“Now I have still so much of our family spirit as enables me to be as composed in danger as most of my sex, and upon two occasions in the course of our journey—a threatened attack by banditti, and the overturn of our carriage—I had the fortune so to conduct myself as to convey to my uncle a very favourable idea of my intrepidity.”
Jeanie Deans, the most admirable and the most skilfully drawn of Scott’s women, is a daring contrast to the traditional heroine of romance. The “delicate distresses” of persecuted Emilies shrink into insignificance amid the tragedy and comedy of actual life portrayed in The Waverley Novels. The tyrannical marquises, vindictive stepmothers, dark-browed villains, scheming monks, chattering domestics and fierce banditti are thrust aside by a motley crowd of living beings—soldiers, lawyers, smugglers, gypsies, shepherds, outlaws and beggars. The wax-work figures, guaranteed to thrill with nervous suspense or overflow with sensibility at the appropriate moments, are replaced by real folk like “Old Mortality,” Andrew Fairservice, Dugald Dalgetty and Peter Peebles, whose humour and pathos are those of our own world. The historical background, faint, misty and unreal in Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, becomes, in those of Scott, arresting and substantial. The grave, artificial dialogue in which Mrs. Radcliffe’s characters habitually discourse descends to some of Scott’s personages, but is often exchanged for the natural idiom of simple people. The Gothic abbey, dropped down in an uncertain, haphazard fashion, in some foreign land, is deserted for huts, barns inns, cottages and castles, solidly built on Scottish soil. We leave the mouldy air of the subterranean vault for the keen winds of the moorland. The terrors of the invisible world only fill the stray corners of his huge scene. He creates romance out of the stuff of real life.
As the novel of terror passes from the hands of Mrs. Radcliffe to those of “Monk” Lewis, Maturin and their imitators, there is a crashing crescendo of emotion. The villain’s sardonic smile is replaced by wild outbursts of diabolical laughter, his scowl grows darker and darker, and as his designs become more bloody and more dangerous, his victims no longer sigh plaintively, but give utterance to piercing shrieks and despairing yells; tearful Amandas are unceremoniously thrust into the background by vindictive Matildas, whose passions rage in all their primitive savagery; the fearful ghost “fresh courage takes,” and stands forth audaciously in the light of day; the very devil stalks shamelessly abroad in manifold disguises. We are caught up from first to last in the very tempest, torrent and whirlwind of passion. When the novel of terror thus throws restraint to the winds, outrageously o’ersteps the modesty of nature and indulges in a farrago of frightfulness, it begins to defeat its own purposes and to fail in its object of freezing the blood. The limit of human endurance has been reached—and passed. Emphasis and exaggeration have done their worst. Battle, murder, and sudden death—even spectres and fiends—can appal no more. If the old thrill is to be evoked again, the application of more ingenious methods is needed.