1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Francis Jeffrey, in Review of Scott, Waverley; Edinburgh Review 24 (November 1814) 208-13.



It is wonderful what genius and adherence to nature will do in spite of all disadvantages. Here is a thing obviously very hastily, and, in many places, very unskilfully written — composed, one half of it, in a dialect unintelligible to four-fifths of the reading population of the country — relating to a period too recent to be romantic, and too far gone by to be familiar — and published, moreover, in a quarter of the island where materials and talents for novel-writing have been supposed to be equally wanting; and yet, by the mere force and truth and vivacity of its colouring, already casting the whole tribe of ordinary novels into the shade, and taking its place rather with the most popular of our modern poems, than with the rubbish of provincial romances.

The secret of this success, we take it, is merely that the author is a person of genius; and that he has, notwithstanding, had virtue enough to be true to nature throughout, and to content himself, even in the marvellous parts of his story, with copying from actual existences, rather than from the phantasms of his own imagination. The charm which this communicates to all works that deal in the representation of human actions and characters, is more readily felt than understood, and operates with unfailing efficacy even upon those who have no acquaintance with the originals from which the picture has been borrowed. It requires no ordinary talent, indeed, to choose such realities as may outshine the bright imaginations of the inventive, and so to combine them as to produce the most advantageous, effect; but when this is once accomplished, the result is sure to be something more firm, impressive, and engaging, than can ever be produced by mere fiction. There is a consistency in nature and truth, the want of which may always be detected in the happiest combinations of fancy; and the consciousness of their support gives a confidence and assurance to the artist, which encourages him occasionally to risk a strength of colouring, and a boldness of drawing, upon which he would scarcely have ventured in a sketch that was purely ideal. The reader, too, who by these or still finer indications, speedily comes to perceive that he is engaged with scenes and characters that are copied from existing originals, naturally lends a more eager attention to the story in which they are unfolded, and regards with a keener interest what he no longer considers as a bewildering series of dreams and exaggerations — but an instructive exposition of human actions and energies, and of all the singular modifications which our plastic nature receives from the circumstances with which it is surrounded.

The object of the work before us, was evidently to present a faithful and animated picture of the manners and state of society that prevailed in this northern part of the island, in the earlier part of last century; and the author has judiciously fixed upon the era of the Rebellion in 1745, not only as enriching his pages with the interest inseparably attached to the narration of such occurrences, but as affording a fair opportunity for bringing out all the contrasted principles and habits which distinguished the different classes of persons who then divided the country, and formed among them the basis of almost all that was peculiar in the national character. That unfortunate contention brought conspicuously to light, and for the last time, the fading image of feudal chivalry in the mountains, and vulgar fanaticism in the plains; and startled the more polished parts of the land with the wild but brilliant picture of the devoted valour, incorruptible fidelity, patriarchal brotherhood, and savage habits, of the Celtic Clans on the one hand, — and the dark, untractable, and domineering bigotry of the Covenanters on the other. Both forms of society had indeed been prevalent in the other parts of the country, — but had there been so long superseded by more peaceable habits, and milder manners, that their vestiges were almost effaced, and their very memory nearly forgotten. The feudal principalities had been extinguished in the South for near three hundred years, — and the dominion of the Puritans from the time of the Restoration. When the glens of the central Highlands, therefore, were opened up to the gaze of the English, it seemed as if they were carried hack to the days of the Heptarchy; — when they saw the array of the West-country Whigs, they might imagine themselves transported to the age of Cromwell. The effect, indeed, is almost as startling at the present moment; and one great source of the interest which the volumes before us undoubtedly possess, is to be sought in the surprise that is excited by discovering, that in our own country, and almost in our own age, manners and characters existed, and were conspicuous, which we had been accustomed to consider as belonging to remote antiquity, or extravagant romance.

