Only A Novel

Sir Walter Scott’s Review of Emma

[Blogger’s note: This review was extracted in full from the book Famous Reviews, selected and edited by R. Brimley Johnson (London, 1914). An eBook copy of Famous Reviews can be obtained from Project Gutenberg. A free pdf copy is also available from Google Books. The content of the review which is reproduced here has not been altered from that in the original eBook source. However, minor format modifications have been done to the make the article suitable for online reading. These modifications consist of the following: Words enclosed in underscores have been converted to italics, e.g. _Emma_ is changed to Emma, and texts quoted by Scott have been enclosed in blockquotes. Note that Johnson edited out an excerpt from Emma (indicated here and in Johnson’s book by *****), but this excerpt can be easily obtained from Emma.]

SIR WALTER SCOTT ON JANE AUSTEN

[From. The Quarterly Review, October, 1815]

Emma; a Novel. By the Author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and
Prejudice
, etc. 3 vols. 12mo. London. 1815.

There are some vices in civilized society so common that they are hardly
acknowledged as stains upon the moral character, the propensity to which
is nevertheless carefully concealed, even by those who most frequently
give way to them; since no man of pleasure would willingly assume the
gross epithet of a debauchee or a drunkard. One would almost think that
novel-reading fell under this class of frailties, since among the crowds
who read little else, it is not common to find an individual of
hardihood sufficient to avow his taste for these frivolous studies. A
novel, therefore, is frequently “bread eaten in secret”; and it is not
upon Lydia Languish’s toilet alone that Tom Jones and Peregrine Pickle
are to be found ambushed behind works of a more grave and instructive
character. And hence it has happened, that in no branch of composition,
not even in poetry itself, have so many writers, and of such varied
talents, exerted their powers. It may perhaps be added, that although
the composition of these works admits of being exalted and decorated by
the higher exertions of genius; yet such is the universal charm of
narrative, that the worst novel ever written will find some gentle
reader content to yawn over it, rather than to open the page of the
historian, moralist, or poet. We have heard, indeed, of one work of
fiction so unutterably stupid, that the proprietor, diverted by the
rarity of the incident, offered the book, which consisted of two volumes
in duodecimo, handsomely bound, to any person who would declare, upon
his honour, that he had read the whole from beginning to end. But
although this offer was made to the passengers on board an Indiaman,
during a tedious outward-bound voyage, the Memoirs of Clegg the
Clergyman
(such was the title of this unhappy composition) completely
baffled the most dull and determined student on board, and bid fair for
an exception to the general rule above-mentioned,—when the love of
glory prevailed with the boatswain, a man of strong and solid parts, to
hazard the attempt, and he actually conquered and carried off the prize!

The judicious reader will see at once that we have been pleading our own
cause while stating the universal practice, and preparing him for a
display of more general acquaintance with this fascinating department of
literature, than at first sight may seem consistent with the graver
studies to which we are compelled by duty: but in truth, when we
consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and
solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal
of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from
which is drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or
consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober
consideration of the critic.

If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary
novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with
kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a
knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring
that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue. The author is
already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page,
and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an
attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the
ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places
and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has
arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and
incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life
than was permitted by the former rules of the novel. In its first
appearance, the novel was the legitimate child of the romance; and
though the manners and general turn of the composition were altered so
as to suit modern times, the author remained fettered by many
peculiarities derived from the original style of romantic fiction. These
may be chiefly traced in the conduct of the narrative, and the tone of
sentiment attributed to the fictitious personages. On the first point,
although

The talisman and magic wand were broke,
Knights, dwarfs, and genii vanish’d into smoke,

still the reader expected to peruse a course of adventures of a nature
more interesting and extraordinary than those which occur in his own
life, or that of his next-door neighbours.

