Criticisms and Interpretations III. Carlyle on the Waverley Novels
WITH respect to the literary character of these Waverley Novels, so extraordinary in their commercial character, there remains, after so much reviewing, good and bad, little that it were profitable at present to say. The great fact about them is, that they were faster written and better paid for than any other books in the world. It must be granted, moreover, that they have a worth far surpassing what is usual in such cases; nay, that if Literature had no task but that of harmlessly amusing indolent, languid men, here was the very perfection of Literature; that a man, here more emphatically than ever elsewhere, might fling himself back, exclaiming Be mine to lie on this sofa, and read everlasting Novels of Walter Scott! The composition, slight as it often is, usually hangs together in some measure, and is a composition. There is a free flow of narrative, of incident, and sentiment; and easy masterlike coherence throughout, as if it were the free dash of a masters hand, round as the O of Giotto. It is the perfection of extemporaneous writing. Furthermore, surely he were a blind critic who did not recognise here a certain genial, sunshiny freshness and picturesqueness; paintings both of scenery and figures, very graceful, brilliant, occasionally full of grace and glowing brightness blended in the softest composure; in fact, a deep sincere love of the beautiful in Nature and Man, and the readiest faculty of expressing this by imagination and by word. No fresher paintings of Nature can be found than Scotts; hardly anywhere a wider sympathy with man. From Davie Deans up to Richard Cur de Lion; from Meg Merrilies to Di Vernon and Queen Elizabeth! It is the utterance of a man of open soul; of a brave, large, free-seeing man, who has a true brotherhood with all men. 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.
What, then, is the result of these Waverley Romances? Are they to amuse one generation only? One or more! As many generations as they can; but not all generations: ah, no, when our swallow-tail has become fantastic as trunk hose, they will cease to amuse! Meanwhile, as we can discern, their results have been several-fold. First of all, and certainly not least of all, have they not perhaps had this result; that a considerable portion of mankind has hereby been sated with mere amusement, and set on seeking something better? Amusement in the way of reading can go no farther, can do nothing better, by the power of man; and men ask, Is this what it can do? Scott, we reckon, carried several things to their ultimatum and crisis, so that change became inevitable: a great service, though an indirect one.
Secondly, however, we may say, these Historical Novels have taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so taught; that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men. It is a little word this; inclusive of great meaning! History will henceforth have to take thought of it. Her faint hearsays of philosophy teaching by experience will have to exchange themselves everywhere for direct inspection and embodiment: this, and this only, will be counted experience; and till once experience have got in, philosophy will reconcile herself to wait at the door. It is a great service, fertile in consequences, this that Scott has done; a great truth laid open by him;correspondent indeed to the substantial nature of the man, to his solidity and veracity even of imagination, which, with all his lively discursiveness, was the characteristic of him .From Sir Walter Scott, in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 1838.