The way in which they are here represented must satisfy every reader, we think, by an inward tact and conviction, that the delineation has been made from actual experience and observation; — experience and observation employed perhaps only on a few surviving relics and specimens of what was familiar a little earlier — but generalized from instances sufficiently numerous and complete, to warrant all that may have been added to the portrait: — And indeed the records and vestiges of the more extraordinary parts of the representation are still sufficiently abundant, to satisfy all who have the means of consulting them, as to the perfect accuracy of the picture. The great traits of Clannish dependence, pride, and fidelity, may still be detected in many districts of the Highlands, though they do not now adhere to the chieftains when they mingle in general society; and the existing contentions of Burghers and Antiburghers, and Cameronians, though shrunk into comparative insignificance, and left indeed without protection to the ridicule of the profane, may still be referred to, as complete verifications of all that is here stated about Gifted Gilfillan, or Ebenezer Cruickshank. The traits of Scottish national character in the lower ranks, can still less he regarded as antiquated or traditional; nor is there any thing in the whole compass of the work which gives us a stronger impression of the nice observation and graphical talents of the author, than the extraordinary fidelity and felicity with which all the inferior agents in the story are represented. No one who has not lived extensively among the lower orders of all descriptions, and made himself familiar with their various tempers and dialects, can perceive the full merit of those rapid and characteristic sketches; but it requires only a general knowledge of human nature, to feel that they must be faithful copies from known originals; and to be aware of the extraordinary facility and flexibility of hand which has touched, for instance, with such discriminating shades, the various gradations of the Celtic character, from the savage imperturbability of Dugald Mahony, who stalks grimly about with his battle-axe on his shoulder, without speaking a word to any body, — to the lively unprincipled activity of Callum Beg, — the coarse unreflecting hardihood and heroism of Evan Maccombich, — and the pride, gallantry, elegance and ambition of Fergus himself In the lower class of the Lowland characters, again, the vulgarity of Mrs. Flockhart and of Lieutenant Jinker is perfectly distinct and original; — as well as the puritanism of Gilfillan and Cruickshank — the atrocity of Mrs. Mucklewrath — and the slow solemnity of Alexander Saunderson. The Baron of Bradwardine, and Baillie Macwheeble, are caricatures no doubt, after the fashion of the caricatures in the novels of Smollet, — or pictures, at the best, of individuals who must always have been unique and extraordinary: but almost all the other personages in the history are fair representatives of classes that are still existing, or may he remembered at least to have existed, by many whose recollections do not extend quite so far back as to the year 1745. We are speaking, however, of the book, as if our readers were already familiar with its contents — and its great popularity perhaps entitles us to do so: But it will be safer, and more decorous, at all events, to preface the extracts we propose to make from it, with a short account of the story.