The hero no longer defeated armies by his single sword, clove giants to
the chine, or gained kingdoms. But he was expected to go through perils
by sea and land, to be steeped in poverty, to be tried by temptation, to
be exposed to the alternate vicissitudes of adversity and prosperity,
and his life was a troubled scene of suffering and achievement. Few
novelists, indeed, adventured to deny to the hero his final hour of
tranquillity and happiness, though it was the prevailing fashion never
to relieve him out of his last and most dreadful distress until the
finishing chapters of his history; so that although his prosperity in
the record of his life was short, we were bound to believe it was long
and uninterrupted when the author had done with him. The heroine was
usually condemned to equal hardships and hazards. She was regularly
exposed to being forcibly carried off like a Sabine virgin by some
frantic admirer. And even if she escaped the terrors of masked ruffians,
an insidious ravisher, a cloak wrapped forcibly around her head, and a
coach with the blinds up driving she could not conjecture whither, she
had still her share of wandering, of poverty, of obloquy, of seclusion,
and of imprisonment, and was frequently extended upon a bed of sickness,
and reduced to her last shilling before the author condescended to
shield her from persecution. In all these dread contingencies the mind
of the reader was expected to sympathize, since by incidents so much
beyond the bounds of his ordinary experience, his wonder and interest
ought at once to be excited. But gradually he became familiar with the
land of fiction, the adventures of which he assimilated not with those
of real life, but with each other. Let the distress of the hero or
heroine be ever so great, the reader reposed an imperturbable confidence
in the talents of the author, who, as he had plunged them into distress,
would in his own good time, and when things, as Tony Lumkin says, were
in a concatenation accordingly, bring his favourites out of all their
troubles. Mr. Crabbe has expressed his own and our feelings excellently
on this subject.

For should we grant these beauties all endure
Severest pangs, they’ve still the speediest cure;
Before one charm be withered from the face,
Except the bloom which shall again have place,
In wedlock ends each wish, in triumph all disgrace.
And life to come, we fairly may suppose,
One light bright contrast to these wild dark woes.

In short, the author of novels was, in former times, expected to tread
pretty much in the limits between the concentric circles of probability
and possibility; and as he was not permitted to transgress the latter,
his narrative, to make amends, almost always went beyond the bounds of
the former. Now, although it may be urged that the vicissitudes of human
life have occasionally led an individual through as many scenes of
singular fortune as are represented in the most extravagant of these
fictions, still the causes and personages acting on these changes have
varied with the progress of the adventurer’s fortune, and do not present
that combined plot, (the object of every skilful novelist), in which all
the more interesting individuals of the dramatis personae have their
appropriate share in the action and in bringing about the catastrophe.
Here, even more than in its various and violent changes of fortune,
rests the improbability of the novel. The life of man rolls forth like a
stream from the fountain, or it spreads out into tranquillity like a
placid or stagnant lake. In the latter case, the individual grows old
among the characters with whom he was born, and is contemporary,—shares
precisely the sort of weal and woe to which his birth destined him,—
moves in the same circle,—and, allowing for the change of seasons, is
influenced by, and influences the same class of persons by which he was
originally surrounded. The man of mark and of adventure, on the
contrary, resembles, in the course of his life, the river whose
mid-current and discharge into the ocean are widely removed from each
other, as well as from the rocks and wild flowers which its fountains
first reflected; violent changes of time, of place, and of circumstances,
hurry him forward from one scene to another, and his adventures will
usually be found only connected with each other because they have
happened to the same individual. Such a history resembles an ingenious,
fictitious narrative, exactly in the degree in which an old dramatic
chronicle of the life and death of some distinguished character, where
all the various agents appear and disappear as in the page of history,
approaches a regular drama, in which every person introduced plays an
appropriate part, and every point of the action tends to one common
catastrophe.

We return to the second broad line of distinction between the novel, as
formerly composed, and real life,—the difference, namely, of the
sentiments. The novelist professed to give an imitation of nature, but
it was, as the French say, la belle nature. Human beings, indeed, were
presented, but in the most sentimental mood, and with minds purified by
a sensibility which often verged on extravagance. In the serious class
of novels, the hero was usually

A knight of love, who never broke a vow.

And although, in those of a more humorous cast, he was permitted a
licence, borrowed either from real life or from the libertinism of the
drama, still a distinction was demanded even from Peregrine Pickle, or
Tom Jones; and the hero, in every folly of which he might be guilty, was
studiously vindicated from the charge of infidelity of the heart. The
heroine was, of course, still more immaculate; and to have conferred her
affections upon any other than the lover to whom the reader had destined
her from their first meeting, would have been a crime against sentiment
which no author, of moderate prudence, would have hazarded, under the
old régime.

