Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

Guy Mannering is Sir Walter Scott’s second novel, begun immediately after Waverley (1814) and completed in six weeks. On its publication it was compared somewhat unfavorably to his first novel mainly because of its uneven qualities. Certainly, the development and climax of the novel appears to shift from Scott’s initial ideas. Scott quickly downplays the initial astrology, but criticism still fastened onto it as a major demerit.

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Later criticism has recognized the novel’s unevenness as proceeding more fundamentally from ambivalences within Scott. He was a conventional middle-class conservative, with a legal background and sense of a class-based society. He was also a romantic visionary whose natural artistic inclination was to the feudal past and to the supernatural. It could be maintained that three different accounts could be given of Guy Mannering: as a romance (or adventure story), as a love-centered, or Romantic fiction, and as a realistic novel.

In terms of the romance, Scott follows closely many of the typical features of the genre. Patterns and motifs are centered upon the romance hero, Harry Bertram. He is the lost heir, orphaned and kidnapped into the lower regions of the smugglers, supposed dead. He forgets his noble past, is given an alter ego (Brown), and seeks to rise again, through gaining favor, trade, and soldiering. The army gives him the means to rise, but his rise is thwarted by the recurring failure of the father figure (Mannering), and a further kidnapping. Such cyclic, repeating structures are common in romance, where rise is interleaved with fall. Such patterns may be found in stories as varied as the Passion and the film Star Wars (1977).

Love typically produces the motivation to quest. Brown’s entry from England into Scotland parallels exactly Mannering’s twenty-one years before at the beginning of novel. His journeying is helped by the wisdom of the lower world, particularly Meg Merrilies, but also Dandy Dinmont, a border farmer, to overcome further obstacles. Finally, memory is restored, inheritance and name recovered, and the prophecy fulfilled.

Unlike in the realistic novel, in romance fate is the overall structuring device, and so the plot becomes more important than the moral choices of the main characters. In fact, usually things happen to characters, rather than actions stemming from their choices. The astrological predictions and Meg’s prophecies are more significant than any moral choice made (not that there are many). Mannering’s attempts to circumvent the weird (fate, prophecy) are futile.

Scott’s popularity, however, was not simply due to his being a romancer, closely in touch with the folk literature of Scotland. It was also because of the Romantic revolution in literature. Scott quite consciously echoes those features of Romanticism that had most vividly caught the popular imagination. For example, the opening of the novel contains rich descriptions of the dreary Scots landscape in the border area of the Solway, as winter night falls. The ancient ruins of the castle are seen first by night, with the sea and the cliffs creating a dramatic backdrop. The Englishman is caught up in a strange world. Later, there are descriptions of the English Lake District, home of the most famous Romantic poets. Its sublimity is stressed. The common country people, such as Dinmont, are held to be sources of wisdom and morality, a typical Wordsworthian theme. The use of verse reminds readers that Scott was a poet and ballad writer before becoming a novelist. He tries hard to make the separated lovers romantic, though much of the time the tone is too artificial to convince. Hence the work may be considered a romance and a Romantic fiction.

Last, there are strong elements of the realistic. Scott’s portrayal of country people, the exact representation of their dialect and customs, his descriptions of Edinburgh, and his precise knowledge of the law paint a real society at a real point in history in the second half of the eighteenth century. Mannering is meant to anchor such realism in his own character.

What is perhaps most significant is that Scott anticipates the typical way that the great nineteenth century novels to come were to incorporate romance into realism: through the use of the detective. The mysterious fate of the Bertrams is finally “solved” by legal detective work. The eccentric Edinburgh attorney, Playdell, evolves from comic character to sleuth, cooperating with the local forces of the law to reestablish justice. Bertram’s restoration is a forensic one, not a magical one. His estate and future fortune are assured because his right has been proved as much as his character.

At the conclusion, therefore, the typical romance structures of loss, retrieval, and reconciliation can be seen as moral and legal in a sound, realistic way. The villains receive their due punishments, and Meg is killed off, Mannering having long since renounced his astrology. What Scott anticipates, as he does in other novels, is a renewing of the feudal class structures. First, the landowners need renewing. Bertram has been renewed through ordeal, proved worthy of Mannering’s approval and therefore of his daughter’s love, and so will manage his estates properly. Scott’s disordered novel yields a message of order.

What, however, gives continued interest in the novel is not any sort of political message, or its exciting story, or its rather two-dimensional lovers. It is a sense of Scott’s humanity, seen best in Meg, Dandy, and the tutor Dominie Sampson. Such outsiders, eccentrics even, demand their humanity to be recognized, their sympathies allowed expression, and their loyalties honored. The true aristocracy is those with nobility of the moral sentiments, and it is in this that Scott is most truly Romantic.

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