« PreviousContinue »
diately all that is in us and about us; and also that he did much to interpret it to us, to make its habits, its costumes, its modes of life and action, more conceivable and intelligible. Even in such a matter as the revival among us of a taste for Gothic architecture and for mediæval art generally, Scott's influence may be traced.
Here, however, comes in a question which was reserved. Was Scott's wholesome influence in the matter of Gothicism and mediævalism direct or indirect? Did he do the good he has done in this department by his own actual teachings, or only by setting a fashion which has led or may lead to more earnest inquiries and to more accurate teachings? Did Scott really understand the earlier feudal and chivalrous times which he represents in some of his novels? Were his notions of those times authentic and true, or only fictitious makeshifts? Mr. Ruskin, with all his admiration for Scott, pronounces decidedly against him in this question. He says that Scott, though he "had some confused love of Gothic architecture, because it was dark, picturesque, old, and like nature," knew nothing really about it, and was wrong in all he thought he knew. He says. further, that Scott's "romance and antiquarianism, his knighthood and monkery," are all false and were
known by himself to be false. Baron Bunsen gives a similar opinion; and, indeed, I know that the opinion is general among men whose judgment in such a matter is entitled to respect. I have heard a very good judge say that the German novel, "Sidonia the Sorcerer," is a deeper and truer delineation of mediæval life than any of Scott's. For my own part, I cannot quite agree with this depreciation of Scott's mediævalism and feudalism, or, at least, with the manner of it. I do not think that it was his antiquarian information that was in fault; at least, in reading his Ivanhoe, or his Talisman, or his Quentin Durward, or his Fair Maid of Perth-in all of which he certainly flashes on the fancy in a manner that historians had not done before, and, with all their carping, have not found out the art of doing yet, a vivid condition of things intended to pass for mediævalism and feudalism-I cannot find that our severest men of research have yet furnished us with that irrefragable and self-evidencing scheme or theory of Mediævalism and Feudalism, by the test of which what Scott proffers as such is to fall so obviously into rubbish. Men, in hovering over a time, must fancy somewhat about it; and a very vivid "somewhat" will stand till accurate knowledge furnishes the imagination with the substitute. Scott's "some
what" about Chivalry and Feudalism, besides that it will fade fast enough as we get a better, was not picked up at random, or without an amount of acquaintance with the materials that was in his time rather uncommon.
What in Scott's Gothicism and Mediævalism is false arises, I believe, from a certain defect in his genius, which would have produced, and perhaps did produce, corresponding falsity in his imaginations out of the Gothic and mediæval regions altogether-to wit, his deficiency in the purely speculative faculty. The only Scottish thing that Scott had not in him was Scotch metaphysics. His mind was not of the investigating, or philosophic, or speculative type; he was not, in the distinctive sense of the term, a thinker. Craniologists see this defect, they tell us, in the very shape of his head-high above the ears, but not long from back to front. Whether the defect was in his head or in his thumbs, there it was, and it produced its consequences. It is in this most conspicuously that he falls short of Shakespeare. It is owing to this that, in so many of his more stately and ambitious characters-as when he tries to paint a Cromwell or a Raleigh, or a Queen Elizabeth, or a Louis the Eleventh, or an enthusiastic mediæval monk-it seems as if he could but give a certain exte
rior account of the physiognomy, costume, and gesture, but had no power to work from the inner mind outwards, so as to make the characters live. He cannot get at the mode of thinking of such personages; indeed the notion of a “mode of thinking" as belonging to persons, or to ages, and to be seized in representing them, was not very familiar to him. If he did not reproduce the earnest and powerful thought of the mediæval period, its real feelings and beliefs, it was because his philosophy of the human mind and of human history was not so deep and subtle as to make feelings, beliefs, and modes of thought, the objects of his anxious imagination. But, if he failed in representing a great and peculiar mind of the historical past, he would equally have failed, and for the same reason, in representing a great and peculiar mind of the historical present. This is a feat, indeed, to which I do not think we can boast that many of our writers of prose fiction have been, at any time, competent.
The wonder is that Scott, notwithstanding his defect, succeeded so marvellously where he did succeed. Need I say where that is? Do we not feel that in his representations of homely and even of striking and heroic Scottish characters (with the exception already implied, and accounted for, of his Presby
terians and Covenanters), in a period of Scottish society near to his own time-in his representations of Scottish life and Scottish humours, nay of Scottish beliefs and modes of thinking in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries (repeat the exception, at least partially) or even farther back still, where his shrewd observations of present human nature could co-operate with his antiquarian knowledge in filling out a social picture—he was simply as successful as it was possible to be? Are not his Davie Gellatlys, his Dandie Dinmonts, his Counsellor Pleydells, his Oldbucks, his Saunders Mucklebackets, his Edie Ochiltrees, his Cuddie Headriggs, his Nicol Jarvies, his Caleb Balderstones, his Dugald Dalgettys, his Meg Doddses, and the like-nay, in a more tragic and elevated order, are not his Meg Merrilieses, his Rob Roys, his Redgauntlets, his Jeannie Deanses-as perfect creations as any in literature? These, and especially the homelier characters, are simply as well done as they could possibly be; and, in their conception and execution, I do not know that Scott is inferior to Shakespeare. Is it that in such cases his Scottish heart and his poetic instinct, acting on what he saw and knew, whirled him beyond his conscious power of speculation; or is it that, after all, there was a speculative faculty in Scott which he had not worked?