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he frequently confesses - a confession which in many ways makes his
plight in these years still more to be pitied - an ingrained dislike to
task-work of any kind; and there is no more laborious task-work than
getting up and piecing together the materials for history.

The book, one, at a rough guess, of at least a million words, was
completed from end to end in less than eighteen months, during which he
also wrote _Woodstock_, _Malachi Malagrowther_ (_vide infra_), with
several reviews and minor things, besides serving his usual number of
days at the Clerk's table, devoting necessarily much time to the not
more painful than troublesome business of his pecuniary affairs, his
removal from Castle Street, etc., and taking one journey of some length
in the summer of 1826 to London and Paris for materials. The feat was
accomplished by a rigid system of 'so much per day' - by dint of which,
no doubt, an amount of work, surprising to the inexperienced, can be
turned out with no necessarily disastrous consequences. But Scott,
disgusted with society, and avoiding it from motives of economy as well
as of want of heart, disturbed hardly at all by strangers at Abbotsford,
and not at all in the lodgings and furnished houses which he took while
in Edinburgh, let 'his own thought drive him like a goad' to work in the
interest of his task-masters, and perhaps, also, for the sake of
drowning care, pushed the system to the most extravagant lengths. We
know that he sometimes worked from six in the morning to six at even,
with breakfast and luncheon brought into his study and consumed there;
and though his court duties made this fortunately impossible for a part
of the year, at least during a part of the week, they were not a
complete preservative. In the eighteen months he cleared for his
bloodsuckers nearly twenty thousand pounds, eight thousand for
_Woodstock_ and eleven or twelve for _Napoleon_. The trifling profits of
_Malachi_ and the reviews seem to have been permitted to go into his own
pocket. He was naturally proud of the exploit, but it may be feared that
it made the end certain.

Of the merits of the _Napoleon_ (the second edition of which, by the
way, carried its profits to eighteen thousand pounds) it is perhaps not
necessary to say very much. I should imagine that few living persons
have read it word for word through, and I confess very frankly that I
have not done so myself, though I think I have read enough to qualify me
for judging it. It is only unworthy of its author in the sense that one
feels it to have been not in the least the work that he was born to do.
It is nearly as good, save for the technical inferiority of Scott's
prose style, as the historical work of Southey, and very much better
than the historical work of Campbell and Moore. The information is
sufficient, the narrative clear, and the author can at need rise to very
fair eloquence, or at least rhetoric. But it is too long to be read, as
one reads Southey's _Nelson_, for its merits as biography, and not
technically authoritative enough to be an exhaustive work of reference
from the military, diplomatic, and political side. Above all, one cannot
read a page without remembering that there were living then in England
at least a dozen men who could have done it better, - Grote, Thirlwall,
Mitford, Arnold, Hallam, Milman, Lingard, Palgrave, Turner, Roscoe,
Carlyle, Macaulay, to mention only the most prominent, and mention them
at random, were all alive and of man's estate, - and probably scores who
could have done it nearly or quite as well; while there was not one
single man living, in England or in the world, who was capable of doing
the work which Scott, if not as capable as ever, was still capable of
doing like no one before and scarcely any one after him.