It is not very skilfully adjusted — though narrated with so much ease and rapidity as to he on the whole very interesting. Waverley is the representative of an old and opulent Jacobite family in the centre of England — educated at home in an irregular manner, and living, till the age of majority, mostly in the retirement of his paternal mansion — where he reads poetry, feeds his fancy with romantic musings, and acquires amiable dispositions, and something of a contemplative, passive, and undecided character. All the English adherents of the abdicated family having renounced any serious hopes of the cause long before the year 1745, the guardians of young Waverley were, induced, in that celebrated year, to allow him to enter into the army, as the nation was then engaged in foreign war — and a passion for military glory had always been one of the characteristics of his line. He obtains a commission, accordingly, in a regiment of horse, then stationed in Scotland, and proceeds forthwith to head-quarters. Cosmo Comyne Bradwardine Esq. of Tully-Veolan in Perthshire, bad been an antient friend of the house of Waverley, and had been enabled, by their good offices, to get over a very awkward rencontre with the King's Attorney-General soon after the year 1715. The young heir was accordingly furnished with credentials to this faithful ally; and took an early opportunity of paying his respects at the antient mansion of Tully-Veolan. The house and its inhabitants , and their way of life, are admirably described. The Baron himself had been bred a lawyer; and was by choice a diligent reader of the Latin classics. His profession, however, was that of arms; and having served several campaigns on the Continent, he had superadded, to the pedantry and jargon of his forensic and academical studies, the technical slang of a German martinet — and a sprinkling of the coxcombry of a French mousquetaire. He was, moreover, prodigiously proud of his ancestry; and, with all his peculiarities, which, to say the truth, are rather more than can be decently accumulated in one character, was a most honourable, valiant, and friendly person. He had one fair daughter, and no more — who was gentle, feminine, and affectionate. Waverley, though struck at first with the strange manners of this northern baron, is at length domesticated in the family; and is led, by curiosity, to pay a visit to the cave of a famous Highland robber or freebooter, from which he is conducted to the castle of a neighbouring chieftain, and sees the Highland life in all its barbarous but captivating characters. This chief is Fergus Vich Ian Vohr — a gallant and ambitious youth, zealously attached to the cause of the exiled family, and busy, at the moment, in fomenting the insurrections, by which his ranguine, spirit never doubted that their restoration was to be effected. He has a sister still more enthusiastically devoted to the same cause — recently returned from a residence at the Court of France, and dazzling the romantic imagination of Waverley not less by the exaltation of her sentiments, than his eyes by her elegance and beauty. While he lingers in this perilous retreat, he is suddenly deprived of his commission, in consequence of some misunderstandings and misrepresentations which it is unnecessary to detail; and in the first heat of his indignation, is almost tempted to throw himself into the array of the Children of Ivor, and join the insurgents, whose designs are no longer seriously disguised from him. He takes, however, the more prudent resolution of returning, in the first place, to his family; but is stopped, on the borders of the Highlands, by the magistracy, whom rumours of coming events had made more than usually suspicious, and forwarded as a prisoner to Stirling. On the march he is rescued by a band of unknown Highlanders, who ultimately convey him in safety to Edinburgh, and deposit him in the hands of his friend Fergus Mac-Ivor, who was mounting guard with his Highlanders at the antient palace of Holyrood, where the Royal Adventurer was then actually holding his court. A combination of temptations far too powerful for such a temper, now beset Waverley; and, inflamed at once by the ill usage he thought he had received from the Government — the recollection of his hereditary predilections — his friendship and admiration of Fergus — his love for his sister — and the graceful condescension and personal solicitations of the unfortunate Prince, — he rashly vows to unite his fortunes with theirs, and enters as a volunteer in the ranks of the Children of Ivor.

During his attendance at the court of Holyrood, his passion for the magnanimous Flora is gradually abated by her continued indifference, and too entire devotion to the public cause; and his affections gradually decline upon Miss Bradwardine, who has leisure for less important concernments. He accompanies the Adventurer's army, and signalizes himself in the battle of Preston, — where he has the good fortune to save the life of an English officer, who turns out to bean intimate friend of his family, and remonstrates with him with considerable effect on the rash step he has taken. It is now impossible, however, he thinks, to recede with honour, and he pursues the disastrous career of the invaders into England — during which he quarrels, and is again reconciled to Fergus — till he is finally separated from his corps in the confusion and darkness of the night-skirmish at Clifton — and, after lurking for some time in concealment, finds his way to London, where he is protected by the grateful friend whose life he had saved at Preston, and sent back to Scotland till some arrangements could be made about his pardon. Here he learns the final discomfiture of his former associates — is fortunate enough to obtain both his own pardon, and that of old Bradwardine — and, after making sure of his interest in the heart of the young lady, at last bethinks him of going to give an account of himself to his family at Waverley-Honour. — In his way, he attends the assizes at Carlisle, where all his efforts are ineffectual to avert the fate of his gallant friend Fergus — whose heroic demeanour in that last extremity, is depicted with great feeling; — has a last interview with the desolated Flora — obtains the consent of his friends to his marriage with Miss Bradwardine — puts the old Baron in possession of his forfeited manor, and, in due time, carries his blooming bride to the peaceful shades of his own paternal abode.

Such is the outline of the story; — although it is broken and diversified with so many subordinate incidents, that what we have now given, will afford but a very inadequate idea even of the narrative part of this performance. Though that narrative is always lively and easy, however, we think the great charm of the work consists in the characters and descriptions — of which we must now present our readers with a few specimens.