More poking about the homes of the literary great and the good this week with a visit to Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford. Reminiscent of Walpole’s project, here is another attempt to recreate a Medieval atmosphere, this time by a man who fancied himself as a Scottish laird. It’s a lovely house on the banks of the River Tweed, which flows by wide and fast at the bottom of walled gardens. Inside is a harmony of stained glass, carved wood, bosses, finials, marble, ebony, swords and armour. There’s also a display of items Scott – rather gruesomely - picked up on the battlefield of Waterloo including a French eagle, a Polish shako, cuirasses. Tacky souvenir collecting is clearly not a new invention.
When I went to Monk’s House recently I was struck by a reference in the guidebook to Virginia Woolf’s light wearing of the mantle of literary greatness. This kind of hyperbole makes you shudder, but I suppose people do get carried away, especially when talking about their friends. (The remark was made by one of the Woolfs’ guests.) Imagine how much I quaked over the Abbotsford guide. Here I read of Scott’s “literary career without parallel”, learned that he is “the greatest of Scotland’s sons”, that his fiction was not only “to change the world’s fiction” but “transformed the way all subsequent novelists viewed the world”, and was told that he “pioneered both the historical and psychological novel”.
Now, I’m all for recognising genius where I see it but this seems to be doing it strong. Scott’s reading as a young man included Richardson and Burney. Are these novelists who had no grasp of the psychological? He also read the classics, including the Aeneid, which does not strike me as a text entirely devoid in understanding of the wellsprings of human behaviour. Perhaps Scott had not heard of fellow-Scot’s Joanna Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, published in 1798, in which she “attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy”. It seems strange considering that he wrote the prologue to her play The Family Legend and that they corresponded for years. Baillie was as well-regarded as Scott, to whom she was compared by contemporaries. My guide book suggests that Scott “produced work on a scale far beyond that of...any... Scottish or British writer bar Shakespeare”. Baillie’s name too has been linked with Shakespeare. Harriet Martineau commented that Baillie had been told “every day for years...that she was second only to Shakespeare”. And if Scott invented the historical novel, what did Sophia Lee think she was doing in 1785 with The Recess, set in the reign of Elizabeth I?
I do not doubt that Scott was a great novelist and in fact I admire his work, having read a great deal of it over the years, and The Antiquarian in the last few months. What I object to is the idea of the Original Genius, the innovator who comes from nowhere and achieves wonderful things without any reference to the work of predecessors or contemporaries. Scott did not invent the historical novel, although he may, arguably (and I only say arguably mind; not having investigated the matter I cannot draw any firm conclusion) have extended its boundaries, or he may have pioneered a certain type of historical novel. Nor did he invent the psychological novel, whatever that may be. The term seems to me to be redundant: I have yet to read any novel that lacked any sense of the psychological. Nor (referring back to my guidebook) did he invent pathetic fallacy: since The Epic of Gilgamesh natural phenomena have mirrored and symbolised human crises. Nor was he the first writer in whom romance gave way to realism. Early women’s fiction is littered with romances in which the heroine ends up ruined, dead, or both and we are reminded that, dress it up how you will, love was a dangerous game for women. I’ll mention only Eliza Heywood, who (if we are to play the pioneer game) beat Richardson to it at “writing to the moment”.
I admit that this kind of gush is easy to mock, and of course I don’t expect a literary treatise in a guidebook. An enthusiast must praise his hero. But isn’t being appreciated for what one has achieved rather than what one has not the best form of tribute? Tell me that Scott took the historical novel in new directions, that he brought a particular insight to his delineation of character, that he described the interaction between humanity and landscape with a sensitivity all his own, and his stature as a novelist will make much more sense to me than that he is the greatest this or the pioneering that when I know perfectly well that such statements are either meaningless or not quite accurate.
For information on Abbotsford see http://www.scottsabbotsford.co.uk/