Read Walter Scott!

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ELEANOR HARRIS

“It is, then, sixty years since Edward Waverley, the hero of the following pages, took leave of his family, to join the regiment of dragoons in which he had lately obtained a commission.”

It is, now, two hundred years since Walter Scott opened Waverley with these words, launching a novelistic career that would make him world famous, transform the novel, and transform Scotland. The Waverley Novels are a rich celebration of all the shades and variations of human life from queens to beggars, geniuses to idiots, rebels to reconcilers: and Scott loves them all indiscriminately. He’s an egalitarian writer. I could live by his values.

“We shall be better here,” said the beggar Edie Ochiltree – “the air’s free and mild, and the savour of the wallflowers is refreshing. They smell sweetest by night-time, and they’re maist aye seen about rained buildings. And now I wad like a wise man to tell me whether Heaven is maist pleased wi’ the sight we are looking upon—thae pleasant and quiet lang streaks o’ moonlight that are lying sae still on the floor o’ this auld kirk, and glancing through the great pillars and stanchions o’ the carved windows, and just dancing like on the leaves o’ the dark ivy as the breath o’ wind shakes it— than when it was lighted up wi’ lamps, and candles, and wi’ the mirth and the frankincent, and wi’ organs assuredly, and men and women singers, and sackbuts, and dulcimers, and a’ instruments o’ music—I wonder if that was acceptable, or whether it is of these grand parafle o’ ceremonies that holy writ says, It is an abomination to me.” – The Antiquary.

All historical, adventure and fantasy novels owe a debt to Scott. Why, then, is he so little read, even in the country he helped to define?

Walter Scott lived within two miles of me. In the nineteenth century, he was the best selling author on the planet, by several orders of magnitude. He pushed his successful contemporary Jane Austen completely off the radar. Yet in my generation, he is almost totally unread.

I’d never thought of reading Scott. I love classics, but Scott was somehow buried under horrid Victorian dust of the worst sort. I thought I’d better read a few for my PhD, a social history of the Edinburgh West End church of which he was a member. I was spectacularly surprised.

In dear old Jane Austen, you know you’ll get ‘three or four families in a country village’. You’ll know everyone’s exact rank and financial worth; men and women have their places, the common people are invisible, and there’s a happy marriage at the end which cements the social structure. It’s funny, it’s sweet, yes I want to be Lizzie Bennet – but it’s a patriarchal hierarchy: effective anti-French Revolution propaganda. I can enjoy it, but if I lived in it I’d be out with placards against it.

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In Scott, you might get anything: an inspirational cottage girl, a villainous lawyer, a gorgeous farmer, brainy, sporty, fabulous women who are spies, politicians, doctors – anything except wives-in-waiting. You get half-mad, autistic, or beggarly-poor characters who are as three-dimensional, wise and heroic as the rich and clever ones.

Most of Scott’s novels are set in the past – he invented the historical novel – but one, St Ronan’s Well, was contemporary, and took on Austen head-to-head. It was disliked by the reviewers, perhaps because all the elegant society ‘at the well’ are a mixture of fraud, absurdity and callous selfishness. The authentic, noble characters are: a misanthropic landowning, innkeeping woman; a tactless, gossipy nabob who couldn’t give a toss about anybody’s rank; and a well-born girl who (although Scott’s publisher forced him to censor this bit) has an affair. It made me want to cheer.

What can the modern reader expect to find in the Waverley Novels? Here are four things which I think explain why they went out of fashion, and why I don’t think that should bother you:

1. A leisurely journey. Scott’s readers had longer attention spans than the modern paper-back buyer, so you can either luxuriate in, or skim past, the long explanations and chatty characters. There is often a strange character who appears in a preface to explain how the story came to be discovered: Scott plays with the novel genre, wrapping his narrative in layers of fictional author and editor. It’s part of the fun: a plot will start eventually, and these early chapters contain some of the most delightful bits, where Scott toys with your sense of reality.

2. A bit of twee… Scott’s romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands in Waverley has inspired every tartan outfit, Landseer painting, and harp-music-accompanied-helicopter-filmed sequence since. To us, it can seem a bit hackneyed. But when the first readers followed Waverley to Flora’s hidden loch, they’d never been there before.

3. Not a Victorian. This is 1814. Jane Austen is just publishing Mansfield Park. Waterloo hasn’t been fought yet. Queen Victoria hasn’t been born. Victorians were influenced enormously by Scott; but Scott was a man of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh was buzzing with science, history, politics, philosophy, and above all a sense that old mistakes could be amended and all men and women could work together to create a better, fairer and more beautiful world. Scott buzzed with it as much as anyone. Scott’s authorship was (for a time) anonymous: many people guessed Waverley was by the political reformer, Francis Jeffrey.

