknowledging that the evocation of the private emotions and passions of a more modern consciousness was not possible to accomplish in the same way it was in the highly wrought style of the post-Flaubertian and Jamesian novel.

In her remarks on Scott in The Common Reader (1925), Virginia Woolf exemplifies this modern critical privileging of individual consciousness. In this work, Woolf criticizes the "unabashed tranquillity" and "dullness" of Scott and Austen and their deliberate refusal to gratify "those senses which are stimulated so briskly by the moderns; the senses of sight, of sound, of touch--above all, the sense of the human being, his depth and the variety of his perceptions, his complexity, his confusion, his self, in short" (328). Despite Woolf's loving invocation of Scott in To the Lighthouse and elsewhere in her novels, in Modern Fiction (1919) she similarly states that Scott excelled in depicting "the emotions not of human beings against other human beings, but of man against Nature, of man in relation to fate." What may at first appear as a complimentary assessment, however, subsequently reverts to an ironic sketch of Scott's luxurious household ("Gas at Abbotsford") and a discussion of the "execrable style" of Scott's The Antiquary (1816). She continues by asserting that Scott used "the wrong pen, the genteel pen to describe the intricacies and passions of the human heart." One may read the Waverley Novels "over and over again," Woolf complains, "and never know for certain what Scott was or what Scott himself thought" (qtd. in Welleck 71). Such an assessment, however, offers no analysis of the Waverley Novels' innovative shift toward realism and away from traditional romance conventions. Rather, in her condescending evaluation of Scott's failure to state what he himself "thought," Woolf merely reiterates the expressive bias inherent in Carlyle's point that Scott lacked a "message," or in Bagehot's insistence that "Sir Walter had no thesis to maintain" (397).

Literary histories from the early decades of the twentieth century, while they recognize Scott's tremendous importance to the development of the novel, defer nonetheless to the same expressive criteria (moral, emotional, or otherwise) that are inseparable from the tradition of Waverley criticism. Such influential studies as E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel (1927) and Edwin Muir's The Structure of the Novel (1929) can be cited as cases in point. Forster's denigration of Scott's superficiality, for example, takes a familiar form: "Think how all Scott's laborious [scenery] . . . call[s] out for passion, . . . and how it is never there!" (qtd. in Allen 126). And Muir, an occasionally sympathetic critic of Scott, termed the latter's direct influence on subsequent fiction "trivial" and berated both his moralism and the public which he addressed:

Fielding's and Sterne's criticism of life was intelligent and responsible. Scott substituted for his criticism a mere repetition of the moral cliches of his time. In his stories the public got the upper hand of the novelist, and it has kept its advantage, with few setbacks ever since. (qtd. in Welsh 9)[7]

For Muir, the Waverley Novels were little more than simplistic illustrations of a romantic world with little or no social relevance; they were products of an antiquated tradition that later authors, it is presumed, had purged from their writing.

A more balanced and analytical assessment of the Waverley Novels can be found in Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel (1937; translated 1962). True to his interest in the depiction of historical processes, Lukacs correctly recognizes that the emergence of the historical novel with Scott was intimately connected with a new type of consciousness, i.e. a new sense of history and a new experience of historicity. As Fredric Jameson states, Lukacs's analysis of the historical novel "presupposes a certain kind of bourgeois historical consciousness (including on the ideological level, a new bourgeois philosophical universalism)." His assumption, so Jameson claims, is that "key shifts, changes or restructurations in that consciousness will have at least a symptomal effect on the form" (2-3). In his study, Lukacs is determined to show precisely how the "origin and development, rise and fall of the historical

novel was a necessary consequence of the tremendous social changes of the modern era" (21). He asserts in particular that the new form of the novel with Scott was a direct product of the profound economic changes following the French Revolution. As critic Harry Shaw remarks, in Lukacs's

version of Marxist esthetics, a truly separate genre can arise only from a new vision of reality, and the truly historical novel shares (and in fact helped to create) the vision of reality we find in genuinely realistic novels. Historical fiction is thus part of a larger fictional genre, realist fiction, which is characterized by the mode of knowledge it embodies. (27)

Scott's "denial of romanticism," Lukacs argues accordingly, served as the "economic and ideological basis for the development of the historical novel" (37). It is, for this reason, absolutely false, he argues, "to see in Walter Scott a romantic writer, unless one were to expand the definition of romanticism in order to include all of the literature of the first third of the 19th-century" (41). For Lukacs, the "realistic aspects" of Scott's narratives were rather the "necessary consequences of the post-revolutionary character of England" in a period when the whole of Europe was swayed by a conservative, "post-revolutionary ideology" (40).

