A Handful of Romantic Novelists
he Romantic Era, variously dated 1797 (the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads) through 1837 (the ascension of Queen Victoria) and 1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution) through 1832 (the passage of Britain's First Reform Bill), produced outstanding lyrical poetry, mediocre drama, and a handful of popular novelists, including Maria Edgeworth, Anne Radcliffe, and Matthew G. "Monk" Lewis, none of whom is read by anybody but a college English major today. Another novelist from the period, Mary Shelley, is widely read, it is true, but only for her initial effort, Frankenstein (a work of uneven genius. In the nineteenth century, Jane Austen's star burned not half so brightly as that of Sir Walter Scott, who deftly blended European history (held to be a fit subject of study for mature, masculine minds) and entertaining picaresque narrative. While other nineteenth-century writers often directed themselves towards various niches in the Victorian readership, the novels of Sir Walter Scott continued to offer something for all classes and conditions of Victorian readers.
Evidence of Scott's Continuing Popularity
That Sir Walter Scott's works still ranked in the top three in the stocks of most Victorian lending libraries even in the final decade of the nineteenth century, that his works were considered acceptable reading for adolescents throughout the period, that Dicks Standard Plays printed thousands of cheap, pulp-paper copies of foreshortened adaptations of Scott's massive tomes for the barely-literate Victorian working classes, and that Sir Arthur Sullivan's operatic adaptation of Ivanhoe broke records for continuous performances of the initial offering of a musical drama in the 1890s all attest to the esteem in which the Victorian readership held the author of the Waverley Novels. The same attitude presumably prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic; otherwise, why would Dickens have charged American readers and publishers in his 1842 reading tour as being partly responsible for the untimely death of an overworked Scott, deprived of his just due (American copyright royalties) in 1832, and why would Mark Twain as late as 1885 in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have named the derelict steamer "The Sir Walter Scott" as part of his satire against the chivalric code inculcated by the works of the Scottish romance-writer whom he blamed in part for the Southern ethos of the mounted soldier, and, in turn, for the American Civil War? Would George IV ever have visited Edinburgh (the first British monarch since the early seventeenth century to do so), would Queen Victoria have established Balmoral as a holiday retreat and written The Highland Journal, and would Pugin have redesigned the Houses of Parliament in a markedly Gothic style (the original design having called for a Neoclassical treatment) but for the continuing popularity of Sir Walter Scott? Indeed, would "Gothic" not continue to be the pejorative term Dr. Samuel Johnson in his great dictionary of 1755 interpreted it to be but for the popularity of Scott's "Gothic" novels (so called because of the Gothic settings in such novels as The Bride of Lammermoor) and Scott's taste for Scottish Baronial architecture, evident in his mediaeval estate of Abbotsford?
Scott's Victorian Legacy
While the works of the other leading Romantic era novelist, Jane Austen, faded into obscurity, Scott's opus continued to appeal to both the Romantic, visionary and the Modern, progressive sides of the Victorian character. For lovers of nostalgia and the finer, purer world of the pre-Renaissance (among whom we might include William Morris, John Ruskin, Alfred, Lord Tennyson), such Scott novels as The Talisman, Quentin Durward, and Ivanhoeevoked an atmosphere both heroic and magical. For those of a Liberal, progressive bent such as Dickens and Macaulay, Scott's Waverley Novels demonstrated the inevitable triumph of English capitalist, middle-class, representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, scientific rationalism, and industrial technology. Scott himself, as readers of the novellas "The Highland Widow" and "The Two Drovers" can readily appreciate, was somewhat ambivalent about the necessity of Scotland's being subsumed by England under the banner of "The United Kingdom of Great Britain." As a young writer, Dickens was probably more attracted to Scott's vast learning and his imaginative handling of plot, character, and setting than he was to Scott's somewhat out-of-date Liberalism, for Scott died on the eve of the passage of the First Reform Bill and did not live to see the franchise extended even to the upper echelons of the lower orders. As a footnote, part of the initial attraction that young Dickens felt towards Catherine Hogarth involved her father's having known Scott personally.
Scott and the Picaresque Tradition
The male ingénue, the Aristotelian eiron — the rather bland though well-meaning young protagonist with whom Scott causes us to identify throughout the full range of his fiction — had a profound effect on the characterisation of the protagonist by later writers, especially Charles Dickens, Harrison Ainsworth, and Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton. And those names remind us of a second influence of Scott in terms of genre, for he invented a narrative mode, the historical novel, that influenced writers as great as Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace) and George Eliot (Middlemarch). Dickens's only true historical novels, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities both reveal the influence of Scott's Heart of Midlothian in particular. The convention of the idealistic protagonist's being accompanied by a more down-to-earth equerry that Scott found in Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and utilized as the young lord of Ravenswood and his faithful Achates Caleb Balderstone, he bequeathed to later writers in the picaresque tradition, notably Dickens in Samuel Pickwick and Sam Weller (The Pickwick Papers) and in Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley (Martin Chuzzlewit). Finally, Scott's love of dialect had a profound effect on such regional writers as Thomas Hardy, whose Dorset peasants in serving as a normative chorus are lineal descendents of such figures in Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian. Noteworthy, too, is Scott's establishing the convention that the story's romantic principals should speak standard English rather than dialect.
Last modified 18 December 2001