Imitating Nature and Natural Law

In her essay Achievements of the Genius of Scott, Harriet Martineau argues that one of the “great services rendered” by Walter Scott’s fiction is “the introduction of the conception of nature, as existing and following out its own growth in an atmosphere of convention” (34). By this, Martineau refers to the scenes in Scott’s novels in which the ruling classes are portrayed engaged in ‘commonplace’ activities. Though Martineau points out that Scott was apt to “[throw] the gloss of romance over his courtly scenes of every character” (35), he did a great deal to humanize the titled classes in a way that endeared them to his readers. As Martineau puts it, Scott was “the fit person to show the one to the other” (35). In discussing these ‘human’ portrayals of the aristocracy, and in praising Scott’s characterizations as corresponding to ‘nature’, Martineau (perhaps inadvertently) anticipates a concern that will soon be central to novelistic discourse – the concept of Realism.

What Martineau praises in Scott, she practices when it becomes her time to turn to fiction writing. What she admires in this other writer, she adopts as part of her own practice of composition. When contemplating the novel that will become Deerbrook, Martineau admits in her Autobiography that “creating a plot is a task above human faculties” (189). The difficulty of plot-making, for Martineau at least, stems from the deep-seated belief that “every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life” (189). Martineau, like Scott before her, wishes to depict nature as clearly as possible.

Martineau’s praise of Scott’s portrayal of nature is directly connected to her other, far more pronounced praise of Scott: that of the moral exemplar. Martineau does not at all mince words when it comes to praise of this kind: “There is little reason to question,” she states, “that Scott has done more for the morals of society … than all the divines … of a century past” (28). Moral philosophers will often refer to codes of ethics as ‘Natural Law’, intimating that moral behavior or ‘law’ is inherent to a world created by a Divine Will, not an artificial construct placed on the world by society. As with depictions of nature, the concept of Natural Law also finds its way into Martineau’s own writing when she addresses social injustices. Martineau relates in her Autobiography how important the idea of justice was to her from a very young age. And though she states that her writing about social issues is simply because she “could not help it” (394), we are told that a personal resolution made by the author in 1829 states her reasons for writing are “to inform some minds and stir up others” (394 n.1). If moral behavior is self-evident, if it is ‘written in nature’, then, to Martineau, just as ‘self-evident’ is the compassion and justice with which we should treat our fellow man – whether this means allowing women greater opportunities for education, or reforming the prison system.
In both her depictions of nature and her championing of natural law, Martineau, it can be argued, imitates one of her great literary inspirations. By doing so, she, like Scott, becomes an exemplar to the readers of her generation.

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