Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

In The Fortunes of Nigel, Sir Walter Scott surpasses even his former efforts to introduce dozens of characters and plots into one novel. Although the multiplicity of people and events and the use of Scottish dialect may make this novel a difficult one for some readers, the reward in the end is worth the effort. This novel is an exciting tale of intrigue and mystery, one of the great adventure stories in the language. As is also common in stories by Scott, the novel takes much of its romantic atmosphere and dramatic vigor from the author’s use of many characters drawn from the lower levels of society. To balance these, Scott also presents in the figure of James I, king of England and Scotland, his finest historical portrait.

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Since most of Scott’s important work was completed in the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, he is often considered part of the Romantic literary movement. Rebelling against the formalism of the eighteenth century, this literary impulse advocated the natural expression of feelings, the value of nature against artifice, and the possibilities of life beyond the strict confines of rationalism. The diverse intellectual and literary trends within the Romantic movement make the classification of most authors problematic; there was a coherent movement, however, and it did stand for certain modes of expression and ideas.

Clearly, many of the features of Scott’s novels and of The Fortunes of Nigel can be considered Romantic. Although he did not always succeed, he was interested in preserving and presenting the rhythms of the natural speech of his countrymen. His willingness to portray all the ranks of society, the loosely knit structure of the novel, the use of the past, the idealization of women, the intense sentiments—all these can be taken as Romantic features in Scott’s work in general and in The Fortunes of Nigel in particular. At the same time, however, principles of rationalism, neoclassicism, and literary realism are clearly apparent in The Fortunes of Nigel. First, in the “Introductory Epistle” Scott attached to his novel, there is a defensive essay (written, significantly, in the form of a dialogue) that supports the didactic views of the literature of neoclassicism.

In fact, Scott’s work stands at one of those junctures in the history of literature where various traditions meet, in mixtures of unpredictable and varying quality, only to separate again as historical and literary circumstances change; it can be said that realists and Romantics may claim Scott with justification. Alexandre Dumas, père, and James Fenimore Cooper were profoundly influenced by him, but so were Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy. In short, whatever the value of Scott’s novels (and there has been much disagreement on that score), Scott is a seminal figure in literary history. Therefore, The Fortunes of Nigel can be judged not only as a historical novel but as a work influential in the history of the novel.

Scott’s literary production may be divided into four parts: the early poetry, the initial group of the Waverley series, the later group of historical novels, and the novels after his financial collapse in 1826. It was during the middle period of the Waverley novels and the years immediately following that Scott did his best work. The Fortunes of Nigel falls into the late Waverley period. The Fortunes of Nigel, like the early Waverley novels, was highly successful. Although the book was priced out of the reach of the ordinary reader, it nevertheless sold ten thousand copies in the first printing.

In a manner characteristic of the Waverley series, The Fortunes of Nigel abounds in realistic detail. There is little of the excess and abstraction typical of the Romantic novel. In The Fortunes of Nigel, for example, an enormous variety of social strata are presented, the details of the characters’ lives revealed, and their connections with other social groupings and classes dramatized. This sort of description is more exemplary of the realistic novel than of the Romantic. What separates The Fortunes of Nigel from the earlier Waverley group is the setting, which Scott moves from Scotland and the Scottish border to England. Although earlier readers and critics seem to have preferred the original setting, Scott’s portrait of James I won for him a much expanded audience south of the border.

Although the setting differs, the substance of the novel is similar to Scott’s other work. The Fortunes of Nigel is about history—the social, personal, and political forces that compose history; the plot in The Fortunes of Nigel, however, is less vivid than the scenes of life, of social contrasts and collisions, which appear throughout the book. Since Nigel is exceedingly passive and is more an observer of the action surrounding him than an active principal in it, he shares the plot’s comparative weakness. The weakness of this character and the incidental nature of the plot led some contemporary critics of Scott, in reviewing The Fortunes of Nigel, to summarize its stereotyped features. In 1822, the Quarterly Review remarked: “The poor passive hero is buffeted about in the usual manner, involved, as usual, in the chicaneries of civil process, and exposed to the dangers of a criminal execution, and rewarded by the hand of the heroine, such as she is, and the redemption of the mortgage on the family estate.”

It is certainly true that Scott repeated himself from novel to novel. He wrote very rapidly, almost never reviewed or rewrote his own work, and was frequently guilty of poor and careless writing. At the same time, however, Scott was a master of describing social and historical clashes. Above all, he was concerned with the process of history—the confrontation between the old and the new. For example, in the opening pages of The Fortunes of Nigel, Scott draws a picture of the construction of a new palace by James I. As critics have remarked, the passage is designed to show the position of James I, a monarch poised between feudalism and mercantile capitalism, between Scotland and England, between the past and the present.

Scott is also highly sensitive to the English language and especially to the social and cultural contexts of dialect. In The Fortunes of Nigel, for example, he is able to switch fluently from Scots to English. Heriot, who uses formal English in his business transactions, finds himself speaking Scots when another character reminds him of home. The king himself uses an ornate, Latinized form in one social setting and then, for purposes of political image or personal satisfaction, returns to Scots or part Scots and part ornamented English.

The reputation of Scott has suffered an eclipse. Scott himself, in his introduction to The Fortunes of Nigel, shows an awareness of questions of his less-than-careful writing style—raised even in his own day—and tries to defend himself and his method of composition. Other critics, however, such as the Marxist George Lukacs, argue that Scott was a great novelist. The introduction of history into the writing of novels, the vivid portrayal of social types, and the depiction of profound social and historical conflict outweigh the stylistic and compositional faults of the novels, according to Lukacs. Nor can one ignore Scott’s impact on his contemporaries and on the history of fiction.

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