Here, therefore, we have two essentials and important circumstances, in
which the earlier novels differed from those now in fashion, and were
more nearly assimilated to the old romances. And there can be no doubt
that, by the studied involution and extrication of the story, by the
combination of incidents new, striking and wonderful beyond the course
of ordinary life, the former authors opened that obvious and strong
sense of interest which arises from curiosity; as by the pure, elevated,
and romantic cast of the sentiment, they conciliated those better
propensities of our nature which loves to contemplate the picture of
virtue, even when confessedly unable to imitate its excellences.

But strong and powerful as these sources of emotion and interest may be,
they are, like all others, capable of being exhausted by habit. The
imitators who rushed in crowds upon each path in which the great masters
of the art had successively led the way, produced upon the public mind
the usual effect of satiety. The first writer of a new class is, as it
were, placed on a pinnacle of excellence, to which, at the earliest
glance of a surprised admirer, his ascent seems little less than
miraculous. Time and imitation speedily diminish the wonder, and each
successive attempt establishes a kind of progressive scale of ascent
between the lately deified author, and the reader, who had deemed his
excellence inaccessible. The stupidity, the mediocrity, the merit of his
imitators, are alike fatal to the first inventor, by showing how
possible it is to exaggerate his faults and to come within a certain
point of his beauties.

Materials also (and the man of genius as well as his wretched imitator
must work with the same) become stale and familiar. Social life, in our
civilized days, affords few instances capable of being painted in the
strong dark colours which excite surprise and horror; and robbers,
smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses, have been all
introduced until they ceased to interest. And thus in the novel, as in
every style of composition which appeals to the public taste, the more
rich and easily worked mines being exhausted, the adventurous author
must, if he is desirous of success, have recourse to those which were
disdained by his predecessors as unproductive, or avoided as only
capable of being turned to profit by great skill and labour.

Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or
twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the
interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our
imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of
romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain
attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among
those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements,
which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious
use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in
the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the
splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking
representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

In adventuring upon this task, the author makes obvious sacrifices, and
encounters peculiar difficulty. He who paints from le beau idéal, if
his scenes and sentiments are striking and interesting, is in a great
measure exempted from the difficult task of reconciling them with the
ordinary probabilities of life: but he who paints a scene of common
occurrence, places his composition within that extensive range of
criticism which general experience offers to every reader. The
resemblance of a statue of Hercules we must take on the artist’s
judgment; but every one can criticize that which is presented as the
portrait of a friend, or neighbour. Something more than a mere sign-post
likeness is also demanded. The portrait must have spirit and character,
as well as resemblance; and being deprived of all that, according to
Bayes, goes “to elevate and surprize,” it must make amends by displaying
depth of knowledge and dexterity of execution. We, therefore, bestow no
mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping
close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary
walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality,
that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of
uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and
sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost
alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied
by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and
illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines
herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most
distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality
and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The
narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as
may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis
personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the
readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their
acquaintances. The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate,
applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a
short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of
that which we at present have under consideration.

Sense and Sensibility, the first of these compositions, contains the
history of two sisters. The elder, a young lady of prudence and
regulated feelings, becomes gradually attached to a man of an excellent
heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a
rash and ill-assorted engagement. In the younger sister, the influence
of sensibility and imagination predominates; and she, as was to be
expected, also falls in love, but with more unbridled and wilful
passion. Her lover, gifted with all the qualities of exterior polish and
vivacity, proves faithless, and marries a woman of large fortune. The
interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of
the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own
disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons
herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief. The
marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his
imprudent engagement, while her sister, turned wise by precept, example,
and experience, transfers her affection to a very respectable and
somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion
through the three volumes.

