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A History of English Prose Fiction by Tuckerman

The purity of thought which pervades all his writings


The

writers who have devoted themselves to the novel of life and manners have all sought to be realistic, and the value of their work largely depends on the success which has attended their efforts in this direction. The enduring vitality of "Tom Jones" is due to Fielding's fidelity to nature, and it is safe to predict that no novel which fails in this respect can have more than an ephemeral reputation. Nothing could be more false than the views of contemporary life contained in a large part of the fiction of the present day, and the future historian who looks to the novel of the nineteenth century for information concerning morals and social habits will have to exercise a constant discrimination.

III.

Scottish life and manners have been made familiar to the world by a series of brilliant novelists, first among whom stands the greatest figure in the history of English fiction. Sir Walter Scott was qualified to an extraordinary degree for the great work he was destined to perform for his country and for the novel. His ancestry, the traditions among which he grew up, his in-born love of legendary lore, his vivid imagination and keenness of sympathy all fitted him to appreciate and to put into enduring form the latent romance which pervaded his beloved Scotland. His practical experience as a lawyer and as a sheriff, gave him a clear insight into the institutions of his country. Previous

to the publication of "Waverley," Scotland was a comparatively unknown land. Even Englishmen had little knowledge of its national habits, of its traditions, or its scenery. To Scotchmen, the history of their country was little more than a skeleton, till the magic wand of Scott it filled it with flesh and blood, and gave it new life and animation. "Up to the era of Sir Walter," says an eminent Scotchman, "living people had some vague, general, indistinct notions about dead people mouldering away to nothing, centuries ago, in regular kirk-yards and chance burial-places, 'mang muirs and mosses many O,' somewhere or other in that difficultly distinguished and very debatable district called the Borders. All at once he touched their tombs with a divining-rod, and the turf streamed out ghosts, some in woodmen's dresses, most in warriors' mail; queer archers leapt forth, with yew bows and quivers, and giants stalked shaking spears! The gray chronicler smiled, and taking up his pen, wrote in lines of light the annals of the chivalrous and heroic days of auld feudal Scotland. The nation then, for the first time, knew the character of its ancestors; for these were not spectres--not they, indeed,--nor phantoms of the brain, but gaunt flesh and blood, or glad and glorious;--base-born cottage churls of the olden time, because Scottish, became familiar to the love of the nation's heart, and so to its pride did the high born lineage of palace kings. * * * We know now the character of our own people as it showed itself in war and peace--in palace, castle, hall, hut, hovel, and shieling--through centuries of advancing civilization."

And it was not only to his countrymen that Scott made vivid and familiar the history of his native land. Since his genius described the Highland fastnesses, and peopled them with the chiefs and maidens of old, all the world feels at home in that land at once so small and so great. In Italy, in France in Germany, in America, Jeanie Deans and the Master of Ravenswood are household friends, and Scottish life and habits are known to tens of thousands who never leave their native town.

Besides making his country celebrated by his writings, Scott placed the novel on the firm foundation in public estimation which it has since retained. He redeemed its character from the disrepute into which it had fallen. He used it not only as a means of giving acute and healthful pleasure, but he made it the medium for moral and intellectual advancement. The purity of thought which pervades all his writings, the never-failing nobility of the views of life which he placed before his readers can have no other than an elevating influence.


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