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Fiction as Projection
The practice of fiction in the lifetime of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) generally differed from the main tradition of the English novel in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dickens and Thackeray, Fielding and Smollett viewed the world about them with critical eyes. Even when they were patently imagining things, they appeared to report what they saw. They successfully conveyed the impression of real life. Scott, too, filled his works with a sense of life. But he differs from these other great novelists in that he never criticizes his own society. During Scott's lifetime writers of fiction were not always chiefly concerned with the imitation of reality. The wild passions of villains and the horrific predicaments of heroines could be imagined and expressed, perhaps, but not seen and reported. The extravagant practice of fiction in this period (and the novel of manners could be as fantastic in its way as the novel of terror) tempered the earlier theory of the mimetic nature of fiction. The novelistic program for "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" meant surrendering some of the novel's pretensions to reality. Prose fiction was once again referred to as romance. Neglecting the knowledge of the world, romancers aspired to "the knowledge of the heart." As moralists, instead of exposing to view actual human behavior, they invented images of ideal behavior. As psychologists, they forewent the study of man's daily actions and discovered the dreamlike evidence of his bright hopes and darkest imaginings. The departures in practice reflect a new theory that fiction is in its own right a peculiarly satisfying and natural human activity.
Eighteenth-century assertions of the nature and purpose of fiction, whether or not they were entirely sincere, were highly moralistic. In the romantic period fiction was still called upon to perform a moral duty, but morality was supposed to be conveyed in a fashion somewhat different from that of the age of reason. In the previous century morals had been interpreted in terms of practice. In fiction, precepts were illustrated by example. Inviting the reader to "see" good or bad behavior and its consequences, the moral reference of eighteenth-century fiction depended upon the real world, or a world assumed to be real. The realities glossed over by hypocrisy and affectation would be exposed: the thrust of fiction could cut through illusion toward objective reality. The new age, on the other hand, tended to express morality in terms of ideal motive or attitude rather than precept tested by act. The heart dictates to the man, and the man consults his heart faithfully. Morality was sought in an ideal world, not through watchful observation of the real. Fiction therefore abounded in good examples and gazed upward. Illusion, rather than disillusionment, was sometimes tenderly respected. A soft "moral of the whole" replaced the sharp revelation of vice. Seeing was no longer sufficient. When fictions "speak only to the eyes," urged Madame de Staël, "they can only amuse: but they have a high influence over all moral ideas when they move the heart."
A theory of fiction appealing so frequently to "the heart" does not seem intellectually promising. The phrase implied, however, that fiction was in some emotional, ideal, or moral sense an expressive or projective activity rather than a critical instrument sensitive to external reality. In an essay on fiction prefaced to a collection of British Novelists in 1810, Anna Letitia Barbauld, the biographer of Richardson, entrusted her case for the dignity of the novel "above all" to "the power exercised over the reader's heart by filling it with successive emotions of love, pity, joy, anguish, transport, or indignation, together with the grave impressive moral resulting from the whole." Scott employed the same kind of language in his review of Emma. which we do not ordinarily regard as a novel of sentiment. Authors are most to be respected, he wrote, when, as in the case of Jane Austen, they proclaim a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue." In the same review, with characteristic honest}-, Scott observed that, in fiction, even Peregrine Pickle and Tom Jones were "studiously vindicated from the charge of infidelity of the heart," and heroines were only more so.
On behalf of the heart, or in obedience to morality, fiction could even set out to counter reality instead of emulating it. By observing in the Quarterly Review that a novel should be "in some degree a lesson either of morals or conduct," John Wilson Croker uttered a commonplace. But he arrived at this conclusion from the reflection that the picture of life in Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, and Amelia was "too real." Clara Reeve's similar misgivings about Fielding were revealed by Euphrasia's remark in The Progress of Romance that "he certainly painted human nature as it is, rather than as it ought to be." Mrs. Barbauld was very much aware that fiction could distort reality, and that ideal goodness was easily supplied in a make-believe world—but that is as it should be: "It costs nothing, it is true, to an author to make his hero generous, and very often he is extravagantly so; still sentiments of this kind serve in some measure to counteract the spirit of the world, where selfish considerations have always more than their due weight."