In Pride and Prejudice the author presents us with a family of young
women, bred up under a foolish and vulgar mother, and a father whose
good abilities lay hid under such a load of indolence and insensibility,
that he had become contented to make the foibles and follies of his wife
and daughters the subject of dry and humorous sarcasm, rather than of
admonition, or restraint. This is one of the portraits from ordinary
life which shews our author’s talents in a very strong point of view. A
friend of ours, whom the author never saw or heard of, was at once
recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet, and we do
not know if he has yet got rid of the nickname. A Mr. Collins, too, a
formal, conceited, yet servile young sprig of divinity, is drawn with
the same force and precision. The story of the piece consists chiefly in
the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large
fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of
the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity
and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the
contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to
suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand
which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a
foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and
grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her
prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential
services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew
his addresses, and the novel ends happily.

Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels. Miss
Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a
gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the
immediate vicinage of a country village called Highbury. The father, a
good-natured, silly valetudinary, abandons the management of his
household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and
winter walk, his apothecary, his gruel, and his whist table. The latter
is supplied from the neighbouring village of Highbury with precisely the
sort of persons who occupy the vacant corners of a regular whist table,
when a village is in the neighbourhood, and better cannot be found
within the family. We have the smiling and courteous vicar, who
nourishes the ambitious hope of obtaining Miss Woodhouse’s hand. We have
Mrs. Bates, the wife of a former rector, past everything but tea and
whist; her daughter, Miss Bates, a good-natured, vulgar, and foolish old
maid; Mr. Weston, a gentleman of a frank disposition and moderate
fortune, in the vicinity, and his wife an amiable and accomplished
person, who had been Emma’s governess, and is devotedly attached to her.
Amongst all these personages, Miss Woodhouse walks forth, the princess
paramount, superior to all her companions in wit, beauty, fortune, and
accomplishments, doated upon by her father and the Westons, admired, and
almost worshipped by the more humble companions of the whist table. The
object of most young ladies is, or at least is usually supposed to be, a
desirable connection in marriage. But Emma Woodhouse, either
anticipating the taste of a later period of life, or, like a good
sovereign, preferring the weal of her subjects of Highbury to her own
private interest, sets generously about making matches for her friends
without thinking of matrimony on her own account. We are informed that
she had been eminently successful in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Weston;
and when the novel commences she is exerting her influence in favour of
Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune,
very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss
Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.

In these conjugal machinations Emma is frequently interrupted, not only
by the cautions of her father, who had a particular objection to any
body committing the rash act of matrimony, but also by the sturdy
reproof and remonstrances of Mr. Knightley, the elder brother of her
sister’s husband, a sensible country gentleman of thirty-five, who had
known Emma from her cradle, and was the only person who ventured to find
fault with her. In spite, however, of his censure and warning, Emma lays
a plan of marrying Harriet Smith to the vicar; and though she succeeds
perfectly in diverting her simple friend’s thoughts from an honest
farmer who had made her a very suitable offer, and in flattering her
into a passion for Mr. Elton, yet, on the other hand, that conceited
divine totally mistakes the nature of the encouragement held out to him,
and attributes the favour which he found in Miss Woodhouse’s eyes to a
lurking affection on her own part. This at length encourages him to a
presumptuous declaration of his sentiments; upon receiving a repulse, he
looks abroad elsewhere, and enriches the Highbury society by uniting
himself to a dashing young woman with as many thousands as are usually
called ten, and a corresponding quantity of presumption and ill
breeding.

While Emma is thus vainly engaged in forging wedlock-fetters for others,
her friends have views of the same kind upon her, in favour of a son of
Mr. Weston by a former marriage, who bears the name, lives under the
patronage, and is to inherit the fortune of a rich uncle. Unfortunately
Mr. Frank Churchill had already settled his affections on Miss Jane
Fairfax, a young lady of reduced fortune; but as this was a concealed
affair, Emma, when Mr. Churchill first appears on the stage, has some
thoughts of being in love with him herself; speedily, however,
recovering from that dangerous propensity, she is disposed to confer him
upon her deserted friend Harriet Smith. Harriet has in the interim,
fallen desperately in love with Mr. Knightley, the sturdy, advice-giving
bachelor; and, as all the village supposes Frank Churchill and Emma to
be attached to each other, there are cross purposes enough (were the
novel of a more romantic cast) for cutting half the men’s throats and
breaking all the women’s hearts. But at Highbury Cupid walks decorously,
and with good discretion, bearing his torch under a lanthorn, instead of
flourishing it around to set the house on fire. All these entanglements
bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations, and
dialogues at balls and parties of pleasure, in which the author displays
her peculiar powers of humour and knowledge of human life. The plot is
extricated with great simplicity. The aunt of Frank Churchill dies; his
uncle, no longer under her baneful influence, consents to his marriage
with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley and Emma are led, by this unexpected
incident, to discover that they had been in love with each other all
along. Mr. Woodhouse’s objections to the marriage of his daughter are
overpowered by the fears of house-breakers, and the comfort which he
hopes to derive from having a stout son-in-law resident in the family;
and the facile affections of Harriet Smith are transferred, like a bank
bill by indorsation, to her former suitor, the honest farmer, who had
obtained a favourable opportunity of renewing his addresses. Such is the
simple plan of a story which we peruse with pleasure, if not with deep
interest, and which perhaps we might more willingly resume than one of
those narratives where the attention is strongly riveted, during the
first perusal, by the powerful excitement of curiosity.

