Walter Scott was the major novelist of the nineteenth century. ‘During the Romantic period, the “Author of Waverley” sold more novels than all the other novelists of the time put together’; a generation later he was still, ‘by several orders of magnitude, the author whose works had sold the largest number of copies in the English-speaking world.’ This popularity was accompanied by a commensurate critical prestige. The Victorians revered Scott as at once the last of the classics and the first of the moderns – the wizard who reanimated the ancient genres of ballad, epic and romance for an industrial-age reading public. His reputation stood if anything still higher outside Britain: from Russia to Italy, Ontario to Bengal, the historical novel exemplified the modernising national literary form of the novel as such. Scott’s fiction supplied a template for the epic ambitions of the next great medium of nation-making narrative, in the cinema of D. W. Griffith, and Waverley, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe and the rest continue to shape the fables of our postmodern global mass culture.
Scott’s achievement was comprehensively sidelined by the aesthetic revolutions of modernism, consolidated in Anglo-American criticism by works such as F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948) and Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957), which installed academic canons of moral and formal realism inhospitable to Scott’s practice. Twentieth-century taste made the Waverley Novels the literary equivalent of a Victorian municipal monument – dilapidated, unsightly, impeding the flow of traffic. The lip-service paid to Scott’s stature in the global history of the novel gave his reputation a lopsided cast: the once universally influential Great Unread, a tail without the comet. Recent decades have seen a refurbishing of that reputation, if so far confined to the academy, sustained by the new Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, a general reorientation of critical inquiry towards historicist approaches and (not least) a strong resurgence of the historical novel itself across the reading publics and credential-granting institutions of world literature.
The ambition to write an historical novel framed the early stages of Dickens's literary career. In May 1836 he signed a contract with John Macrone for a novel called ‘Gabriel Vardon, The Locksmith of London’, which he may have contemplated as early as 1833. ‘Gabriel Vardon’ was to be published in three volumes, a standard format established by the novels of Walter Scott, and would culminate in a treatment of the 1780 Gordon Riots, modelled on the scenes of urban insurrection in Scott's The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818). The second number of Pickwick Papers had just appeared; its huge popularity still before it, Pickwick was classed as a series of comic sketches, ‘a periodical with only one article’, rather than a novel. Although ‘Gabriel Vardon’ would not be published until 1841, in weekly instalments and under the title Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty, it has a claim to be regarded as Dickens's first venture in the novel as the genre was understood in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Dickens aimed at the prestige as well as the immense profits won by Walter Scott's Waverley novels (so called after the first in the series, Waverley, 1814). In his lifetime Scott ‘sold more novels than all the other novelists of the time put together’; by the late 1860s he was still, ‘by several orders of magnitude, the author whose works had sold the largest number of copies in the English-speaking world’.
In a fatal hour Robert Wringhim, the protagonist of James Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), meets a stranger who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to himself. Not only to himself: ‘I observed several times, when we were speaking of certain divines and their tenets, that his face assumed something of the appearance of theirs; and it struck me, that by setting his features into the mould of other people's, he entered at once into their conceptions and feelings’. The stranger, who calls himself Gil-Martin, explains the ‘cameleon art […] of changing [his] appearance’:
‘My countenance changes with my studies and sensations,’ said he. ‘It is a natural peculiarity in me, over which I have not full control. If I contemplate a man's features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character. And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the same mode of arranging them, so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively, I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain to the possession of his most secret thoughts.’
Such a virtuoso pitch of observation assumes ‘likeness’ in order to empty it: draining the other person's interiority, rendering him as a set of surface effects, erasing his integrity and uniqueness.
Scottish fiction, meaning at once fiction produced in Scotland and fiction that made Scotland its topic, became one of the leading genres of European Romanticism in the decade after Waterloo. Its distinctive forms, the three-volume historical novel, magazine tale and fictitious regional memoir, were the product and fuel of a spectacular Edinburgh publishing boom in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, which was also characterized by innovations in the periodical genres of quarterly review and monthly magazine. The proportion of British fiction titles produced in Scotland rose steeply from a mere 0.5 percent in the first decade of the century to 4.4 percent in the 1810s and then to 12 percent in the 1820s, reaching 15 percent, or 54 out of 359 titles, in the peak years of 1822-5. Following a nationwide financial crash in 1826, booksellers cut back the production of new novels, especially in Scotland, and invested instead in miscellanies, serials, reprints, and the genres of “useful knowledge.” “Our publishers of the proud northern metropolis seem to have lost all pluck since the lamented death of their great father, Mr Constable,” remarked Fraser's Magazine in 1830: “the vaunted Modern Athens is fast dwindling away into a mere spelling-book and primer manufactory.”
The meteoric career of Scottish fiction, as everyone at the time acknowledged, traced the career of an individual author, Walter Scott. The publication of Waverley in the summer of 1814 accelerated a modest rate of growth into a regional bonanza.
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