Just as reality was acknowledged to yield to morality, the pretense to factual certainty might be surrendered to mystery. When, in The Apparition of Mrs. Veal, Defoe undertook to convey a mystery, he skillfully rendered his account as matter-of-fact as possible. The premium in his time was on the detailed impression of fact. By the end of the century mystery had become a commodity in its own right. "Curiosity and a lurking love of mystery" explain, according to Scott, the vogue of Ann Radcliffe: these are "more general ingredients in the human mind, and more widely diffused through the mass of humanity, than either genuine taste for the comic or true feeling of the pathetic." Because certainty is never so fearsome as uncertainty, "sublime emotion" originates in obscurity and suspense, "the dark and the doubtful."
The notion of fiction as an expressive or projective activity of mind gained strength from a belief in its primitive origins. Fiction was now supposed to be a practice as natural and universal as language itself. Miss Reeve declared that "romances are of universal growth, and not confined to any particular period or country." The origin of fiction was associated with primitive mythology. Mrs. Barbauld also asserted the prevalence of fictitious adventures in all ages and nations: "These have been grafted upon the actions of their heroes; they have been interwoven with their mythology." Sydney Owenson, author of The Wild Irish Girl, declared that works of fiction are to be found everywhere, "from the hut of the savage to the closet of the sage." As an example of the mythic and ritualistic origins of her trade she cited the "system of good and evil spirits" of the savages of America. "Thus in the remotest ages, and in the most opposite extremities of the earth, the source of fictitious narrative has existed; a source which can only be exhausted when the heart ceases to feel, the memory to record, and the imagination to combine, to modify, and to adorn."
The most ambitious historical approach to fiction in this period was John Dunlop's History of Fiction, a three-volume work that appeared in 1814, the year of Waverley. In the introduction to his history Dunlop wrote not a word of the imitation of nature or of the strictly moral usefulness of fiction but instead drew an elaborate analogy between the origin of fiction and a savage planting a garden:
The art of fictitious narrative appears to have its origin in the same principles of selection by which the fine arts in general are created and perfected. Among the vast variety of trees and shrubs which are presented to his view, a savage finds, in his wanderings, some which peculiarly attract his notice by their beauty and fragrance, and these he at length selects and plants them round his dwelling. In like manner, among the mixed events of human life, he experiences some which are peculiarly grateful, and of which the narrative at once pleases himself, and excites in the mind of his hearers a kindred emotion. Of this kind are unlooked-for occurrences, successful enterprise, or great and unexpected deliverance from signal danger and distress.... In the process of forming the garden, the savage finds that it is not enough merely to collect a variety of agreeable trees or plants; he discovers that ... it is also essential that he should grub up from around his dwelling the shrubs which are useless or noxious, and which weaken or impair the pure delight which he derives from the others.... The collector of agreeable facts finds, in like manner, that the sympathy which they excite can be heightened by removing from their detail every thing that is not interesting, or which tends to weaken the principal emotion, which it is his intention to raise. He renders, in this way, the occurrences more unexpected, the enterprises more successful, the deliverance from danger and distress more wonderful.
The savage thus derives the substance of his fiction from the external world but reworks it according to the lights of his inner mind. Dunlop stresses the motive of this process. Our savage takes pleasure in his fictions, but not the pleasure of imitation for its own sake. He gains his pleasure from improving reality, by exaggerating danger and distress and by flattering himself with his escape. The significance of this activity obviously lies in the disparity of romancing and reality rather than in the correspondence. To complete his thought Dunlop translates from Francis Bacon the following argument:
"As the active world," says Lord Bacon, "is inferior to the rational soul, so Fiction gives to mankind what history denies, and, in some measure, satisfies the mind with shadows when it cannot enjoy the substance: For, upon a narrow inspection, Fiction strongly shows that a greater variety of things, a more perfect order, a more beautiful variety, than can any where be found in nature, is pleasing to the mind. And as real history gives us not the success of things according to the deserts of vice and virtue, Fiction corrects it, and presents us with the fates and fortunes of persons rewarded or punished according to merit. And as real history disgusts us with a familiar and constant similitude of things, Fiction relieves us by unexpected turns and changes, and thus not only delights, but inculcates morality and nobleness of soul. It raises the mind by accommodating the images of things to our desires, and, not like history and reason, subjecting the mind to things."