4. The best novels, set in eighteenth-century Scotland, have quite a lot of Scots dialogue. You’ll get used to it! He was writing for a British audience, so he did make sure it was comprehensible.

The treasures you’ll find are splendid nature writing, fun adventures, and above all brilliant characters. I’ll let you explore all those for yourselves.

Scott was a variable novelist (he wrote 27, for money, increasingly frantically at the end of his life), so start with some good ones. 2014 is the bicentenary of Waverley, so you might want to read that, but here are a few of my favourites. Take your pick:

Guy Mannering: Set in Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh in the 1770s. Comic lawyers, serious gypsies, smuggling, two rather second-rate heroines, but the best characters are the farmer Dandie Dinmont, and the extraordinary Dominie Sampson. Sheer delight: I would prescribe it to anyone who is depressed.

Rob Roy: Gallivanting Glaswegian and Highland adventure set around 1700. Scott’s best romance starring a tremendous heroine who can translate ancient Greek and ride with hounds, and a superb anti-heroine (Helen Roy) which shows you what happens when all that female strength and talent goes bad. Don’t hold your breath for Rob Roy: he doesn’t appear till waaaay through the book. Just enjoy the mystery!

The Antiquary: Set on the east coast of Scotland in the 1790s, a gentle comedy involving a lot of eccentric male historians, and a girl and a beggar who are far better historians than any of them. Hurrah! Will the French invade? Or will the ladies in the post office open something scandalous? There’s also a rich theme of German Romanticism.

Heart of Midlothian: Rightly famous. Set in Edinburgh in 1736 (it opens with the famous Porteous Riot). The heroic Jeanie Deans will melt your heart.

Redgauntlet: This is all about Jacobites in Lancashire in the 1750s. Ideal for fans of Morecambe Bay, mist, spies, and mysterious women in green. It has some very funny bits. They all have some very funny bits.

Old Mortality: I’m not sure you should read this first: I got stuck and put it down the first time. The second time I loved it so much I think it might be my favourite. It’s set in 17th century Scotland with two gorgeous heroes, Morton and Evandale (both in love with the same girl: it has tragic bits…), and two tremendous anti-heroes (Burley the Covenanter and Claverhouse the Jacobite), and these four dance a psychological dance across muir and bog, in and out of castles and battles.

St Ronan’s Well: See above!

The one I wouldn’t recommend at first, is Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe transformed English culture and created Merrie England, but it was so influential it reads as a parody of itself. When you read it, as an experienced Scott addict, bear in mind he was the first person to write this stuff. It’s the Middle Ages through the eyes of Regency comedy and the Enlightenment: Rebecca is one of Scott’s most enlightened characters. Scott also makes a bold attempt to write in a Mediaeval idiom. No-one had ever done that before either, and he keeps it up admirably, but there’s something about ‘prithee gentle swain’ that the modern reader just can’t take seriously.

On its 200th birthday, we have the opportunity to read Waverley and the others with a fresh eye, and have fresh opinions, as it is almost impossible to do with established classics like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. That’s why I’m excited about hearing what you have to say about it – and I’d like the discussion to be public: this isn’t a research project, it’s an attempt to start a fashion! There’s a Twitter hashtag, #Waverley200. But you have spent far too long reading this blog. Go and read Scott. And if you can bear to put it down for a moment, please come back and thank me – because you will! 


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My interest in Walter Scott was a sideline to my PhD in history at the University of Stirling with Professor David Bebbington, The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, 1794-1818, and my interest in Charlotte Chapel grew out of the fact that I am a member of the busy Choir of St John’s, Princes Street, the new chapel to which the congregation moved in 1818. My PhD comprised a reassessment of the founder and rector of the congregation, Bishop Daniel Sandford of Edinburgh, and a prosopographical study (that is, a collective biography) of 431 members of the congregation, enabling intellectual, religious and social history to illuminate one another in a microstudy of society in the first New Town of Edinburgh. Having completed the PhD I am taking up a history postdoctorate at the University of West of Scotland Business School researching the business practices of George Gilbert Scott. I am passionate about communcating history to the public and have given public lectures, for example at the Old Edinburgh Club, Edinburgh Georgian House and in Previously, Scotland’s History Festival. I also talk about history a lot, and about Walter Scott, nature, the environmental crisis, and church music, on twitter @eleanormharris.

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