Yet despite Lukacs's socio-economic point of departure and his innovative assessment of the Waverley Novels as works of realism, his polemics and the representational drawbacks that adhere to the central category of his notion of "typical" characters ultimately undermine the potentially illuminating aspects of his analysis. Such characters are, for Lukacs, characters who express a given level of human existence and experience. Their innermost being is determined by objective forces at work in society, and the essential features of a particular historical phase are found in them in the concentrated form of the complete human personality. True to the importance he ascribes to such characters, Lukacs maintains that Scott's greatness lies precisely in his revolutionary capacity to give "human life" to such "socio-historical types" (42): for Lukacs, Scott's typical heroes are unsurpassed in their portrayal of the "decent and limited aspects of the English middle class"(42), and he considers these central figures able to provide a perfect instrument for mirroring ("wiederspiegeln") the "historical totality of certain critical stages of history" (42).

The representational aspect of Lukacs's category of the typical and his belief that Scott's narratives embody "the entire history of England" (39) are indicative of a totalizing vision in which the Waverley Novels are praised for their "objective articulation" of history (66). This approach to Scott's depictions ("Darstellungen") is a faulty one, however, for it assumes that the meaning of texts can be wholly explicated by analyzing the themes and motifs they express (with a corresponding neglect of their discursive structures). It is an approach based essentially on a correspondence theory of realism, one with an intellectual commitment to the "history of sense--a history guaranteed by the operation of the dialectics as it transforms local contradictions into universal truths" (Parker 157).[8] This ideologically motivated leveling on the part of Lukacs derives ultimately from a view of language as an essentially transparent medium, "as an easy covering of the real whose conceptualization was somehow pre-linguistic. For him, how a text means is no problem" (Coward and Ellis 35). Indeed, Lukacs uncritically assumes throughout The Historical Novel that language mirrors an amorphous totality in which details and description make up the particulars of an organically unfolding history whose meaning is presumed to be empirically and wholly available to cognition. As such, The Historical Novel can be seen to reiterate a representational view of the Waverley Novels that suffers from the same expressive drawbacks as that criticism that emphasizes Scott's romantic imagination. Like these earlier considerations, Lukacs's universalizing mode of analysis is devoid of any real sense of the tensions and contradictions inherent in Scott's narratives, a recognition that would allow him to argue even more effectively for the Waverley Novels' realism. His study, therefore, is simply a more sophisticated argument for a traditional view of Scott, a view that remains to be "deconstructed." For where Lukacs subscribes to a sense of society as a totality in which social phenomena are immediately accessible to consciousness, deconstruction "would contend that any 'totality' is undermined by its irreducible lack of self-identity, that social phenomena have always already lost their putative transparency" (Coward and Ellis 157).[9] Andrew Parker among others has referred to Marxism's shortcomings in this connection and cites Lukacs's work in particular as an example of a historical materialism devoid of an adequate theory of language. Lukacs, he argues, treats language as "a largely instrumental medium, as a transparent reflection of historical relationships, rather than . . . the very site at which such relationships are themselves produced" (153). Lukacs's study has rather an ideological investment in resisting such discursive investigations, for they could very well undermine his conclusions, notably in regard to the universality of Scott's historical message.

Despite an awareness of the insights contained in Lukacs's approach to the Waverley Novels, later studies often ignored his arguments and persisted in seeing Scott not as a realist, but as a romantic writer. Alexander Welsh's The Hero of the Waverley Novels (1963) is indicative of just this tendency. As "romance fiction," the Waverley Novels are "an expressive or projective activity rather than a critical instrument sensitive to external reality" (3). In Scott's lifetime, Welsh goes on to argue, "the novel reverted to romance, which expresses, rather than criticizes, the desires of the mind. In Scott's hands romance projected publicly accepted desires--the moral cliches of the time" (9). True to his premise, Welsh ultimately concludes that Scott's narratives are hopelessly romantic. And in the end, his vapid notion of the Waverley Novels as the "romantic applause" for "humanity" leads to the absurd assertion that they lie "outside the main tradition of the novel" (8).