Take, for instance, _Woodstock_ itself. In a very quaint,
characteristic, agreeable, and, as criticism, worthless passage of _Wild
Wales_, Borrow has stigmatised it as 'trash.' I only wish we had more
such trash outside the forty-eight volumes of the _Waverley Novels_, or
were likely to have more. The book, of course, has certain obvious
critical faults - which are not in the least what made Borrow object to
it. Although Scott, and apparently Ballantyne, liked the catastrophe, it
has always seemed to me one of his worst examples of 'huddling up.' For
it is historically and dramatically impossible that Cromwell should
change his mind, or that Pearson and Robbins should wish to thwart
severity which, considering the death of Humgudgeon, had a good deal
more excuse than Oliver often thought necessary. Nor may the usual, and
perhaps a little more than the usual, shortcomings in construction be
denied. But as of old, and even more than on some occasions of old, the
excellences of character, description, dialogue, and incident are so
great as to atone over and over again for defects of the expected kind.
If Everard has something of that unlucky quality which the author
recognised in Malcolm Graeme when he said, 'I ducked him in the lake to
give him something to do; but wet or dry I could make nothing of him,'
Alice is quite of the better class of his heroines; and from her we
ascend to personages in whose case there is very little need of apology
and proviso. Sir Henry Lee, Wildrake, Cromwell himself, Charles, may not
satisfy others, but I am quite content with them; and the famous scene
where Wildrake is a witness to Oliver's half-confession seems to me one
of its author's greatest serious efforts. Trusty Tomkins, perhaps, might
have been a little better; he comes somewhat under the ban of some
unfavourable remarks which Reginald Heber makes in his diary on this
class of Scott's figures, though the good bishop seems to me to have
been rather too severe. But the pictures of Woodstock Palace and Park
have that indescribable and vivid charm which Scott, without using any
of the 'realist' minuteness or 'impressionist' contortions of later
days, has the faculty of communicating to such things. For myself, I can
say - and I am sure I may speak for hundreds - that Tullyveolan,
Ellangowan, the Bewcastle moor where Bertram rescued Dandie,
Clerihugh's, Monkbarns (I do not see Knockwinnock so clearly), the home
of the Osbaldistones, and the district from Aberfoyle to Loch Ard, the
moors round Drumclog, Torquilstone, and, not to make the list tedious, a
hundred other places, including Woodstock itself, are as real as if I
had walked over every inch of the ground and sat in every room of the
houses. In some cases I have never seen the supposed originals, in
others, I have recognised them as respectable, though usually inferior,
representatives of Scott's conceptions. But in any case _these_ are all
real, all possessions, all part of the geographical and architectural
furniture of the mind. They are like the wood in the 'Dream of Fair
Women': one knows the flowers, one knows the leaves, one knows the
battlements and the windows, the platters and the wine-cups, the
cabinets and the arras. They are, like all the great places of
literature, like Arden and Elsinore, like the court before Agamemnon's
palace, and that where the damsel said to Sir Launcelot, 'Fair knight,
thou art unhappy,' our own - our own to 'pass freely through until the
end of time.'

It must not be forgotten in this record of his work that Scott wrote
'Bonnie Dundee' in the very middle of his disaster, and that he had not
emerged from the first shock of that disaster, when the astonishingly
clever _Letters of Malachi Malagrowther_ appeared. Of the reasonableness
of their main purpose - a strenuous opposition to the purpose of doing
away, in Scotland as in England, with notes of a less denomination than
five pounds - I cannot pretend to judge. It is possible that suppressed
rage at his own misfortunes found vent, and, for him, very healthy vent,
while it did harm to no one, in a somewhat too aggressive patriotism, of
a kind more particularist than was usual with him. But the fire and
force of the writing are so great, the alternations from seriousness to
humour, from denunciation to ridicule, so excellently managed, that
there are few better specimens of this particular kind of pamphlet. As
for 'Bonnie Dundee,' there are hardly two opinions about that. As a
whole, it may not be quite equal to 'Lochinvar,' to which it forms such
an excellent pendant, and which it so nearly resembles in rhythm. But
the best of it is equal as poetry, and perhaps superior as meaning. And
it admirably completes in verse the tribute long before paid by _Old
Mortality_ in prose, to the 'last and best of Scots,' as Dryden called
him in the noble epitaph,[46] which not improbably inspired Scott
himself to do what he could to remove the vulgar aspersions on the fame
of the hero of Killiecrankie.

Moreover, according to his wont, Scott had barely finished, indeed he
had not finished, the _Napoleon_ before he had arranged for new work of
two different kinds; and he was soon, without a break, actually engaged
upon both tasks, one of them among the happiest things he ever
undertook, and the other containing, at least, one piece of his most
interesting work. These were the _Tales of a Grandfather_ and the
_Chronicles of the Canongate_. Both supplied him with his tasks, his
daily allowance of 'leaves,'[38] for great part of 1827, and both were
finished and the _Chronicles_ actually published, before the end of
it.[39]

