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The Wizard Lives

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

The Life of Sir Walter Scott. By Stephen Gwynn. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.50. Scott and His Circle. By Donald Carswell. Garden, City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00. The Life of Robert Bums. By Catherine Carswell, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.75. The Private Letter-Books of Sir Walter Scott, with a Letter to the Reader from Hugh Walpole. Edited by Wilfred Partington. New York: Frederick a. Stokes Company. $6.00.

No child of mine shall ever read your Walter Scott,” a brilliant but dogmatic Russian Jew said to me in my early teens. He proceeded thereupon to enlighten my innocent mind in regard to the iniquities of ruling classes, to prove to me that the nobility, and the heroism which seemed so glorious were mere stupid vauntings, that Walter Scott himself was a malignant magician who contrived to shroud the evils of aristocracy in clouds of romance with the selfish and sole purpose of augmenting the oppressors’ strength. Fortunately, I was not convinced; probably I quite failed to understand his laborious arguments. In either case I continued to reverence Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, and to make the acquaintance of other heroes hardly less impressive. But the seed of doubt was sown, and from that time, conscious of other views, I was more silent concerning my admiration.

Later I discovered at college that to enjoy the Waverley novels was a weakness not for a moment to be condoned. They were insipid and artless, vitiated by commonplaces of style and crudity of feeling. Such lifeless creations were quite unworthy even of the Russian bludgeonings. Still I was unconvinced. I went again from Scotland to London with Jeanie Deans, and it was the academic strictures that were insipid and artless. If now I am less passionate in my admiration, it is not because I have ceased to love. It is rather because I have learned to temper that youthful zest with healthy moderation. I can see Sir Walter’s failings and lament them, but they, do not keep me from the delights that inhabit “Old Mortality” and “Guy Mannering.” In spite of the fulminations of the critics, even in spite of Mr. E. M. Forster’s witty destructiveness, I still read the Waverley novels and still enjoy them. “It’s a childish fad,” a grimly bespectacled aesthete once informed me, but I have not been ashamed. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to find, as we approach the centenary of Scott’s last year, that the appreciation of the early days has not altogether disappeared. Three of these books bear witness to something other than scorn.

The Hon. Emily Lawless once wrote: “In the case of Sir Walter Scott the affection which he awakens in his readers is often a great deal too acute for pleasure. There are moments in those last years of his, which we can hardly bear to think of, which sting us like the remembrance of our own unforgotten sorrows. . . .” This sort of affection is common among Scott’s biographers. Even his son-in-law, the cold and cynical Lockhart, had it, and thereby succeeded in writing what he had never written before, a really human book. Mr. Gwynn, whose affability and sensitiveness are his most striking qualities, we should expect to share that affection. He does, and he retells Lockhart’s story without many additions but with great charm and grace. Simple, direct, and eloquent as is his narrative of the life, it is his excursions into criticism of the novels that best show his true respect for Scott. The life may be read in a variety of places, and some of us will always prefer the fullness of Lockhart, but it is pleasant in this carping age to read Mr. Gwynn’s sincere and manly commendations, which are all the stronger because they boldly face and admit the faults. He is perfunctory with the poems, as, I suspect, Scott himself would have been, but no fashionable and ephemeral prejudices have blinded him to the essential verve and spirit of the novels, to the unforgettable characterizations of Flora Maclvor and Dandie Dinmont and Jeanie Deans. He is, let us say thankfully, never apologetic; he admires frankly, and his persuasiveness is not wasted on the indefensible.

Mr. Carswell’s Scott, who is hardly at all Lockhartian, has aroused much critical excitement, not because he is too ideal, but because he smacks of the too humanly infirm. Yet Mr. Carswell professes to have caught Miss Lawless’s affection. At least he says in his preface that he has succumbed to Scott’s fascination, for “never was a man of genius so ordinarily and appealingly human, alike in his strength and his frailty, his simplicity and his tortuousness, the greatness of which he was barely conscious and the littleness that meant all the world to him.” This is admirable, if only Mr. Carswell lived up to his promise, but in the pages that follow we see so much of the frailty and the littleness, that the strength and the greatness are strangely obscured. He doesn’t recreate the malignant magician of my early Russian friend, but he comes perilously near creating something infinitely worse, the toady who in a small way covets the tinsel of worldly honor. In his effort to make Scott human he goes too far and produces a figure which leaves behind an impression of moral shabbiness. “It is certain that Burns would have detested him,” says Mr. Carswell. This passing remark succinctly pictures Mr. Carswell’s Scott. Burns, the essence of all that is naturally, human, would have been unable to endure, had he known him, the self-satisfied and climbing snob. If so, Burns would have been among the few who have not agreed, or professed to agree, with Miss Lawless; even Hogg, who shared many of Burns’s characteristics and to whom Mr. Carswell devotes one of his shorter studies, could not help loving.

It is perhaps Mrs. Carswell’s Bums who would have done the detesting. He, like her husband’s Scott, is painfully humanized. His frailties are emphasized in order that we may the better understand his personality and thus more perfectly appreciate his poetry. This would be splendid, if on emerging from the public house we felt either Burns’s elation or his equally passionate repentance. Instead of either of those experiences we have gained facts which, of interest and importance in themselves, lamentably interfere with the poems. To know all the circumstances and all the mental machinery that gave birth to a tender and exquisite lyric is not to catch and experience its mood. “Highland Mary” loses by the explanation. This is all the more sad because Mrs. Carswell’s book is an accomplished biography. It is painstaking, full, and agreeably written, but it seeks too strenuously to explain by. facts poems that can only be explained by moods. The hard and earthy realities in Burns’s existence are not the whole story, any more than are Scott’s business deals and his passion for great place.

Both the Carswell books are vigorous and vivacious studies, full of keen observations and pungent judgments. Mr. Carswell, in particular, has done excellent work in clarifying the business intricacies which led to Scott’s dramatic financial crash. But both books are weakened by too evident a tendency to interpret from one side only. Both err in exaggerating the flesh at the expense of the spirit. Genius is seldom entirely a child of the world. After Mr. Carswell’s witty denunciations it is a relief to turn to the Letter-Books and there to see Scott without any wilful interpretations, to see him as he was seen by each of his correspondents from the unknown admirer to Wordsworth. These letters are published through the generosity of Mr. Hugh Walpole, who some years ago bought the whole collection of Abbots-ford Letter-Books into which Scott had gathered the cream of his vast correspondence. It has been possible, of course, to include only, a small portion of the six thousand which form the collection, but Mr. Partington has chosen with discrimination and has produced what must be a fairly representative selection. Here are illuminating documents from most of Scott’s illustrious contemporaries, and equally interesting ones from obscure beings who shared with the great an affection for Sir Walter. All show what Mr. Carswell was too willing to forget, that Scott had a remarkable way of winning hearts. We discover by, inference, without the aid of comment, how that geniality, that benevolence, that large humanity (of a less earthy sort than Mr. Carswell celebrates) affected Scott’s fellow-creatures. And in these frequently artless tributes I suspect we see the true Sir Walter.


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