St. Ronan's Well eBook: Page2

Walter Scott (2007)




  The novel which follows is upon a plan different from any other that theauthor has ever written, although it is perhaps the most legitimatewhich relates to this kind of light literature.

  It is intended, in a word--_celebrare domestica facta_--to give animitation of the shifting manners of our own time, and paint scenes, theoriginals of which are daily passing round us, so that a minute'sobservation may compare the copies with the originals. It must beconfessed that this style of composition was adopted by the authorrather from the tempting circumstance of its offering some novelty inhis compositions, and avoiding worn-out characters and positions, thanfrom the hope of rivalling the many formidable competitors who havealready won deserved honours in this department. The ladies, inparticular, gifted by nature with keen powers of observation and lightsatire, have been so distinguished by these works of talent, that,reckoning from the authoress of Evelina to her of Marriage, a cataloguemight be made, including the brilliant and talented names of Edgeworth,Austin, Charlotte Smith, and others, whose success seems to haveappropriated this province of the novel as exclusively their own. It wastherefore with a sense of temerity that the author intruded upon aspecies of composition which had been of late practised with suchdistinguished success. This consciousness was lost, however, under thenecessity of seeking for novelty, without which, it was much to beapprehended, such repeated incursions on his part would nauseate thelong indulgent public at the last.

  The scene chosen for the author's little drama of modern life was amineral spring, such as are to be found in both divisions of Britain,and which are supplied with the usual materials for redeeming health, ordriving away care. The invalid often finds relief from his complaints,less from the healing virtues of the Spa itself, than because his systemof ordinary life undergoes an entire change, in his being removed fromhis ledger and account-books--from his legal folios and progresses oftitle-deeds--from his counters and shelves,--from whatever else formsthe main source of his constant anxiety at home, destroys his appetite,mars the custom of his exercise, deranges the digestive powers, andclogs up the springs of life. Thither, too, comes the saunterer, anxiousto get rid of that wearisome attendant _himself_, and thither come bothmales and females, who, upon a different principle, desire to makethemselves double.

  The society of such places is regulated, by their very nature, upon ascheme much more indulgent than that which rules the world of fashion,and the narrow circles of rank in the metropolis. The titles of rank,birth, and fortune, are received at a watering-place without any verystrict investigation, as adequate to the purpose for which they arepreferred; and as the situation infers a certain degree of intimacy andsociability for the time, so to whatever heights it may have beencarried, it is not understood to imply any duration beyond the length ofthe season. No intimacy can be supposed more close for the time, andmore transitory in its endurance, than that which is attached to awatering-place acquaintance. The novelist, therefore, who fixes uponsuch a scene for his tale, endeavours to display a species of society,where the strongest contrast of humorous characters and manners may bebrought to bear on and illustrate each other with less violation ofprobability, than could be supposed to attend the same miscellaneousassemblage in any other situation.

  In such scenes, too, are frequently mingled characters, not merelyridiculous, but dangerous and hateful. The unprincipled gamester, theheartless fortune-hunter, all those who eke out their means ofsubsistence by pandering to the vices and follies of the rich and gay,who drive, by their various arts, foibles into crimes, and imprudenceinto acts of ruinous madness, are to be found where their victimsnaturally resort, with the same certainty that eagles are gatheredtogether at the place of slaughter. By this the author takes a greatadvantage for the management of his story, particularly in its darkerand more melancholy passages. The impostor, the gambler, all who liveloose upon the skirts of society, or, like vermin, thrive by itscorruptions, are to be found at such retreats, when they easily, and asa matter of course, mingle with those dupes, who might otherwise haveescaped their snares. But besides those characters who are actuallydangerous to society, a well-frequented watering-place generallyexhibits for the amusement of the company, and the perplexity andamazement of the more inexperienced, a sprinkling of persons called bythe newspapers eccentric characters--individuals, namely, who, eitherfrom some real derangement of their understanding, or, much morefrequently, from an excess of vanity, are ambitious of distinguishingthemselves by some striking peculiarity in dress or address,conversation or manners, and perhaps in all. These affectations areusually adopted, like Drawcansir's extravagances, to show _they dare_;and I must needs say, those who profess them are more frequently to befound among the English, than among the natives of either of the othertwo divisions of the united kingdoms. The reason probably is, that theconsciousness of wealth, and a sturdy feeling of independence, whichgenerally pervade the English nation, are, in a few individuals,perverted into absurdity, or at least peculiarity. The witty Irishman,on the contrary, adapts his general behaviour to that of the bestsociety, or that which he thinks such; nor is it any part of the shrewdScot's national character unnecessarily to draw upon himself publicattention. These rules, however, are not without their exceptions; forwe find men of every country playing the eccentric at these independentresorts of the gay and the wealthy, where every one enjoys the licenseof doing what is good in his own eyes.

  It scarce needed these obvious remarks to justify a novelist's choice ofa watering-place as the scene of a fictitious narrative. Unquestionably,it affords every variety of character, mixed together in a manner whichcannot, without a breach of probability, be supposed to exist elsewhere;neither can it be denied that in the concourse which such miscellaneouscollections of persons afford, events extremely different from those ofthe quiet routine of ordinary life may, and often do, take place.

  It is not, however, sufficient that a mine be in itself rich and easilyaccessible; it is necessary that the engineer who explores it shouldhimself, in mining phrase, have an accurate knowledge of the _country_,and possess the skill necessary to work it to advantage. In thisrespect, the author of Saint Ronan's Well could not be termed fortunate.His habits of life had not led him much, of late years at least, intoits general or bustling scenes, nor had he mingled often in the societywhich enables the observer to "shoot folly as it flies." The consequenceperhaps was, that the characters wanted that force and precision whichcan only be given by a writer who is familiarly acquainted with hissubject. The author, however, had the satisfaction to chronicle histestimony against the practice of gambling, a vice which the devil hascontrived to render all his own, since it is deprived of whatever pleadsan apology for other vices, and is founded entirely on the cold-bloodedcalculation of the most exclusive selfishness. The character of thetraveller, meddling, self-important, and what the ladies call fussing,but yet generous and benevolent in his purposes, was partly taken fromnature. The story, being entirely modern, cannot require muchexplanation, after what has been here given, either in the shape ofnotes, or a more prolix introduction.

  It may be remarked, that the English critics, in many instances, thoughnone of great influence, pursued Saint Ronan's Well with hue and cry,many of the fraternity giving it as their opinion that the author hadexhausted himself, or, as the technical phrase expresses it, writtenhimself out; and as an unusual tract of success too often provokes manypersons to mark and exaggerate a slip when it does occur, the author waspublicly accused, in prose and verse, of having committed a literarysuicide in this unhappy attempt. The voices, therefore, were, for atime, against Saint Ronan's on the southern side of the Tweed.

  In the author's own country, it was otherwise. Many of the characterswere recognised as genuine Scottish portraits, and the good fortunewhich had hitherto attended the productions of the Author of Waverley,did not desert, notwithstanding the ominous vaticinations of itscensurers, this new attempt, although
out of his ordinary style.

  _1st February, 1832._