For the actual stories comprising these _Chronicles_ I have never cared
much. The chief in point of size, the _Surgeon's Daughter_, deals with
Indian scenes, of which Scott had no direct knowledge, and in connection
with which there was no interesting literature to inspire him. It
appears to me almost totally uninteresting, more so than _Castle
Dangerous_ itself. _The Two Drovers_ and _The Highland Widow_ have more
merit; but they are little more than anecdotes.[40] On the other hand,
the 'Introduction' to these _Chronicles_, with the history of their
supposed compiler, Mr. Chrystal Croftangry, is a thing which I should be
disposed to put on a level with his very greatest work. Much is
admittedly personal reminiscence of himself and his friends, handled not
with the clumsy and tactless directness of reporting, which has ruined
so many novels, but in the great transforming way of Fielding and
Thackeray. Chrystal's early thoughtless life, the sketch of his ancestry
(said to represent the Scotts of Raeburn), the agony of Mr. Somerville,
suggested partly by the last illness of Scott's father, the sketches of
Janet M'Evoy and Mrs. Bethune Baliol (Mrs. Murray Keith of Ravelston),
the visit to the lost home, - all these things are treated not merely
with consummate literary effect, but with a sort of _sourdine_
accompaniment of heart-throbs which only the dullest ear can miss. Nor,
as we see from the _Diary_, were the author's recent misfortunes, and
his sojourn in a moral counterpart of the Deserted Garden of his friend
Campbell, the only disposing causes of this. He had in several ways
revived the memory of his early love, Lady Forbes, long since dead. Her
husband had been among the most active of his business friends in
arranging the compromise with creditors, and was shortly (though Scott
did not know it) to discharge privately the claim of the recalcitrant
Jew bill-broker Abud, who threatened Sir Walter's personal liberty. Her
mother, Lady Jane Stuart, had renewed acquaintance with him, and very
soon after the actual publication sent him some MS. memorials of the
days that were long enough ago - memorials causing one of those paroxysms
of memory which are the best of all things for a fairly hale and happy
man, but dangerous for one whom time and ill-luck have shaken.[41] He
had, while the _Chronicles_ were actually a-writing, revisited St.
Andrews, and, while his companions were climbing St. Rule's Tower, had
sat on a tombstone and thought how he carved her name in Runic letters
thirty-four years before. In short, all the elements, sentimental and
circumstantial, of the moment of literary projection were present, and
the Introduction was no vulgar piece of 'chemic gold.'

The delightful and universally known _Tales of a Grandfather_ present no
such contrasts of literary merit, and were connected with no such
powerful but exhausting emotions of the mind. They originated in actual
stories told to 'Hugh Littlejohn,' they were encouraged by the fact that
there was no popular and readable compendium of Scottish history, they
came as easily from his pen as the _Napoleon_ had run with difficulty,
and are as far removed from hack-work as that vast and, to his
creditors, profitable compilation must be pronounced to be on the whole
near to it. The book, of course, is not in the modern sense strictly
critical, though it must be remembered that the authorities for at least
the earlier history of Scotland are so exceedingly few and meagre, that
criticism of the saner kind has very little to fasten upon. But in this
book eminently, in the somewhat later compilation for _Lardner's
Cyclopædia_ to a rather less degree, this absence of technical criticism
is more than made up by Scott's knowledge of humanity, by the divining
power, so to say, which his combined affection for the subject and
general literary skill gave him, and by that singularly shrewd and
pervading common sense which in him was so miraculously united with the
poetical and romantic gift. I was pleased, but not at all surprised,
when, some year or so ago, I asked a professed historian, and one of the
best living authorities on the particular subject, what he thought of
the general historic effect of Scott's work, to find him answer without
the slightest hesitation that it was about the soundest thing, putting
mere details aside, that exists on the matter. It may be observed, in
passing, that the later compilation referred to was a marked example of
the way in which Scott could at this time 'coin money.' He was offered a
thousand pounds for one of the Lardner volumes; and as his sketch
swelled beyond the limit, he received fifteen hundred. The entire work,
much of which was simple paraphrase of the _Tales_, occupied him, it
would seem, about six working weeks, or not quite so much. Can it be
wondered that both before and after the crash this power of coining
money should have put him slightly out of focus with pecuniary matters
generally? Mediæval and other theorisers on usury have been laughed at
for their arguments as to the 'unnatural' nature of usurious gain, and
its consequent evil. One need not be superstitious more than reason, to
scent a certain unnaturalness in the gift of turning paper into gold in
this other way also. Every _peau de chagrin_ has a faculty of revenging
itself on the possessor.