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which
she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize,
reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting.
The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they
are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the
reader. This is a merit which it is very difficult to illustrate by
extracts, because it pervades the whole work, and is not to be
comprehended from a single passage. The following is a dialogue between
Mr. Woodhouse, and his elder daughter Isabella, who shares his anxiety
about health, and has, like her father, a favourite apothecary. The
reader must be informed that this lady, with her husband, a sensible,
peremptory sort of person, had come to spend a week with her father.

* * * * *

Perhaps the reader may collect from the preceding specimen both the
merits and faults of the author. The former consists much in the force
of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet
comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve
themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from
the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of
folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are
ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too
long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction
as in real society. Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels
bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast,
that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned
grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain
landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the
other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied
with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some
importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the
ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned
by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering.

One word, however, we must say in behalf of that once powerful divinity,
Cupid, king of gods and men, who in these times of revolution, has been
assailed, even in his own kingdom of romance, by the authors who were
formerly his devoted priests. We are quite aware that there are few
instances of first attachment being brought to a happy conclusion, and
that it seldom can be so in a state of society so highly advanced as to
render early marriages among the better class, acts, generally speaking,
of imprudence. But the youth of this realm need not at present be taught
the doctrine of selfishness. It is by no means their error to give the
world or the good things of the world all for love; and before the
authors of moral fiction couple Cupid indivisibly with calculating
prudence, we would have them reflect, that they may sometimes lend their
aid to substitute more mean, more sordid, and more selfish motives of
conduct, for the romantic feelings which their predecessors perhaps
fanned into too powerful a flame. Who is it, that in his youth has felt
a virtuous attachment, however romantic or however unfortunate, but can
trace back to its influence much that his character may possess of what
is honourable, dignified, and disinterested? If he recollects hours
wasted in unavailing hope, or saddened by doubt and disappointment; he
may also dwell on many which have been snatched from folly or
libertinism, and dedicated to studies which might render him worthy of
the object of his affection, or pave the way perhaps to that distinction
necessary to raise him to an equality with her. Even the habitual
indulgence of feelings totally unconnected with ourself and our own
immediate interest, softens, graces, and amends the human mind; and
after the pain of disappointment is past, those who survive (and by good
fortune those are the greater number) are neither less wise nor less
worthy members of society for having felt, for a time, the influence of
a passion which has been well qualified as the “tenderest, noblest and
best.”

4 Responses

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  1. […] by R. Brimley Johnson (London, 1914). Hooray for Project Gutenberg! Here are some excerpts from Scott’s review, which I’ve also posted on this blog’s The Pages (see […]

  2. […] Murray’s suggestion, provided a major, early, and positive critical opinion of the novel in his October, 1815 Quarterly Review piece. In correspondence, Murray asked Scott if he felt Emma lacked “incident and romance,” […]

  3. […] The Walter Scott Connection: his ward Margaret Maclean Clephane married the Smith’s cousin Spencer (Lord Compton) in 1815. Scott visited the Portland Place household on 16 May 1815. He corresponded regularly with Lady Compton and her family. Scott reviewed Austen’s Emma. […]

  4. […] review of Jane Austen’s novels in the Quarterly Review, which you can read in this blog: Only a Novel. Bear in mind that Scott’s novels exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from […]


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