D. S. Mirsky 1937

Walter Scott

Author: D. S. Mirsky;
Written: 1937;
First published: 1937 in Literary Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp. 839-843;
Source: http://az.lib.ru/s/skott_w/text_0010.shtml
Translated by: Anton P.

[...] In Scott’s poems, the Middle Ages are by no means obscured. The “horrors” of feudalism (prison, executions) receive a certain moral assessment from the point of view of bourgeois enlightenment (cf. Court in the Dungeons, an episode from Marmion, translated by Zhukovsky). Scott’s poems had a great formal influence on Byron and Moore, and through them on the entire European romantic poem, but they are completely devoid of the lyricism characteristic of Byron, and the “pre-Byronic” motives here are nothing more than rudiments borrowed from the “Gothic” novel.

In Scott’s novels are inserted many verses, which are generally on a higher level than his poems. Here Scott sometimes rises to genuine lyricism. Especially wonderful are the songs put in the mouth of the madwoman Madge (Edinburgh Prison), which belong to the best that were created during the romantic period on the basis of a folk song.

Immeasurably more significant are the novels of Scott. As a novelist, Scott is primarily one of the founders of realism in the nineteenth century. Elements of vulgar romanticism (admiration for the external brilliance of feudalism and the internal “nobility” of its characters), as well as some influence of the “Gothic” novel, are palpable here as well. In Scott’s novels there are often terrible but imposing villains, there are dungeons, etc. The composition is also far from realistic, based on extraordinary accidents, poorly motivated crimes (the motive of a child stolen at birth is often repeated), and unexpected recognitions. The story is conducted with great liveliness and that plot tension, which attracted the general reader, but in the skill of composition Scott is in many ways inferior to his predecessors: the great novelists of the 18th century, for example. Fielding. The style of Scott is also sharply different from the Gothic (and generally romantic) novel. This is a purely prosaic, business-like, albeit verbose style that avoids any rhetorical and poetic embellishments. Against the background of this somewhat woolen prose, the colorful, lively dialogue, especially of the Scottish characters “from the people”, stands out sharply.

The main feature that distinguishes nineteenth-century realism from the realism of the 18th century is a conscious historicism, an approach to reality as to a certain era. An essential stage on this path is Scott’s work. Scott’s teacher in this was Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen (translated by Scott) that for the first time realized – in drama – the reproduction of the past as a concrete and peculiar era. Scott’s predecessor was also the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth [1767-1849], whose novel Castle Rackrent (1800) is a vivid picture of the recent past, the era of decay of Irish feudalism.

Scott’s novels fall into two main groups. The first is devoted to the recent past of Scotland, the period of the civil war: from the Puritan revolution of the 16th century to the defeat of the mountain clans in the middle of the 18th, and partly at a later time [Waverley, Guy Mannering (1815), Edinburgh Prison (The Heart of Midlothian, 1818), Scottish Puritans (Old Mortality, 1816), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), Rob Roy (1817), The Monastery (1820). The Abbot (1820), St. Ronan’s Well (1823), The Antiquary (1816), etc.]. In these novels Scott develops an unusually rich realistic type. This is a whole gallery of Scottish types of the most diverse social strata, but mainly the types of the petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and declassed poor. Brightly concrete, speaking in a rich and varied folk language, they constitute a background that can only be compared with Shakespeare’s “Falstaffian background”. In this background, there is a lot of brightly comedic, but next to these comic figures, many plebeian characters are artistically equal with heroes from the upper classes. In some novels they are the main characters, in Edinburgh Prison the heroine is the daughter of a small peasant tenant. Scott, in comparison with the “sentimental” literature of the 18th century. takes a further step towards the democratization of the novel and at the same time gives more vivid images. But more often than not, the main characters are conventionally idealized young people from the upper classes.

The second main group of Scott’s novels is devoted to the past of England and continental countries, mainly to the Middle Ages and the 16th century. [Ivanhoe (1819), Quentin Durward (1823), Kenilworth (1821), Anne of Geierstein (1829), etc.]. Here there is not that intimate, almost personal acquaintance with the still living tradition, the realistic background is not so rich. But it is here that Scott especially develops his exceptional sense of past eras, which made Augustine Thierry call him “the greatest master of historical divination of all time.” The historicism of Scott is primarily external historicism, the resurrection of the atmosphere and color of the era. With his solid knowledge of this side, Scott especially amazed his contemporaries, who were not accustomed to anything like that. The picture given by him to the historical concept of “Ivanhoe” turned out to be unusually fruitful for the science of history, it was the impetus for the famous French historian Augustine Thierry. When evaluating Scott, it must be remembered that his novels generally preceded the works of bourgeois historians. Of all Scott’s novels, the Scottish Puritans (Old Mortality, 1816) had a special historical value, which, according to Lafargue, Marx especially loved. Here Scott develops a vivid picture of the class struggle in Scotland under the last Stewarts, in concrete images showing the social roots of the Puritans and their opponents, the Royalists. But here Scott’s tendentiousness is especially pronounced. The representative of the extreme revolutionary Puritanism, Balfour, is portrayed as a bloodthirsty villain. At the same time, Scott does not deny him some gloomy greatness. Admiring him aesthetically but condemning him morally, he gives all his political sympathies to the moderates of both parties, the seekers of compromise. This tendency permeates all of Scott’s novels, characterizing him as a representative of the bourgeoisie, ready for the gradual implementation of reforms in order to avoid popular unrest. Negative attitude towards tyranny, towards clericalism (with the enlightened liberal idealization of “true religion”), towards feudal anarchy, towards soldiery, towards judicial formalism, etc. made Scott politically relevant for all progressive readers of those countries where the struggle for “European” orders were still in line. For all the anti-revolutionary character of Scott, in his works one can even find a justification for an uprising against particularly ugly forms of feudal oppression (the image of Robin Hood and his associates in Ivanhoe). Hence the great popularity of Scott.

The limitation of Scott’s historicism, closely related to his political position, lies in the fact that if Scott sees in the past the rudiments of subsequent eras up to the present, then he is unable to see the seeds of the future in the present, to see the present in his (even if not revolutionary) development. In his only almost contemporary novel Antiquary (the action takes place in the 1790s), the most interesting part is the depiction of remnants and fragments of the past in modern times. This makes Scott’s novel the inferior stage in relation to Balzac. However, Balzac is a direct successor of Scott, and in his first works (Chuanas) his immediate disciple.

Scott’s influence was enormous. Innumerable writes mechanically imitated his method (in Russia Zagoskin, Lazhechnikov, Prince Serebryany by A. K. Tolstoy, etc.). Many major writers from different countries used Scott’s historical novel creatively – Fenimore Cooper in America, Manzoni in Italy, Victor Hugo (Notre Dame Cathedral), in Russia Pushkin (The Captain’s Daughter) and Gogol (Taras Bulba). A critical assessment of Scott’s method is of great importance for the development of the Soviet historical novel.