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The Fortunes of Nigel. By the Author of "Waverley," Kenilworth, &c. In 3 vols. 12mo. pp. 950. Edinburgh, Constable and Co.
Ir was a happy thought in us to review this author's works in groups, rather than in single pieces; for we should never otherwise have been able to keep up both with him and with our other business. Even as it is, we find we have let him run so far ahead, that we have now rather more of him on hand than we can well get through at a sitting; and are in danger of forgetting the early part of the long series of stories to which we are thus obliged to look back, or of finding it forgotten by the public-or at least of having the vast assemblage of events and characters that now lie before us something jumbled and confounded, both in our own recollections and that of our admiring readers.
Our last particular notice, we think, was of Ivanhoe, in the end of 1819; and in the two years that have since elapsed, we have had the Monastery, the Abbot, Kenilworth, the Pirates, and Nigel,-one, two, three, four, five, large original works from the same fertile and inexhaustible pen. It is a strange manufacture! and, though depending entirely on invention and original fancy, really seems to proceed with all the steadiness and regularity of a thing that was kept in operation by industry and application alone. Our whole fraternity, for example, with all the works of all other writers to supply them with materials, are not half so sure of bringing out their two volumes in the year, as this one author, with nothing but his own genius to depend on, is of bringing out his six or seven. There is no instance of any such experiment being so long continued with success; and, according to all appearances, it is just as far from a termination now, as it was at the beginning.
If it were only for the singularity of the thing, it would be worth while to chronicle the actual course and progress of this extraordinary adventure.
Of the two first works we have mentioned, the Monastery and the Abbot, we have the least to say; and we believe the public have the least curiosity to know our opinion. They are certainly the least meritorious of the whole series, either subsequent or preceding; and while they are decidedly worse than the other works of the same author, we are not sure that we can say, as we have done of some of his other failures, that they are better than those of any other recent writer of fiction. So conspicuous, indeed, was their inferiority, that we at one time apprehended that we should have been called upon to interfere before our time, and to admonish the author of the hazard to which he was exposing his fame. But as he has since redeemed that slip, we shall now pass it over lightly, and merely notice one or two things that still live in our remembrance.
We do not think the White Lady and the other supernatural agencies, the worst blemish of "The Monastery." On the contrary, the first apparition of the spirit by her lonely fountain (though borrowed from Lord Byron's Witch of the Alps in Manfred), as well as the effect of the interview on the mind of the young aspirant to whom she reveals herself, have always appeared to us to be very beautifully imagined. But we must confess, that their subsequent descent into an alabaster cavern, and the seizure of a stolen Bible from an altar blazing with cold flames, is a fiction of a more ignoble stock; and looks very like an unlucky combination of a French fairy tale and a dull German romance. The Euphuist too, Sir Piercie Shafton, is a mere nuisance throughout. Nor can we remember any incident in an unsuccessful farce more utterly absurd and pitiable, than the remembrance of tailorship that is supposed to be conjured up in the mind of this chivalrous person, by the presentment of the fairy's bodkin to his eyes. There is something ineffably poor at once, and extravagant, in the idea of a solid silver implement being taken from
the hair of a spiritual and shadowy being, for the sage purpose of making an earthly coxcomb angry to no end; while our delight at this happy imagination is not a little heightened by reflecting that it is all the time utterly unintelligible, how the mere exhibition of a lady's bodkin should remind any man of a tailor in his pedigree or be thought to import such a disclosure to the spectators.
But, notwithstanding these gross faults, and the general flatness of the monkish parts-including that of the Sub-prior, which is a failure in spite of considerable labour it would be absurd to rank this with common novels, or even to exclude it from the file of the author's cteristic productions. It has both humour, and fancy, and pathos enough, to maintain its title to such a distinction. The aspiring temper of Halbert Glendinning, the rustic establishment at Glendearg, the picture of Christie of Clinthill, and, above all, the scenes at the castle of Avenel, are all touched with the hand of a master. Julian's dialogue, or soliloquy rather, to his hawk, in presence of his paramour, with its accompaniments and sequel, is as powerful as any thing the author has produced; and the tragic and historical scenes that lead to the conclusion are also, for the most part, excellent. It is a work, in short, which pleases more upon a second reading than at first-as we not only pass over the Euphuism and other dull passages, but, being aware of its defects, no longer feel the disappointment and provocation which are apt, on their first excitement, to make us unjust to its real merits.