Harry E. Shaw's The Forms of Historical Fiction (1982), while a more cogent study of Scott, nonetheless exemplifies a thematic, representational view of him no less distorting than that of Welsh. Near the beginning of his work, for example, Shaw maintains that

the principal of differentiation [of the historical novel] involves the milieu represented, which makes the closest parallel . . . the industrial novel. Though it seems fair to say that the industrial novel is a narrower category, it is fair to say that the industrial novel is the same sort of category as the historical novel. (20)

In short, the hallmark of the historical novel for Shaw is what it represents, not how it represents. His belief that the "novel's internal probability serves referential, not self-referential ends" (22n)precludes any sustained appreciation of the discursive structure that informs Scott's novels and is based rather on the belief that "words" are able to transparently represent "things." In assuming such a possibility, Shaw's study is very much akin to the uncritical and totalizing movement of Lukacs's thought in The Historical Novel. And Shaw in fact demurs to the latter's authority on a number of critical points: Lukacs, he states, "is in my opinion essentially accurate in describing the history of the novel as a great stream from which tributaries branch off, only to rejoin and further enrich it in due course" (23). This use of the naturalistic metaphor of the novel as a "great stream," however, ultimately reverts to a hypostatized notion of what Shaw terms "standard historical novels" (24), that is, novels that "depict societies that are in fact different from our own" (26n).[10] His valorization of this capacity for depicting culminates finally in his declaration that "I have little of interest to offer those who believe that novels do not mirror external reality" (32). Continuing this line of thought, Shaw argues that the historical novel is capable of showing ideology in its "basically neutral sense" (36). Yet it is precisely in his positing of such a neutral ground that Shaw's discourse can be considered to be contaminated by ideology: no systemic language, whether of literature or criticism, ever remains wholly innocent.

As I have attempted to show, it is precisely the commonplace notion of the Waverley Novels as expressions or projections (of the moral order, of the human heart, of history in its "basically neutral sense," etc.) that posed the main problem to their modern critical appreciation. Early- and mid-nineteenth-century considerations--based on the notion of Scott's imaginative "genius" and his capacity to depict a naturally-occurring moral order--are latent precisely in later twentieth-century critical assessments that lauded his objective representation of a transparent and cognitively recoverable historical reality. Indeed, studies like those of Lukacs, Welsh, and Shaw share with this earlier criticism an optimistic though illusionary belief in the ability of language to mirror the world simply and faithfully. And this world, in turn, is conceived of as a monolithic unity in which all textual meanings ultimately cohere. The result of such a view, however, is an almost manic suppression of the problem of form; it represents an approach comparable to Gerard Genette's characterization of genre theory's "romantic, . . . teleological ordering of history." According to him, genre theory is strewn with "these fascinating outlines that inform and deform reality, . . . and that claim to discover a natural 'system' wherein they construct a factitious symmetry heavily oriented by fake windows" (qtd. in Derrida 56).

These "fake windows," it can be argued, are the uncritically adopted criteria that, developing from the romantic premise of the unmediated representation of the morals and subjective feelings of characters, came to define "serious" fiction in the nineteenth century and that continued to informapproaches to the Waverley Novels in the twentieth century. Within this development, criticism all too often refused to recognize Scott's narratives as realist attempts to maintain the terms of a mutually intelligible social contract, i.e. as a conservative reaction to the fragmentation of the social environment. Rather than simply imaginative and neutral instruments of "romance history," Scott's narratives are more profitably understood as products of a world whose identity was heterological and internally contested. Only if criticism continues to move beyond its reductive and essentializing approaches, however, and considers the functional importance of the Waverley Novels vis-a-vis the ideology and popular enthusiasm of a contemporary readership, can Scott be appreciated as the seminal nineteenth-century realist he truly was.


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Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.

[1] In his study Watt explicitly locates the origin of the novel in "the rise of modern industrial capitalism" (60).