For the time, however, matters went with Scott as swimmingly as they
could with a man who, by his own act, was, as he said, 'eating with
spoons and reading books that were not his own,' and yet earning by
means absolutely within his control, and at his pleasure to exercise or
not, some twenty thousand a year. _The Fair Maid of Perth_, a title
which has prevailed over what was its first, _St. Valentine's Eve_, and
has entirely obscured the fact that it was issued as a second series of
the _Chronicles of the Canongate_, provided money for a new scheme. This
scheme, outlined by Constable himself, and now carried out by Cadell and
accepted by Scott's trustees, was for buying in the outstanding
copyrights belonging to the bankrupt firm, and issuing the entire series
of novels, with new introductions and notes by Scott himself, with
attractive illustrations and in a cheap and handy form. Scott himself
usually designates the plan as the _Magnum Opus_, or more shortly (and
perhaps not without remembrance of more convivial days) 'the _Magnum_'.
_The Fair Maid_ itself was very well received, and seems to have kept
its popularity as well as any of the later books. Indeed, the figures of
the Smith, of Oliver Proudfute (the last of Scott's humorous-pathetic
characters), of the luckless Rothsay, and of Ramornie (who very
powerfully affected a generation steeped in Byronism), are all quite up
to the author's 'best seconds.' The opening and the close are quite
excellent, especially the fight on the North Inch and 'Another for
Hector!' and the middle part is full of attractive bits of the old kind.
But Conachar-Eachin is rather a thing of shreds and patches, and the
entire episode of Father Clement and the heresy business is dragged in
with singularly little initial excuse, valid connection, or final
result.

We have unluckily no diary for the last half of 1828, after Scott
returned from a long stay with the Lockharts in London, and we thus hear
little of the beginnings of the next novel, _Anne of Geierstein_. When
the _Journal_ begins again, complaints are heard from Ballantyne.
Alterations (which Scott always loathed, and which certainly are
detestable things) became or were thought necessary, and when the poor
_Maid of the Mist_ at length appeared in May 1829, she was dismissed by
her begetter very unkindly, as 'not a good girl like the other
Annes' - his daughter and her cousin, _fille de Thomas_, who were living
with him. The book was not at all ill received, but Lockhart is
apologetic about it, and it has been the habit of criticism since to
share the opinions of 'Aldiborontiphoscophormio.'[45] I cannot agree with
this, and should put _Anne of Geierstein_ - as a mere romance and not
counting the personal touches which exalt _Redgauntlet_ and the
Introduction to the _Chronicles_ - on a level with anything, and above
most things, later than _The Pirate_. Its chief real fault is not so
much bad construction - it is actually more, not less, well knit than
_The Fair Maid of Perth_, - as the too great predominance of merely
episodic and unnecessary things and persons, like the _Vehmgericht_ and
King's René's court. Its merits are manifold. The opening storm and
Arthur's rescue by Anne, as well as the quarrel with Rudolf, are
excellent; the journey (though too much delayed by the said Rudolf's
tattlings), with the sojourn at Grafslust and the adventures at La
Ferette, ranks with Scott's many admirable journeys, and high among
them; Queen Margaret is nobly presented (I wish Shakespeare, Lancastrian
that he was, had had the chance of versifying the scene where she flings
the feather and the rose to the winds, as a pendant to 'I called thee
then vain shadow of my fortune'); and not only Philipson's rattling peal
of thunder to wake Charles the Bold from his stupor, but the Duke's
final scenes, come well up to the occasion. Earlier, Scott would not
have made René quite such a mere old fool, and could have taken the
slight touch of pasteboard and sawdust out of the Black Priest of St.
Paul's. But these are small matters, and the whole merits of the book
are not small. Even Arthur and Anne are above, not below, the usual hero
and heroine.

