Historical Fiction.—Seeing that Byron could surpass him as a poet, and finding that his own genius was best adapted to writing prose tales, Scott turned to the composition of his great romances. In 1814 he published Waverly, a story of the attempt of the Jacobite Pretender to recover the English throne in 1745. Seventeen of Scott’s works of fiction are historical.
When we wish a vivid picture of the time of Richard Coeur de Lion, of the knight and the castle, of the Saxon swineherd Gurth and of the Norman master who ate the pork, we may read Ivanhoe. If we desire some reading that will make the Crusaders live again, we find it in the pages of The Talisman. When we wish an entertaining story of the brilliant days of Elizabeth, we turn to Kenilworth. If we are moved by admiration for the Scotch Covenanters to seek a story of their times, we have Scott’s truest historical tale, Old Mortality. Shortly after this story appeared, Lord Holland was asked his opinion of it. “Opinion!” he exclaimed; “we did not one of us go to bed last night—nothing slept but my gout.” The man who could thus charm his readers was called “the Wizard of the North.”
[Illustration: WALTER SCOTT. From a life sketch by Maclise.]
Scott is the creator of the historical novel, which has advanced on the general lines marked out by him. Carlyle tersely says: “These historical novels have taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others till so taught: that the by-gone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies, and abstractions of men.”
The history in Scott’s novels is not always absolutely accurate. To meet the exigencies of his plot, he sometimes takes liberties with the events of history, and there are occasional anachronisms in his work. Readers may rest assured, however, that the most prominent strokes of his brush will convey a sufficiently accurate idea of certain phases of history. Although the hair lines in his pictures may be neglected, most persons can learn more truth from studying his gallery of historic scenes than from poring over volumes of documents and state papers. Scott does not look at life from every point of view. The reader of Ivanhoe, for instance, should be cautioned against thinking that it presents a complete picture of the Middle Ages. It shows the bright, the noble side of chivalry, but not all the brutality, ignorance, and misery of the times.
Novels that are not Historical.—Twelve of Scott’s novels contain but few attempts to represent historic events. The greatest of these novels are Guy Mannering, The Heart of Midlothian, The Antiquary, and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Scott said that his most rapid work was his best. Guy Mannering, an admirable picture of Scottish life and manners, was written in six weeks. Some of its characters, like Dominie Sampson, the pedagogue, Meg Merrilies, the gypsy, and Dick Hatteraick, the smuggler, have more life than many of the people we meet.