Chateaubriand's memoirs, XII, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XII - Chapter 2
DIGRESSIONS: English Literature – The withering away of the old schools – Historians – Poets – Publicists - Shakespeare

London, April to September 1822.

The novel, at the end of the last century, was included in the general condemnation. Richardson rested forgotten; his compatriots found traces in his style of the inferior society at the heart of which he had lived. Fielding held his own, Sterne, purveyor of originality, was passé. One still read The Vicar of Wakefield.

If Richardson has no style (of which we are no judges, we foreigners), he will not live, since one only lives because of one’s style. It is vain to rebel against this truth: the best composed work, adorned with fine likenesses, full of a thousand other perfections, is still-born if it lacks style. Style, and there are a thousand different ones, is not learnt; it is a gift of the gods, it is talent. But if Richardson has only been forgotten because of certain middle class mannerisms, unacceptable to elegant society, he can be revived; the Revolution which operates by dethroning the aristocracy and elevating the middle classes will render less obvious or eliminate the marks of inferior ways of living and speaking.

From Clarissa and Tom Jones derive the two principal branches of the genre of modern English novels, those novels picturing the family and domestic drama, and the novels of adventure showing society in general. After Richardson, the manners of the west of the city forced their way into the domain of fiction: novels were full of country houses, lords and ladies, scenes on the water, adventures on horseback, at the ball, the Opera, at Ranelagh, with chit-chat, a cackling that never ended. The scene swiftly transported itself to Italy; lovers crossed the Alps among terrifying dangers and agonies of soul enough to move lions: the lion sheds tears! was a phrase adopted in the best company.

Among those thousands of novels which have flooded England in the last half-century, two have retained their place: Caleb Williams and The Monk. I never saw Godwin during my exile in London; but I met Lewis twice. He was a very pleasant young Member of the Commons, who had the look and manner of a Frenchman. The works of Anne Radcliffe were a species apart. Those of Mrs Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Burney, etc, have, they say, a likelihood of survival. ‘There ought to be laws,’ says Montaigne, ‘against inept and useless scribblers, as there are against vagabonds and loafers. They should ban the use of people’s hands, mine and a hundred others. Scribbling seems to be a kind of symptom of a hyper-active age.’

But these diverse schools of sedentary novelists, of novelists who travel in stage-coach and carriage, of novelists of lake and mountain, ghosts and ruins, novelists of cities and salons, have recently been subsumed in the new school of Walter Scott, even as poetry has thrown itself at Lord Byron’s feet.

The illustrious portrayer of Scotland began his literary career, during my London exile, with a translation of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen. He continued to make himself known through his poetry, while the slant of his genius led him at last to the novel. He seems to me to have created an artificial genre; he has perverted both novel and history; novelists have begun creating historical novels and historians novelistic history. If, in Walter Scott, I am sometimes obliged to skip the interminable dialogue, that is unquestionably my fault; but one of the great merits of Walter Scott, in my eyes, is to be read by the whole world. It takes a greater effort of genius to create interest while maintaining order, than to please while exceeding all measure; it is less easy to rule the heart than to trouble it.

Burke pinned English politics to the past, Walter Scott took the English back to the Middle Ages; everything he wrote, made, built, was Gothic: books, furniture, houses, churches, mansions. But the lords of Magna Carta are today the fashionables of Bond Street; a frivolous race encamped in ancient stately homes, awaiting the arrival of future generations ready to drive them forth.