Saturday, 22 July 2017

Jane Austen and Walter Scott: Not Quite Love and Friendship by Catherine Hokin

“Walter Scott has no business writing novels, especially good ones – it is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.”

 Jane Austen from original family picture. Getty
Author feuds: we at the History Girls are above such things but they are horribly common. Gore Vidal comparing Norman Mailer to Charles Manson; Vidal retaliating by punching and then headbutting him.  HG Wells calling Henry James a 'painful hippopotamus' before engaging in a rather nasty letter-writing battle. Ernest Hemingway dismissing F.Scott FitzGerald as a sissy, a moaner and a drunk. No one comes out well and it's not just the men who know how to sharpen a quill: the above 'attack' on Walter Scott was penned by our own mistress of manners, Jane Austen.

Now I'll be honest here, I'm not the world's greatest Austen fan, my tastes run a bit more melodramatic (and sometimes my prose, my agent's term 'you've gone purple again' is never meant as a compliment) which is why I love Walter far more. No one can deny, however, how well Austen can mix admiration into rivalry or the elegant dryness of her tone. This archness runs through her letters as much as her novels although the above comment (written to her niece Anna in 1814) does continue in a rather blunter vein: "I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it - but fear I must." It's hard not to hear the gritted teeth grinding just a little.

Walter Scott was, of course, a very different writer to Austen. His books are written on a far larger scale than hers and in a far more exuberant (also known as completely over-the-top) way but he was generous in his appreciation of Austen's style. His review of Emma, published in The Quarterly Review in 1816 is widely credited with bringing her work to a wider audience and may have been the impetus behind an early American printing. The review is not a raving endorsement but does include positive comments about Austen's other works (with one omission) and makes a distinction between Emma and what many felt was multiplicity of novels suddenly flooding the market, stating that it showed “a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue,” unlike the “ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries.” Whether or not Austen appreciated the review (or even knew that Scott was its author) is unclear. As with much of her writing, her response that the authoress “has no reason, I think, to complain of her treatment in it, except in the total omission of ‘Mansfield Park.’ I cannot but be sorry that so clever a man as the Reviewer of ‘Emma’ should consider it as unworthy of being noticed” can be read in a positive or a peevish tone.

 No explanation or excuse needed
Scott continued to reflect positively on Austen's work throughout his own career. In 1826, he wrote in his private journal:“READ again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” (From an article by Stuart Kelly, whose book Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation is a wonderful read for anyone interested in Scott's life). In 1832, Scott wrote in the preface to the one novel he wrote with a more domestic setting, St Ronan's Well, that he had no “hope of rivaling … the brilliant and talented names of Edgeworth, Austen..whose success seems to have appropriated this province of the novel as exclusively their own." Was Austen as generous in return? I'm not enough of an Austen scholar to know but I think it would be fair to assume she was not. Although Scott could appreciate the genre she had made her own, she was definitely no fan of his. When James Stanier-Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, 'helpfully' suggested she might like to write a work of historical romance to celebrate the Prince, she was less than complimentary at the idea. "I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter." Damned by faint praise indeed.

It is unfair of me to call the relationship between Scott and Austen a feud, it's really more of a niggle although I'm sure her clever tongue could hold its own in any author-celebrity death match. The one I would have liked to see? Austen versus Mark Twain. Twain loathed Austen's work, interestingly he also loathed Walter Scott, so much in fact that he once cited Walter Scott disease as a prime cause of the American Civil War: "Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war." Reading Twain on Austen reminds me of the horrors of having to teach her to teenage boys: he expressed amazement that she had a natural death instead of being executed for literary crimes and followed that up by declaring he wanted to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone every time he attempted to read Pride and Prejudice. Exactly like teenage boys. I couldn't break them, I'm not convinced I didn't side with them at times, but I doubt the woman who could write "I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other" would have been troubled by any of us. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

Dear me, what do you do if, like me, you love all three of these authors? They are just different, that's all. And Austen and Scott both seem to have admitted there was a kind of fiction they just couldn't write. I bet if they had met, they would have ended up getting along fine. He was a gentleman and she was clever and witty and would have been able to deal with meeting someone whose work she didn't care for, when he said, "By the way, I think you do stuff I just can't! Well done!" And she admits she likes his work, if reluctantly.

I think Mark Twain may have a point about Scott. The Southerners romanticised their way of life and no doubt would have loved reading the historical epics. But that was hardly his fault!

I just loved those footnotes in Ivanhoe, like the one where he says he has been accused of getting his heraldry wrong but he's checked and he is right, so there! And the one where he admits he had to bring a character back to life after killing him off because his editor thought the fans would hate it. It's wonderfully chatty!

Did you know he led the campaign to save the walls of York?

Lesley Downer said...

What a gloriously exuberant Scott-ian piece! I also enjoyed the picture of Mr Darcy. And now feel doubly determined not only to reread Austen but also Scott.

Leslie Wilson said...

My husband read Pride and Prejudice as a teenager, encouraged by an enthusiastic English teacher, and he enjoyed it! What teenage boys enjoy, and what they'll admit to enjoying, are surely two separate things!