Only A Novel

Sir Walter Scott’s Review of Emma

Posted in Books, Emma, Jane Austen, Literature, Review by onlyanovel on January 19, 2008

Quarterly ReviewWhat can I say? I was curious. I have often read about this famous “flattering” review that Sir Walter Scott—author of Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake, and many others—wrote about Austen’s Emma, but I’ve never really read excerpts from that review, which appeared in the October 1815 edition (published on 12 March 1816) of The Quarterly Review. So I went in search of the article so I can read it myself. It wasn’t straightforward to find a digital copy online—to my surprise—but I eventually found one reproduced in the book Famous Reviews, edited 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 sidebar).

Scott starts by discussing the value of a novel, even mediocre ones, but acknowledges that Austen’s Emma, as well as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were not your run-of-the-mill novels:

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.

As the last sentence of this quote indicates, there was at that time occurring a transormation of the novel from one which related sensational, overly sentimental, impossible schemes and tones to one which realistically reflected ordinary life and ordinary people. Does this remind you of anything? Reading the first half of Scott’s article, I was continually reminded of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which was written around 16 years before the review (but published posthumously). In light of the first sentence of the next excerpt, I find this very interesting! Check it out:

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.

This new style of the novel, however, was riskier and required more skill to write:

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.

Scott is generous in his praise of Emma’s author. Austen writes this new style of novel very well, very well indeed, and “she stands almost alone”:

… 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.

Scott then goes on to give brief summaries of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and then a long, detailed summary of Emma. On the comic mess that Emma manages to create and what it reveals about Austen, he says:

… 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.

Scott suggests that a simple story like Emma, if skillfully written, is more inviting and interesting than a novel of the “old regime”:

… 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.

And Scott gives a final praise of Austen’s talents:

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.

I enjoyed reading this review, and I even learned something about novels, and gleaned some insight as to what might have been Austen’s motivations for writing Northanger Abbey. And, yeah, I think that was a positive review. 🙂 And if you think this post is long, you should read the actual review. 🙂

What do you think? I welcome your comments.

(The image of The Quarterly Review on this post was obtained from Wiki.)


4 Responses

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  1. Ms. Place said, on January 20, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your insights and posting Sir Walter Scott’s review.

  2. onlyanovel said, on January 23, 2008 at 5:53 am

    Thank you, Ms. Place!

  3. Kelly Fineman said, on February 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Found this via the magic of Google today, and enjoyed it. Thanks also for the links!

  4. get more info said, on February 18, 2016 at 7:10 am

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