"Accommodating the images of things to our desires," fiction is satisfying in some sense. Fiction comes into being because human beings not only perceive an external world but project their emotions and ideals upon it. This idea of fiction amounts to a modern definition of romance, which, according to Northrop Frye, is "nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfilment dream."CHAPTER 2
Novel or Romance
The novelist's view of man and of society is traditionally a critical view. But in the romantic period man and humanity were more often applauded than berated. Even when the depravity of man was dwelt upon, it was explored with fascination rather than with despair. This was not a critical era, and the fiction of this period, including the Waverley Novels, lies outside the main tradition of the novel. Edwin Muir, a sympathetic and perceptive critic of Scott, endorsed this view. Scott's direct influence on subsequent fiction, according to Muir, was "trivial." Nor did Scott carry on the tradition of earlier fiction. "Fielding's and Sterne's criticism of life was intelligent and responsible. Scott substituted for this criticism a mere repetition of the moral clichés of his time. In his stories the public got the upper hand of the novelist, and it has kept its advantage, with few setbacks, ever since." In Scott's lifetime the novel reverted to the romance, which expresses, rather than criticizes, the desires of the mind. In Scott's hands romance projected publicly acceptable desires—"the moral clichés of his time."
When Mark Twain indicted Scott—on a host of charges, including responsibility for the American Civil War—he appealed to a contrast with Cervantes: "A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown by the effects wrought by Don Quixote and those wrought by Ivanhoe. The first swept the world's admiration for the medieval chivalry silliness out of existence; and the other restored it." The popularity of Don Quixote did not abate in the romantic period—Scott's own writings are filled with tags and allusions from this favorite book. At the same time, however, Amadis of Gaul had made a reappearance: in 1803 Robert Southey brought out an adaptation in English, curtailing the original romance to four volumes. This and another version of the romance were the subject of Scott's first periodical essay in the Edinburgh Review.
Don Quixote has been interpreted in many ways. In the romantic era the antiromantic character of Cervantes' novel was played down. Hazlitt declared of it that "the whole work breathes that air of romance,—that aspiration after imaginary good,—that longing after something more than we possess, that in all places, and in all conditions of life,—'still prompts the eternal sigh, For which we wish to live, or dare to die.'" Clara Reeve argued that Cervantes himself was not "cured" of romance, since he had not only written Galatea before Don Quixote, but wrote another serious romance, Persiles and Sigismunda, afterward. On another evening Euphrasia, who always speaks for the author of The Progress of Romance, rallies to the cause of the knight himself: "whenever this spirit, and this enthusiasm, become the object of contempt and ridicule, mankind will set up for themselves an idol of a very different kind." Romances inspire such spirit and enthusiasm—as they had inspired Don Quixote. "Let us suppose the character of Don Quixote realized, with all its virtues and absurdities. I would ask, whether such a man is not more respectable, and more amiable, than a human being, wholly immersed in low, groveling, effeminate, or mercenary pursuits ...?" One early nineteenth-century courtesy book severely chastises Cervantes for ridiculing his own hero—no less than six pages are devoted to a defense of the virtue of Don Quixote. In general, because romantic critics pursued the origins of fiction to much earlier times, Cervantes appeared not so much the inventor of the novel as the specialist in "comic romance."
Excerpted from The Hero of the Waverley Novels by Alexander Welsh. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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|Chronological list of the Waverley Novels|
|1||Fiction as Projection||1|
|2||Novel or Romance||6|
|II||The Passive Hero||21|
|III||Character and Topography||40|
|8||Blonde and Brunette||48|
|9||The Highland Line||56|
|10||Nature and Convention||63|
|11||Property in 1814||68|
|12||The Romance of Property||77|
|V||The Heart of Mid-Lothian||86|
|13||The Trial of Jeanie Deans||86|
|14||Society as an Abstraction||92|
|15||Jeanie Deans Visits the Sick||96|
|17||The Emotion of the Hero||107|
|22||Rank in life||134|
|26||Life and Death||164|
|Contrast of Styles in the Waverley Novels||178|
|History and Revolution in Old Mortality||191|
|Patriarchy, Contract, and Repression in Scott's Novels||213|