Dec. 9, 1893. Scott’s Letters.
“All Balzac’s novels occupy one shelf. The new edition fifty volumes long”
–says Bishop Blougram. But for Scott the student will soon have to hire a room. The novels and poems alone stretch away into just sixty volumes in Cadell’s edition; and this is only the beginning. At this very moment two new editions (one of which, at least, is indispensable) are unfolding their magnificent lengths, and report says that Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton already project a third, with introductory essays by Mr. Barrie. Then the Miscellaneous Prose Works by that untiring hand extend to some twenty-eight or thirty volumes. And when Scott stops, his biographer and his commentators begin, and all with like liberal notions of space and time. Nor do they deceive themselves. We take all they give, and call for more. Three years ago, and fifty-eight from the date of Scott’s death, his Journal was published; and although Lockhart had drawn upon it for one of the fullest biographies in the language, the little that Lockhart had left unused was sufficient to make its publication about the most important literary event of the year 1890.
And now Mr. David Douglas, the publisher of the “Journal,” gives us in two volumes a selection from the familiar letters preserved at Abbotsford. The period covered by this correspondence is from 1797, the year of Sir Walter’s marriage, to 1825, when the “Journal” begins–“covered,” however, being too large a word for the first seven years, which are represented by seven letters only; it is only in 1806 that we start upon something like a consecutive story. Mr. Douglas speaks modestly of his editorial work. “I have done,” he says, “little more than arrange the correspondence in chronological order, supplying where necessary a slight thread of continuity by annotation and illustration.” It must be said that Mr. Douglas has done this exceedingly well. There is always a note where a note is wanted, and never where information would be superfluous. On the taste and judgment of his selection one who has not examined the whole mass of correspondence at Abbotsford can only speak on a priori grounds. But it is unlikely that the writer of these exemplary footnotes has made many serious mistakes in compiling his text.
Man’s perennial and pathetic curiosity about virtue has no more striking example than the public eagerness to be acquainted with every detail of Scott’s life. For what, as a mere story, is that life?–a level narrative of many prosperous years; a sudden financial crash; and the curtain falls on the struggle of a tired and dying gentleman to save his honor. Scott was born in 1771 and died in 1832, and all that is special in his life belongs to the last six years of it. Even so the materials for the story are of the simplest–enough, perhaps, under the hand of an artist to furnish forth a tale of the length of Trollope’s The Warden. In picturesqueness, in color, in wealth of episode and +peripeteia+, Scott’s career will not compare for a moment with the career of Coleridge, for instance. Yet who could endure to read the life of Coleridge in six volumes? De Quincey, in an essay first published the other day by Dr. Japp, calls the story of the Coleridges “a perfect romance … a romance of beauty, of intellectual power, of misfortune suddenly illuminated from heaven, of prosperity suddenly overcast by the waywardness of the individual.” But the “romance” has been written twice and thrice, and desperately dull reading it makes in each case. Is it then an accident that Coleridge has been unhappy in his biographers, while Lockhart succeeded once for all, and succeeded so splendidly?
It is surely no accident. Coleridge is an ill man to read about just as certainly as Scott is a good man to read about; and the secret is just that Scott had character and Coleridge had not. In writing of the man of the “graspless hand,” the biographer’s own hand in time grows graspless on the pen; and in reading of him our hands too grow graspless on the page. We pursue the man and come upon group after group of his friends; and each as we demand “What have you done with Coleridge?” answers “He was here just now, and we helped him forward a little way.” Our best biographies are all of men and women of character–and, it may be added, of beautiful character–of Johnson, Scott, and Charlotte Brontë.