Novelists of The Romantic Age

The great novelists of the Romantic period are Jane Austen and Scott, but before them there appeared some novelists who came under the spell of medievalism and wrote novels of ‘terror’ or the ‘Gothic novels’. The origin of this type of fiction can be ascribed to Horace Walpole’s (1717-97) The Castle of Otranto (1746). Here the story in set in medieval Italy and it includes a gigantic helmet that can strike dead its victims, tyrants, supernatural intrusions, mysteries and secrets. There were a number of imitators of such a type of novel during the eighteenth century as well as in the Romantic period.

(i)        The Gothic Novel
The most popular of the writers of the ‘terror’ or ‘Gothic’ novel during the Romantic age was Mrs. Ann Radciffe (1764-1823), of whose five novels the best-known are The Mysteries of Udolpho and the Italian. She initiated the mechanism of the ‘terror’ tale as practiced by Horace Walpole and his followers, but combined it with sentimental but effective description of scenery. The Mysteries of Udolpho relates the story of an innocent and sensitive girl who falls in the hands of a heartless villain named Montoni. He keeps her in a grim and isolated castle full of mystery and terror. The novels of Mrs. Radcliffe became very popular, and they influenced some of the great writers like Byron and Shelley. Later they influenced the Bronte sisters whose imagination was stimulated by these strange stories.
Though Mrs. Radcliffe was the prominent writer of ‘Gothic’ novels, there were a few other novelists who earned popularity by writing such novels. They were Mathew Gregory (‘Monk’) Lewis (1775-1818). Who wrote The Monk, Tales of Terror and Tales of Wonder; and Charles Robert Maturin whose Melmoth the Wanderer exerted great influence in France. But the most popular of all ‘terror’ tales was Frankestein (1817) written by Mrs. Shelley. It is the story of a mechanical monster with human powers capable of performing terrifying deeds. Of all the ‘Gothic’ novels it is the only one which is popular even today.
(ii)       Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Jane Austen brought good sense and balance to the English novel which during the Romantic age had become too emotional and undisciplined. Giving a loose rein to their imagination the novelist of the period carried themselves away from the world around them into a romantic past or into a romantic future. The novel, which in the hands of Richardson and Fielding had been a faithful record of real life and of the working of heart and imagination, became in the closing years of the eighteenth century the literature of crime, insanity and terror. It, therefore, needed castigation and reform which were provided by Jane Austen. Living a quiet life she published her six novels anonymously, which have now placed her among the front rank of English novelists. She did for the English novel precisely what the Lake poets did for English poetry—she refined and simplified it, making it a true reflection of English life. As Wordsworth made a deliberate effort to make poetry natural and truthful, Jane Austen also from the time she started writing her first novel—Pride and Prejudice, had in her mind the idea of presenting English country society exactly as it was, in opposition to the romantic extravagance of Mrs. Radcliffe and her school. During the time of great turmoil and revolution in various fields, she quietly went on with her work, making no great effort to get a publisher, and, when a publisher was got, contenting herself with meagre remuneration and never permitting her name to appear on a title page. She is one of the sincerest examples in English literature of art for art’s sake.
In all Jane Austen wrote six novels—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansefield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Of these Pride and Prejudice is the best and most widely read of her novels. Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Mansefield are now placed among the front rank of English novels. From purely literary point of view Northanger Abbey gets the first place on account of the subtle humour and delicate satire it contains against the grotesque but popular ‘Gothic’ novels.
As a novelist Jane Austen worked in a narrow field. She was the daughter of a humble clergyman living in a little village. Except for short visits to neighbouring places, she lived a static life but she had such a keen power of observation that the simple country people became the characters of her novels. The chief duties of these people were of the household, their chief pleasures were in country gatherings and their chief interest was in matrimony. It is the small, quiet world of these people, free from the mighty interests, passions, ambitious and tragic struggles of life, that Jane Austin depicts in her novels. But in spite of these limitations she has achieved wonderful perfection in that narrow field on account of her acute power of observation, her fine impartiality and self-detachment, and her quiet, delicate and ironical humour. Her circumstances helped her to give that finish and delicacy to her work, which have made them artistically prefect. Novel-writing was a part of her everyday life, to be placed aside should a visitor come, to be resumed when he left, to be purused unostentatiously and tranquilly in the midst of the family circle. She knew precisely what she wanted to do, and she did it in the way that suited her best. Though in her day she did not receive the appreciation she deserved, posterity has given her reward by placing this modest, unassuming woman who died in her forties, as one of the greatest of English novelists.
