Victorian novels to enjoy in lockdown

From The Spectator:

It’s the perfect opportunity to crack open those classics of 19th-century fiction you’ve always been meaning to read, and I am here to offer some recommendations. But there’s an immediate problem. Do I gesture towards the blindingly obvious? Or do I recommend a variety of obscure and arcane titles? The former strategy is liable only to insult your intelligence — of course you already know Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are worth reading — whereas the latter runs the risk of merely putting you off and making me seem pretentious. There is, though, a third way. What did the Victorians themselves reckon were the great authors of their age?

The answer, above all others, is Sir Walter Scott. I know nobody now reads him, but in the 19th century everybody did. It really is hard to overstate how popular he was. Henry Crabb Robinson, a friend of the great literary figures of his day, was, whatever else he was reading, always reading Scott — when he finished the last of the Waverley novels he would immediately start again with the first. Scott was the first international superstar of letters: the story goes that the Russian ambassador to London once asked whether Scotland had been named in his honor. That is why secondhand bookshops up and down the land carry complete sets of Waverley, a fact that indicates both his former ubiquity and the difficulty booksellers have nowadays in shifting him. I’m not sure I can think of another writer whose posthumous reputation has taken so precipitous a dive.

The reason people don’t read Scott anymore is that they think he’s prolix. They are right. There’s no getting around the fact: he’s a deeply prosy, long-winded writer. If the only thing that will hold your attention is a string of staccato action set-pieces you will surely struggle with him. But the secret to enjoying him is to accept this. Instead of impatiently yearning for things to hurry up, you need to surrender yourself to the prose, to sink into it as into a warm bath.

Critics sometimes recommend starting with the shorter, more action-filled novels such as the melodramatic The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), or the crusader romp The Talisman (1825) — uncharacteristic Scott, in other words. This is entirely to miss the point. Settle down instead to longer, steadier books such as The Antiquary (1816), Rob Roy (1817; not in the least like the Liam Neeson movie) or my personal favorite, The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the only novel to have a football team named after it. There’s nothing of soccer in this novel, mind you: it’s the tale of humble Effie Deans, accused of killing her baby, and of her remarkable sister Jeanie, who travels from Edinburgh to London on foot to seek her pardon. Know in advance that this novel is long and slow, but also that its very length and slowness build extraordinary emotional heft and momentum. Adjust yourself to its tempo. You’ll thank me later.

Link to the rest at The Spectator

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