Stuart Kelly, in the Guardian, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, which were immensely popular for at least a century and a half, and which turned most of the reading public of Europe and America into reactionary romantics.
Waverley is not a precursor to the great Victorian novels (or even the mediocre Victorian novels by the likes of Bulwer-Lytton and Harrison Ainsworth) but a development from the form’s 18th-century radical roots. In the same year as he published Waverley anonymously, as Walter Scott he had produced an edition of the works of Swift. The opening pages of Waverley have a kind of sly self-consciousness that echoes Sterne’s Tristram Shandy more than Trollope’s Orley Farm. The reader doesn’t jump into the story, but jumps into a story about the story as the narrator ponders other titles and subtitles the book could have had. He parodies gothic, sentimental and fashionable tales (though the book will eventually encompass all these genres). Chapter 24 begins with the provocative question “Shall this be a long or a short chapter? This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences.”
The eponymous Waverley is an English soldier who ends up supporting Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 through a mixture of quixotic romanticism and personal petulance. Scott, anonymously reviewing one of his later books in The Quarterly Review called his protagonist “a very amiable and very insipid sort of young man” â€“ in private he referred to him as a “sneaking piece of imbecility”. But then Scott’s habit of self-deprecation, charming though it can be, can obscure the psychological acuity and emotional realism of his work. Waverley, for example, falls in love when he plays at falling in love.
In his lifetime, Scott was compared to Shakespeare by the critics â€“ not a judgment made too often these days. Nevertheless, it’s an important comparison. German critics (and Scott began his career translating Goethe) had praised Shakespeare for his immense scope, and Scott has something similar: Waverley has space for a royal usurper and the village idiot, the local laird and the middle-class soldier, the fanatic and the pragmatist, the outlaw and the establishment. Virginia Woolf would later claim he was “perhaps the last novelist to practice the great, the Shakespearean art, of making people reveal themselves in speech”.
Jane Austen said that Scott had “no business writing novels â€“ especially good ones”. Francis Jeffrey, the most influential critic of the day, captures both the thrill and the frustration of reading Scott when he reviewed Waverley in The Edinburgh Review:
“It is wonderful what genius and adherence to nature will do in spite of all disadvantages. Here is a thing obviously very hastily, and, in many places, very unskilfully written â€” composed, one half of it, in a dialect unintelligible to four-fifths of the reading population of the country â€“ relating to a period too recent to be romantic, and too far gone by to be familiar â€” and published, moreover, in a quarter of the island where materials and talents for novel-writing have been supposed to be equally wanting; and yet, by the mere force and truth and vivacity of its colouring, already casting the whole tribe of ordinary novels into the shade, and taking its place rather with the most popular of our modern poems, than with the rubbish of provincial romances. The secret of this success, we take it, is merely that the author is a person of genius”.
Read the whole thing.
When I was young, you could find beautifully bound sets of the Waverly novels mouldering away in every used book barn at derisory prices. Today, you can download them in eBook form for free.