10 FEBRUARY 1961, Page 28

A Case for Scott

LAUDABLE and likeable are different things. Donald Davie, however, is equally and alter- nately concerned both with the lasting merits of the Waverley Novels and with the nature of their vast contemporary popularity. This short, affec- tionate book, the outcome of 'desultory reading,' offers a diverting contrast with Leslie Fiedler's recent diagnostic survey of the American novel, where the heyday of Scott is shown as largely responsible for its dominant nineteenth-century modes of genteel sentimentalism. The uses of Scott are delicately revealed; Dr. Davie examines various works, chiefly by Pushkin, Mickiewicz and Fenimore Cooper, one or two of which may be unfamiliar to others as they were to me, and in all of them the authority of Scott is evident; his precursor, Maria Edgeworth, is also studied.

His influence, of course, is not always a matter of gross or simple borrowings. The lean, light prose and the marvellous poetic evocations of the second chapter of The Captain's Daughter by Pushkin are quite beyond Scott's usual range: the manner in which Pushkin's visionary passage with the father's villainous and merry axe is immediately succeeded by a further axe in the sequence of cryptic. Khrushchev-like proverbs suggests in a small way an audacity which Scott seldom emulates. I remain surprised that Dr. Davie considers Waverley 'one of the greatest novels in the language' and considers Cooper 'a very great writer indeed,' but he has an infectious, at times 'impenitent' feeling for each of his authors which takes him confidently through the story of their admiration for Scott and of their divergence from him. I doubt whether a brief, deft book

like this need have argued so often with other critics, leaving at times the impression of some beaten army toiling through the snows, beset by his reprimands. Perhaps his severities take on too much charm for, as he might put it, the good of the book as a whole. But he does make use of his critics, even where, as in the case of The Dee slayer, his sense of them seems to curtail his own conclusions.

He is also interested in certain theoretical ques- tions. like the differences between poetry and fiction and the themes and conventions of the novel. He dislikes The Heart of Midlothian and explains his preference for Waverley by pointing to the existence of a fascinating theme—the rival claims of the barbaric past, which flares up again at 'The Forty-five,' and of the new order of 'civilisation' and expedience then emerging—and to an impressive coincidence of theme and plot. The rivalry appears as a fundamental element in others of the Waverley series, embodied in the vacillations of young men of the Edward Waver- ley stamp. Since his preference for Waverley requires not only that we respond to this har- mony of theme and plot but also that we accept Edward Waverley as a much more convincing example of the type than any of the rest, and since this account does not really succeed in making him seem so, the question of harmony assumes a special prominence which is character- istic of Dr. Davie's approach and of which more should be said.

Dr. Davie wishes to find themes for his novels, praising the subordination of plot to theme and searching where he can for formal effects, for an elegance and symmetry, which might be thought to proclaim or enact his themes. Now and then he has what looks like a poet's suspicion of prose; prose can even figure as a kind of pejorative; when a style attains a 'bare hard impersonality,' an 'inexorable movement from subject through verb to object,' for example, it becomes a 'truly poetic prose.' Naturally Scott himself had none of these predilections, but Dr. Davie rightly supposes that it would be silly to shield him from comparison with those like James who had, whose interest in 'composition' was intense. Nevertheless, his predilections do occasionally give trouble. The Heart of Midlo- thian may be an unruly book compared with Waverley, but the compassionate picture of puri- tan life afforded there by a writer estranged from puritanism by his own slowness to piety, his in- grained caution and his fondness for colour and ceremony has long ensured a widespread respect. Dr. Davie's attitude to form does not deserve to be patronised as aesthetic or Alexandrian (that word, I gather, has been applied to him)—the formal qualities he finds in Waverley clearly have to do with Scott's deepest convictions. But Rob Roy cannot fairly be described as a spilt or squandered Waverley, a Waverley in which a similar theme is ill expressed in terms of charac- ter and plot. Rob Roy has a richness of character creation lacking, I believe, in its predecessor, bad though it may be for the novel's design or plan. To those, however, who remember it for the vitality of Bailie Nicol Jarvie, he replies, 'Vitality, yes—but to what purpose?' I am not sure how well this reply accords with his commendation elsewhere of the importance in Scott's fiction of 'whatever was lively to his imagination.' The Bailie was lively to Scott's imagination and is to that of many readers, as Edward Waverley is not at all. I am not sure that this decrying of the Bailie, whose vitality is one of the novel's main virtues, on whom the 'reality' of the novel is to a great degree dependent, accords any better with one of the most telling precepts in Dr. Davie's book : . . . it is a strange though a sadly common interest in literature which will rest content with discovering how reality is approached and managed, and never go on to find out what that reality is.

The subjection of Scott to these new and strin- gent tests will raise protests. &It the Waverley series and the novels which learnt from it are made to yield up new attractions. This is a useful and accomplished work of criticism, unusually personal and pleasantly 'unmotivated' —Scott's old reputation is not exactly held to have been 'freakish,' as the publishers declare, and he even seems to be having something of a quiet vogue.