Among her contemporaries only Scott, realised the greatness and permanent worth of her work, and most aptly remarked: “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bowbow strain I can do myself, like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me, What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”
(iii)     Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Walter Scott’s qualities as a novelist were vastly different form those of Jane Austen. Whereas she painted domestic miniatures, Scott depicted pageantry of history on broader canvases. Jane Austen is precise and exact in whatever she writes; Scott is diffusive and digressive. Jane Austen deals with the quiet intimacies of English rural life free from high passions, struggles and great actions; Scott, on the other hand, deals with the chivalric, exciting, romantic and adventurous life of the Highlanders—people living on the border of England and Scotland, among whom he spent much of his youth, or with glorious scenes of past history.
During his first five or six years of novel-writing Scott confined himself to familiar scenes and characters. The novels which have a local colour and are based on personal observations are Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian. His first attempt at a historical novel was Ivanhoe (1819) followed by Kenilworth (1821), Quentin Durward (1823), and The Talisman (1825). He returned to Scottish antiquity from time to time as in The Monastery (1820) and St. Ronan’s Well (1823).
In all these novels Scott reveals himself as a consummate storyteller. His leisurely unfolding of the story allows of digression particularly in the descriptions of natural scenes or of interiors. Without being historical in the strict sense he conveys a sense of the past age by means of a wealth of colourful descriptions, boundless vitality and with much humour and sympathy. The historical characters which he has so beautifully portrayed that they challenge comparison with the characters of Shakespeare, include Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scott. Besides these he has given us a number of imperishable portraits of the creatures of his imagination. He is a superb master of the dialogue which is invariably true to character.
The novels of Scott betray the same imaginative joy in the recreation of the past as his poetry, but the novel offered him a more adaptable and wider field than the narrative poem. It gave him a better opportunity for the display of his varied gifts, his antiquarian knowledge, his observation of life and character, his delight in popular as well as courtly scenes, and his rich humour.
Scott is the first English writer of the historical novel, and he made very enduring contributions to its development in England as well as in Europe. He was by temperament and training perfectly suited to the accomplishment of this task. In the first place he had acquired a profound knowledge of history by his copious reading since his earliest youth. He had the zest of the story-teller, and a natural heartiness which made him love life in all its manifestations. He had an innate sense of the picturesque, developed by his passion for antiquarianism. His conservative temper which turned him away from the contemporary revolutionary enthusiasm, gave him a natural sympathy for the days of chivalry. In the Romantic age, Scott was romantic only in his love of the picturesque and his interest in the Middle Ages.
Scott was the first novelist in Europe who made the scene an essential element in action. He knew Scotland, and loved it, and there is hardly an event in any of his Scottish novels in which we do not breathe the very atmosphere of the place, and feel the presence of its moors and mountains. He chooses the place so well and describes it so perfectly, that the action seems almost to be result of natural environment.
Though the style of Scott is often inartistic, heavy and dragging; the love interest in his novels is apt to be insipid and monotonous; he often sketches a character roughly and plunges him into the midst of stirring incidents; and he has no inclinations for tracing the logical consequences of human action—all these objections and criticisms are swept away in the end by the broad, powerful current of his narrative genius. Moreover, Scott’s chief claim to greatness lies in the fact that he was the first novelist to recreate the past in such a manner that the men and women of the bygone ages, and the old scenes became actually living, and throbbing with life. Carlyle very pertinently remarked about Scott’s novels: “These historical novels have taught this truth unknown to the writers of history, that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies, and abstractions of men.”
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