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Thread: Walter Scott and bombast

  1. #1
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Walter Scott and bombast

    Walter Scott was the most popular novelist of all time, based on percentage of novels sold that were penned by him. He was also a renowned poet.

    His reputation has waned over the past century or so, as critics have preferred psychological nuance and realism to adventure and bombast. G.K. Chesterton (writing about Scott) said that he who fears bombast will never rise to eloquence. Scott (like Shakespeare before him, but unlike some who followed) never feared bombast.

    His descriptive prose was serviceable at best – a bit long-winded and polysyllabic for modern tastes. But his characters could speechify like nobody’s business. From memory (I’m too lazy to look them up right now), when Rebecca has to choose between marrying de Bois-Gilbert or being burned at the stake she suspects that de Bois-Guilbert will break his promise to marry her. “All the laws of God and man I have broken,” says the Templar. “But my word, never!”

    In Scott’s diary (acc. a C.S. Lewis essay on Scott I just read), on June 7, 1826, Scott was kept awake all night be a howling dog. He was in poor health. His wife had died three weeks beforehand. He was working feverishly to pay off a debt.

    He commented in his journal: “Poor cur! I daresay he has his distresses, as I have mine.”

    Scott was generous to all his characters, and his villains spoke as nobly as his heroes --- often even more so. “Die!” cries the hero to the villain in “Old Mortality”. “Die hoping nothing, believing nothing….”

    “And fearing nothing,” brags the villain.

    Like God, Scott loved all his creations, be they saints or sinners. Lewis compares Scott to Oriosto and “Orlando Furioso” (high praise indeed, but Scott’s characters have some of the same nobility mixed with sinfulness)

    Scott was an almost exact contemporary of Jane Austen, and a great admirer of her novels. At the time, he was a famous and respected literary lion, she, an unknown. But the novel went her way instead of his. That’s probably for the best, but what modern novels can be compared to “Furioso”?

    Lewis claims that Scott captured the mood and tenor of “period” in his historical novels in a way his predecessors did not. Shakespeare’s characters were Elizabethans, even when they were ancient Scots or Greeks. Certainly Scott's Scottish novels invoke the place and the time.

    Scott’s characters make bombastic speeches. The villains are a bunch of windbags. But that’s because they take themselves seriously. The notion that high-fallutin’ speechifying is out of character or "artificial" just isn’t true. Villainous de Bois-Guilbert is indeed. Aritificial? No.

    Walter Scott. Will his reputation ever make a comeback?
    Last edited by Ecurb; 08-31-2015 at 10:56 PM.

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    Registered User 108 fountains's Avatar
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    Very nice essay on Sir Walter Scott. I rank him among my favorites and have read Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Waverly in that order. I'm looking forward to reading many more. When Edward Waverly travels north to Scotland and encounters the "Highlanders," he has a difficult time of it at first but eventually becomes enamored of them. That parallels, in some sense, my own relation to Scott's novels - at first, I found the Scottish history, sentiments, and especially the accents (as written by Scott) difficult to grasp and understand, but eventually I grew accustomed to all that and learned to appreciate and enjoy it. Even Waverly had difficulty understanding the Scottish brogue at first, which I could appreciate since I've met a few Scotsmen in my life and, despite my best efforts and good intentions, I still have the hardest time understanding them.
    A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing through it.
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    I think there will be a few films or TV series of Scott that will help his reputation.

    However, be careful with "bombast". Some books are best read aloud, and "the bombast" as you put it, may sound better on the ear, than it reads off the page - also most of his "novels" did not start out as such, but were serialisations which had to fit the journal they were intended for, and the repetition reminded the reader of what had happened before. Byron greatly admired Scott - and Scott started out as a poet. When Scott started to write prose, Austen complained that Scott was stealing the bread out of the mouths' of novelists by encroaching upon their territory.


    In addition we live in a more literate age - many of Scott's readers were in fact reading stories for the 1st time - so a lot of the bombast was necessary. As people got more familiar with the craft of writing novels over the generations, then literature started to get leaner. The difference between Scott & Austen was that Austen was writing about contemporary England, so she did not need to go into quite so much detail. Scott was trying to create (or invent) a historical past and so had to give more descriptive detail to the reader.


    That said, I can remember finding Scott's poems awfully twee from a 21st century perspective, but his novels had much more going for them. His short stories are not terrible either.

    So Scott the poet, I think will remain unfashionable, the novelist - well - they still make films of them and historical fiction remains a top seller, and his short stories are undeservedly forgotten.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    I've read all the novels. There is this odd disjunction between the late Augustan prose style and the exciting narrative and exotic scenes and characters. I suspect Scott invented the tropes of the action movie, but it is not obvious because he reads like a flatulent Samuel Johnson.

    Except for Ivanhoe! and Kenilworth, the early Scottish novels are the best. I'd recommend The Heart of Midlothian and Old Mortality.

    And Redgauntlet is a later novel that harks back to the earlier ones in dealing with the fallout from the Jacobite cause. It is one of his best.

    But you have to come to terms with the ponderous style - bit like watching paint dry at times.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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