The gap in the _Journal_ for the last half of 1828 is matched by another
and more serious one for nearly a twelvemonth, from July 1829 to May
1830, a period during which Sir Walter's health went from bad to worse,
and in which he lost his Abbotsford factotum, Tom Purdie. But the first
six months of 1829, and perhaps a little more, are among its pleasantest
parts. The shock of the failure and of his wife's death were, as far as
might be, over; he had resumed the habit of seeing a fair amount of
society; his work, though still busily pursued, was less killing than
during the composition of the _Napoleon_; and his affairs were looking
almost rosily. A first distribution, of thirty-two thousand pounds at
once, had been made among the creditors. Cadell's scheme of the
_Magnum_ - wisely acquiesced in by the trustees, and facilitated by a
bold purchase at auction of Constable's copyrights for some eight
thousand pounds, and later, of those of the poems from Longmans for
about the same or a little less - was turning out a great success. They
had counted on a sale of eight thousand copies; they had to begin with
twelve thousand, and increase it to twenty, while the number ultimately
averaged thirty-five thousand. The work of annotation and introduction
was not hard, and was decidedly interesting.

Unluckily, irreparable mischief had already been done, and when the
_Diary_ begins again, we soon see signs of it. The actual beginning of
the end had occurred before the resumption, on February 15, 1830, when
Sir Walter had, in the presence of his daughter and of Miss Violet
Lockhart, experienced an attack of an apoplectic-paralytic character,
from which he only recovered by much blood-letting and starvation. There
can be little doubt that this helped to determine him to do what he had
for some time meditated, and resign his place at the Clerk's table: nor
perhaps could he have well done otherwise. But the results were partly
unfortunate. The work had been very trifling, and had saved him from
continual drudgery indoors at home, while it incidentally provided him
with society and change of scene. He was now to live at Abbotsford, - for
neither his means nor his health invited an Edinburgh residence when it
was not necessary, - with surroundings only too likely to encourage
'thick-coming fancies,' out of reach of immediate skilled medical
attendance, and with very dangerous temptations to carry on the use of
his brain, which was now becoming almost deadly. Yet he would never give
in. The pleasant and not exhausting task of arranging the _Magnum_
(which was now bringing in from eight to ten thousand a year for the
discharge of his debts) was supplemented by other things, especially
_Count Robert of Paris_, and a book on Demonology for Murray's _Family
Library_.

This last occupied him about the time of his seizure, and after the
_Diary_ was resumed, it was published in the summer of 1830. Scott was
himself by this time conscious of a sort of aphasia of the pen (the
direct result of the now declared affection of his brain), which
prevented him from saying exactly what he wished in a connected manner;
and the results of this are in part evident in the book. But it must
always remain a blot, quite unforgivable and nearly inexplicable, on
the memory of Wilson, that 'Christopher North' permitted himself to
comment on some lapses in logic and style in a way which would have been
rather that side of good manners and reasonable criticism in the case of
a mere beginner in letters. It is true that he and Scott were at no time
very intimate friends, and that there were even some vague antipathies
between them. But Wilson had been deeply obliged to Scott in the matter
of his professorship;[44] he at least ought to have been nearly as well
aware as we are of the condition of his benefactor's health; and even if
he had known nothing of this, the rest of Sir Walter's circumstances
were known to all the world, and should surely have secured silence. But
it seems that Wilson was for the moment in a pet with Lockhart, to whom
the _Letters on Demonology_ were addressed, and so he showed, as he
seldom, but sometimes did, the 'black drop,' which in his case, though
not in Lockhart's, marred at times a generally healthy and noble nature.
As a matter of fact, it needs either distinct malevolence or silly
hypercriticism to find any serious fault with the _Demonology_. If not a
masterpiece of scientific treatment in reference to a subject which
hardly admits of any such thing, it is an exceedingly pleasant and
amusing and a by no means uninstructive medley of learning, traditional
anecdote, reminiscence, and what not, on a matter which, as we know, had
interested the writer from very early days, and which he regarded from
his usual and invaluable combined standpoint of shrewd sense and
poetical appreciation.

The decay, now not to be arrested, though its progress was
comparatively slow, was more evident in the last two works of fiction
which Scott completed, _Count Robert of Paris_ and _Castle Dangerous_.
Against the first ending of the former (we do not possess it, so we
cannot criticise their criticism) Ballantyne and Cadell formally
protested, and Scott rewrote a great deal of it by dictation to Laidlaw.
The loss of command both of character and of story-interest is indeed
very noticeable. But the opening incident at the Golden Gate, the
interview of the Varangian with the Imperial family, the intrusion of
Count Robert, and, above all, his battle with the tiger and liberation
from the dungeon of the Blachernal, with some other things, show that
astonishing power of handling single incidents which was Scott's


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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 9 of 12)