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ON OLD MORTALITY."
"WHICH OF THE WAVERLEY NOVELS HAS THE GREATEST
MERIT, OLD MORTALITY' OR GUY MANNERING "?"
It is now about ten years since "Waverley" first attracted the public attention. In this novel the characters were drawn with so much strength and precision, there was so much life and freshness in the portraits, the sentiments were, in general, so accommodated to real life, that it gave at once a new direction to public taste. If "Waverley" alone had been written, it would have had a crowd of imitators, and its influence would have been traced in the succession of English novels. But followed, as it has been, by others of the same character, and coming, as they have, volume upon volume, scarcely leaving us time to discriminate the merits of one, before another of equal pretensions has demanded our admiration; they have produced an impression on literature and taste, which cannot be measured, and can scarcely be conceived. As the Waverley novels have composed nearly half the literature of the last ten years, it may be that they have assumed in our minds a disproportionate magnitude; as the lightning which incessantly flash
es, appears to fill the whole atmosphere with flame, though it dart only from a single cloud. Yet, after making every deduction, the Waverley novels must produce a great and lasting impression. They are universally read; and what pleases the many, must be founded in the principles of our common nature. I speak not of their moral impression; that would of itself afford the subject of a dissertation. But thus much I am bound in conscience to declare, that greatly as I admire them as works of genius, I cannot admit, without great hesitation, their claims to a perfectly pure morality. Their beneficial effect upon society is indirect, operating through the taste and imagination. Vice is gross and sensual; and whatever has a tendency to exalt the intellectual nature, is indirectly favorable to virtue. It is, besides, the duty of every individual to cultivate all his mental powers; and poetry and works of fiction, which are addressed to the imagination-the inventive power, as it has been aptly called, become a necessary instrument of intellectual education.
But whatever may be our judgment of the direct moral tendency of the Waverley novels, it is certain that novels will be read, and that we have none better than these. If not irreproachable, they are, with some exceptions which I shall hereafter name, free from any very gross faults; tried by the standard of a pure morality, they rise much above the great mass of English literature. Of their merit as works of genius, there is but one opinion. The author of Waverley" has already taken his rank by the side of Shakspeare. He has become the great improver or corrupter of
our taste; and it is well worth the labor to inquire what effect his writings produce on our minds, and how that effect is produced. It is sufficient perhaps for the happiness of the moment, to be pleased, we know not why and care not wherefore. But if we aim at intellectual improvement, we must sometimes examine the sources of our pleasure, and mark with some precision the subjects of our approbation. It is with this view, that the comparative merit of two of the Waverley novels has been selected for discussion this evening. It is manifestly impossible to dwell upon most of the topics which at once rush into the mind. We can, at best, present but a very imperfect sketch of some of the principal subjects of remark. Still something may be done to guide our judgment.
The novels selected for comparison at the present time, are "Old Mortality" and "Guy Mannering." Why are we pleased with the one rather than with the other? From the very nature of the question, it is apparent, that each of us must hope for victory, rather from the strength of his own cause than from the weakness of that of his opponent. my part to point out some of the peculiar merits of "Old Mortality"; and I feel happy in knowing that this can be done, without derogating in the smallest degree from the just and high claims of "Guy Mannering."
In claiming for "Old Mortality" a preeminence over the other works of this wonderful writer, I rest my opinion, first, on the character of John Balfour of Burley. It derogates nothing from the merit of the author, that the hint for this character was probably derived from those of Oliver Crom
well and John Knox. It undoubtedly increases the interest of the work, as an historical painting is viewed with more pleasure when the principal figures are recognised to be portraits. Balfour of Burley is a powerful delineation of one of the most difficult characters that ever warmed the imagination of a poet. He was to be a patriot, yet in arms against his countrymen. He was to be devout, yet steeped to the lips in human blood. He was to contend, to the last throb of life, for civil liberty and the purity of his little sectarian church, and yet was to make common cause with the Papists and the friends of the Stuarts. He was to be at once a fanatic and a crafty politician. He was to play off upon his followers the delusions of religious enthusiasm, and to be at the same time the victim of his own heated imagination. He was to esteem it a religious duty to repress the feelings of our common nature, and at the same time to feel the stings of remorse for performing that duty. In fine, he was to unite much practical knavery with a state of much practical religious excitement. He was to be honest enough to impose upon himself, and knave enough to impose upon others.
This brief sketch sufficiently shows the difficulty of the task. It required no ordinary talents to conceive such a character; but the hand of a master alone, could have traced it out in all its proportions. There is nothing so difficult in fictitious writing as to mingle the shades of good and evil. The talent in Shakspeare which is most conspicuous, and in which he has been hitherto unrivalled, is the power of representing wisdom and folly, virtue and vice, coëxisting in
the same person, without neutralizing their effects. We do not utterly despise Falstaff, though a coward, nor Prince Hal, though intemperate and dissolute. These base and vulgar traits are partly redeemed by the honest wit of the one, and the magnanimity of the other. In like manner, while we abhor the ferocious ambition of Richard, we cannot but feel respect for the inextinguishable energy of feeling, which led him, poor, deformed, and despised as he was, to grasp at a crown.
It is in delineating these mixed characters, that great talents are discovered; and none but great talents ever venture to grapple with them. A thousand Sir Charles Grandisons, in faultless and graceful perfection, may be found in the immeasurable mass of English novels. It is a mighty easy matter to make a graceful young man put his hand upon his heart and protest to Grandmama Shirley that Miss Byron is an angel, or to give him a velvet cloak and a white plume and send him forth to strut as Thaddeus of Warsaw or a Scottish Chief. In the greater part of modern novels, when the hero has been named and clothed, the whole work of invention is exhausted. You understand at once, that he is to be very beautiful and very faultless, that he is to be deeply in love, and find it very hard to get married; but you are very sure, somewhere about the end of the third volume, to find all difficulties overcome, all quarrels made up, and every body very good, very loving, and very happy. Thanks to Sir Walter Scott, much of this trash has already passed into oblivion; and if his novels continue to be read, the whole race of Miss Porter's and