[2] Scott was particularly impatient with contemporary critical references to the historical inaccuracies of his texts. In the 1831 preface to Peveril of the Peak, for example, he replies to the charge of "polluting" history with "romantic inventions": it is his hope that he "has done some service to the public, if [I] can present to them a lively fictitious picture, for which the original anecdote or circumstance which [I] made free to press into [my] service only furnished a slight sketch." This deference is also evident in his 1817 anonymous review in the Quarterly Review of The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality: "provided the author can but contrive to 'suprize and elevate,' he appears to think that he has done his duty to the public" (114). Georg Lukacs has referred to the functional importance of Scott's anachronisms: "Scott's 'necessary anachronisms' consist in giving his characters a real notion of the feelings and thoughts concerning real historical events which they otherwise would not have possessed in such clarity" (75-6; all translations of Lukacs are my own).

[3] George Goodin has discussed Scott's neglect in terms of modern social transformations and the twentieth-century's changed conceptions of the nature and function of literature. He argues in particular that "literary criticism "has been too formalistic to see much value in those novels that are strongly committed" (14). Goodin's approach to the Waverley Novels as embodiments of political ideals places him firmly within that expressive tradition of Scott criticism that I critique here. Peter Jurgen Rekowski considers the unsatisfactory results of formal analyses as responsible for Scott's neglect, and correctly states that "the question arises whether or not literary history has done Scott an injustice" (66; the translation is my own).

[4] Carlyle's critique of Scott and his age relies ultimately on the same subjective criteria employed by condemnatory biographical considerations that reject the Waverley Novels based upon Scott's perceived Toryism. One can cite William Hazlitt's 1924 attack on Scott's politics as an example of such criticism. In his essay, Hazlitt characterizes Scott as a Tory reactionary of antiquarian interests, a writer who knew all about the past, yet cared little for the present. As H. J. C. Grierson notes, however, the rich tapestry of Carlyle's French Revolution, like Macaulay's histories, "would not have been composed so vividly and dramatically were it not for the Waverleys" (90).

[5] George Levine sees a similar moralism in the conflict between the "organic" and the "mechanical" during the Victorian era: "The faith was that science would reveal the organic, the secularists last hope for meaning and the validation of morality; the fear was that it would yield only the mechanical" (19).

[6] As early as 1864 Henry James, writing in The North American Review, lauded the "richness" of Scott's "imagination," yet his praise ultimately reverts to an emphasis of Scott's child-like qualities: "[In] his invention and memory, in the infinitude of his knowledge, in his improvidence for the future, in the skill with which he answers, or rather parries, sudden questions, in his low-voiced pathos and his resounding merriment, he is identical with the ideal fireside chronicler. And thoroughly to enjoy him, we must again become as credulous as children at twilight" (431). Richard Waswo refers similarly to Scott's diminished status in the twentieth century as a writer of classics for adolescents, and quotes George Brandes' 1904 description of him as an author "whom all grown-up people have read and no grown-up people read" (4).

[7] George Levine locates Muir's denial of Scott's importance in certain personal biases, i.e. in his "disappointment at Scott's refusal to live up to his best talents" (335).

[8] According to Patricia Harkin, the assumption that narrative can directly represent reality rests on at least two assumptions: "first that of the importance of character in the construction of historical stories, and second that human nature is always and everywhere the same." As Harkin states, the conceptual problems attendant upon these assumptions are legion, and she notes that one such problem is apparent in Lukacs's inability "to account for change and difference" in his discussion of character (163).

[9] The problems inherent in Lukacs's approach to the historical novel are also evident in his "realism debate" with Bertolt Brecht. Brecht argues that Lukacs conceives of capitalist culture as a unity of economics and ideology that is divorced from consciousness. Lukacs is thus incapable of considering literature in terms of its function and concentrates rather on its "objective" representation. Brecht, on the other hand, argues for an "operative" model of realism that opposes such idealism. He considers artistic forms and contents, and the concepts used to explicate them, as historically specific categories--as demonstrative of a relation to reality that breaks from the bourgeois notion of the autonomy of art.

[10] Shaw's notion of "standard historical novels" is reminiscent of Avrom Fleishman's equally flawed conception of "authentic" historical fiction. The latter, so Fleishman claims, is characterized by "the active presence of a concept of history as a shaping force." Such novels interpret the experience of individual men and are "understood as only someone who had seen life as a completed whole could understand it." The assumption of a historical "presence" that an author imaginatively recreates in its "wholeness" is most evident in Fleishman's contention that the historical novel is "an exercise of the imagination on a particular kind of object. It is an imaginative portrayal of history, that . . . provokes or conveys, by imaginative sympathy, the sentiment de l'existence, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age" (4).

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