24 SEPTEMBER 1932, Page 17

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott To-Day. Edited by H. J. C. Gribrson. (Con- stable. 10s. 6d.) A COMPLETE edition of Scott's letters was very much needed. And Professor Grierson has edited its first instalment admir- ably. But it cannot be said that the result is a very readable book. Nobody's complete correspondence is likely to be much of whose time is occupied in practical transactions ; Madame de Sevigne herself would have found it hard to produce epistolary masterpieces if she had had to write to a bailiff about an estate or a publisher about copyright. Scott was no Madame de Sevigne, and he was always writing to bailiffs about estates and publishers about copyrights. These letters throw light on the intricate chaos of his financial affairs and his incapacity for resolving it into any sort of order ; but of their nature they cannot give that direct impression of the writer's personality which is the essence of good letter-writing. And to all except the Scott expert they are dull. However, the bliok is not all dull ; a con- siderable proportion of it is taken up by Scott's letters to his friends. And these are not only good letters in them- selves, but reveal as much as his journals do the extraordinary charm of their author's character.

In this he is exceptional among writers of eminence. A consideration of their lives inevitably induces the melancholy reflection that, with a few notable exceptions, great writers have been difficult to like and impossible to live with. The creative power is sure to egotism near allied ; they have almost all been egotists, either narrow, hard egotists, con- scientiously following their star without any regard to the happiness of those around them, like Milton or. Wordsworth, or vain, capricious, uncontrolled egotists like Byron • or Rossetti. Not so Scott.

Of course he had his weaknesses. He was careless and extravagant and impractical. All the failure in the world could not persuade him he was not a man of business. While his unrestrained boyish romanticism sometimes led him to make himself highly ridiculous. Did he not dress up George IV. as a Highland chieftain and present him to the astonished eyes of the Edinburgh populace ? No one could call Scott a sensible prudent character. But then who would want to ? His imprudence and romanticism only endear him the more to us, and there is nothing else to be criticized in his character. Of the typical faults of the writer he was singularly free. He was not an egotist ; he was modest and constant and reasonable and sweet-tempered and un- selfish and persevering. He did not think that the fact that he was a good writer gave him the right to be an intoler- able human being ; he did not cut himself off from the society of ordinary people as one of whom the world is not worthy. Yet, and here we come to the most significant fact about Scott—he was not a Philistine. As Professor Grierson points out in his very able introduction, the peculiar distinction of Scott's character lies in its combination of the imaginative and the normal. He was a fragile, solitary child, living wholly in a world of precocious and romantic imagination, but as he grew older the circumstances of his education, of his own sunny, zestful disposition, caused Max to throw himself with energy into the varicoloured whirlpool of ordinary life. It was the cause of most of his troubles, for he tried to live the practical life of his mature ideal in the romantic spirit of his childish imagination ; with the consequence that he got ruined. But it is also the secret of his peculiar attractiveness. He has at once the charm of the average warm-hearted rational human being, the sensitive, imaginative charm of the artist.

And, what is more important to posterity, this combination gave its peculiar force and flavour to his genius. Scott's best work, like his life, unites the substance of the realist with the imagination of the romantic. He can, as in The Bride of Lammermoor, re-tell a story as wild and remote as that of the border-ballad, and yet make it vivid and concrete as Roderick Random ; he can describe with perfect realism a small Scottish farmer like Davie Deans and yet reveal the vaster, more impersonal forces of history, religion and nationality that have moulded his character to what it is. Above all, he can deal with the heroic and the tragic ; for the heroic and the tragic must be real and yet must also be sublime. Scott's great tragic features—Meg Merrilies, Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot—are as solid and four-square as Toni Jones, as majestic and poetical as the Duchess of Malfi. They are, indeed, the only figures in English literature like Shake- speare's great tragic figures. And Scott, though he is one of the most faulty novelists, is yet the only one who has something in him of Shakespeare.

It has also laid him open to some of the same misfortunes.

By a strange freak of human nature, if a man's gc • is admired enough, people become enormously interested in those aspects of his life and character which have nothing to do with it. The libraries of the world are heavy with unread books on Shakespeare as a lawyer, Shakespeare as a linguist. And now Professor Grierson has edited a volume of essays dealing with such subjects ns Scott and Cervantes, Scott and the Comedic Humaine. They are all learned studies, but who wants to read them ? However, the book also includes another very interesting introduction by Professor Grierson, and a sound article on the English historical novel by Mr. Hugh Walpole. It is curious though that Mr. Walpole should think it necessary especially to recommend the -student to read Marius the Epicurean " page by page and word by word." Speaking for ourselves, we have found this the most desirable plan in reading any book. To read alternate pages and every fifth word only leads to