In point of real merit, "The Abbot" is not much better, we think, than the Monastery-but it is fuller of historical painting, and, in the higher scenes, has perhaps a deeper and more exalted interest. The Popish zealots, whether in the shape of prophetic crones, or heroic monks, are very tiresome personages. Catherine Seyton is a wilful deterioration of Diana Vernon, and is far too pert and confident; while her paramour Roland Græme is, for a good part of the work, little better than a blackguard boy, who should have had his head broken
twice a day, and been put nightly in the stocks, for his impertinence. Some of the scenes at Lochleven are of a different pitch;-though the formal and measured sarcasms which the Queen and Lady Douglas interchange with such solemn verbosity, have a very heavy and unnatural effect. These faults, however, are amply redeemed by the beauties with which they are mingled, There are some grand passages, of enthusiasm and devoted courage, in Catherine Seyton. The escape from Lochleven is given with great effect and spirit -and the subsequent mustering of the Queen's adherents, and their march to Langside, as well as the battle itself, are full of life and colouring. The noble bearing and sad and devoted love of George Douglas- the brawl on the streets of Edinburgh and the scenes at Holyrood, both serious and comic, as well as many of the minor characters, such as the Ex-abbot of St. Mary's metamorphosed into the humble gardener of Lochleven, are all in the genuine manner of the author, and could not have proceeded from any other hand. On the whole, however, the work is unsatisfactory, and too deficient in design and unity. We do not know why it should have been called "The Abbot," as that personage has scarcely any thing to do with it. As an historical sketch, it has neither beginning nor end; nor does the time which it embraces possess any peculiar interest: - and for a history of Roland Græme, which is the only denomination that can give it coherence, the narrative is not only far too slight and insignificant in itself, but is too much. broken in upon by higher persons and weightier affairs, to retain any of the interest which it might otherwise have possessed.
"Kenilworth," however, is a flight of another wing and rises almost, if not altogether, to the level of Ivanhoe; displaying, perhaps, as much power in assembling together, and distributiug in striking groups, the copious historical materials of that romantic age, as the other does in eking out their scantiness by the riches of the author's imagination. Elizabeth herself, surrounded as she is with lively and imposing recollec
tions, was a difficult personage to bring prominently forward in a work of fiction: But the task, we think, is here not only fearlessly, but admirably performed; and the character brought out, not merely with the most unsparing fulness, but with the most brilliant and seducing effect. Leicester is less happy; and we have certainly a great deal too much both of the blackguardism of Michael Lambourne, the atrocious villany of Varney and Foster, and the magical dealings of Alasco and Wayland Smith. Indeed, almost all the lower agents in the performance have a sort of demoniacal character; and the deep and disgusting guilt by which most of the main incidents are developed, make a splendid passage of English history read like the Newgate Calendar, and give a certain horror to the story, which is neither agreeable to historical truth, nor attractive in a work of imagination.
The great charm and glory of the piece, however, consists in the magnificence and vivacity of the descriptions with which it abounds; and which set before our eyes, with a freshness and force of colouring which can scarcely ever be gained except by actual observation, all the pomp and stateliness, the glitter and solemnity, of that heroic reign. The moving picture of Elizabeth's night entry to Kenilworth is given with such spirit, richness, and copiousness of detail, that we seem actually transported to the middle of the scene. We feel the press, and hear the music and the din-and descry, amidst the fading lights of a summer eve, the majestical pacings and waving banners that surround the march of the heroic Queen; while the mixture of ludicrous incidents, and the ennui that steals on the lengthened parade and fatiguing preparation, give a sense of truth and reality to the sketch, that seems to belong rather to recent recollection than mere ideal conception. We believe, in short, that we have at this moment as lively and distinct an impression of the whole scene, as we shall have in a few weeks of a similar Joyous Entry, for which preparations are now making in this our loyal
* The visit of George IV. to Edinburgh in July, 1822.