Friday, December 27, 2013

Stendahl on Scott

An immense body of men of letters finds it in its own interest to praise Sir Walter Scott to the skies, together with his method of composition. The doublet and leather collar of a medieval servant are easier to describe than the movements of the human heart. One can either imagine or describe inaccurately medieval costume (we have only a half-knowledge of the customs and the dress worn in Cardinal Richelieu's ante-chamber); whereas we throw down the book in disgust if the author fails to describe the human heart, and ascribes, say, to an illustrious companion-in-arms of the son of Henry IV the ignoble sentiments of a lackey.
... it is infinitely easier to describe in picturesque detail a character's dress than to say what he feels and to make him speak. Let us not forget another advantage which is offered by the school of Sir Walter Scott: the description of the costume and posture of a character, however minor he may be, takes at least two pages. The movements of the heart, which to begin with, are so difficult to discern and so difficult to describe with precision and without either timidity or exaggeration, would scarcely furnish a few lines. Open at random ten pages from on of the volumes of La Princesse de Cleves; then compare them with ten pages from Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward; it will be found that the latter display a historical merit.
Stendahl, "Walter Scott and La Princesse de Cleves", collected in Selected Journalism 

I have recalled this passage a number of times, while watching movies in which the clothes, uniforms, and props are beautifully done, but the dramatic soul seems to derive from the TV shows of the producer's youth, or from the movies he studied in film school.

(Stendhal seems to me entirely correct in speaking poorly of Scott's depictions of love. But the prediction that "In a hundred and forty-six years time, Scott will be less esteemed than Corneille still is a hundred and forty-six years after his death." I have no way of evaluating, for what was Corneille's reputation in 1830? Scott's novels have nothing like the popularity they had through the 1850s, but I think have held up at least as well as those of any novelist then writing in English, Jane Austen excepted.)

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