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ELH 68.2 (2001) 419-468

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Inundations of Time: A Definition of Scott's Originality

Richard Maxwell

Between 1830 and 1930, the Waverley novels were omnipresent. It is true, of course, that the tone of their reception changed several times during this period. First, they were the latest thing, a brilliant, universally hailed spotlight on the past, then a solid appurtenance of civilization (occasionally, for that matter, traveling with voyagers to distant lands as a comforting reminder of home), then--as demonstrated by a mass of modernist fiction, itself now largely forgotten--a slightly contemptible item of juvenile instruction or interior decoration. 1 But for all this time, a century more or less, they remained omnipresent, and then--just as contempt began to be replaced by neglect or simple oblivion--they were reconceived by Georg Lukács, whose study of The Historical Novel (1937) attempted to show that Scott had indeed done something really valuable. He had invented "The Classical Historical Novel," setting a standard against which Tolstoy, for instance, could be judged.

Lukács' learned study eventually exerted international influence. The English language translation of The Historical Novel was published in 1962; it made its way onto graduate school reading lists in England and America, and also achieved recognition outside the academic world. In the meantime, however, the range of eighteenth-century and romantic novels to which Lukács made direct reference began to seem constricted. Particularly during the last decade, a number of intrepid explorers in the library discovered that the Waverley novels were not so singular as they had appeared to the great Marxist, or to several generations of nineteenth-century reviewers. A major genre--the national tale--was rediscovered as a source of inspiration, Gothic and sentimental novels identified as precedents, William Godwin's "Of History and Romance" (1797) printed for the first time and revalued. 2 I shall have little to say directly about these developments, except that they are highly illuminating and make advisable a reassessment of Lukács. The current essay assumes that Scott is indeed much more of a borrower than he seemed to Lukács, and that powerful alternatives to [End Page 419] his version of historical fiction are established by such novelists as Godwin, John Galt, and Charles Maturin (not to mention the practitioners of the national tale). Within this frame of reference, I suggest that Lukács grasped a crucial point about Scott's originality, although his case is incomplete and not quite stated.

Far from wrong, however. Scott's version of historical fiction is the outgrowth not precisely of an interest in ages gone by but of the give-and-take between two different kinds of presentness. These models of the present might be exemplified by Queen-Hoo Hall (Joseph Strutt's antiquarian historical novel) and Maria Edgeworth's national tales; in the preface to the 1829 Magnum Opus edition of his novels, Scott cites these works as formative. However, it will be useful to focus on a retrospective, consciously philosophical pair of statements, and thus emphasize the importance of reception history; Scott lives, sometimes, most fully in his readers. The statements in question were made by Friederich Nietzsche (articulating the antiquarian viewpoint) and Lukács (representing the salutary effect of living in an international and instantaneous present). Each argument is less full than it could be; each, for that reason, suggests the stakes in imagining a Scott who practices a sort of nostalgic sociology or who chronicles a drama of mutual and transnational recognition.

I. Nostalgic Taxonomies

Nietzsche's bemused contempt for Scott mingles with an admiration both perverse and ineradicable. "Winckelmann's and Goethe's Greeks, Victor Hugo's orientals, Wagner's Edda characters, Walter Scott's Englishmen of the thirteenth century--some day the whole comedy will be exposed! it was all history false beyond measure, but--modern, true." 3 Nietzsche is observing that attempts to evoke the past often reek of the period of their creation--even if they are only perceived to do so belatedly. As an evocation of the thirteenth century Ivanhoe is worthless...


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