I admit it, I’m defeated – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it needs more attention than my distracted brain can give it right now. Consequently, I am posting on just the first volume of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I read it for my Jane Austen meeting last weekend. We did Scott for two reasons: he was highly impressed by Austen’s writing, and Austen liked his!
Waverley was published in 1814, and Austen mentioned it in a letter to her niece Anna Austen that year (which was just three years before she died). She said, in her inimitable Austen way:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must… (28 September 1814)
And I must too, really, I must, notwithstanding my decision to not continue!
And Walter Scott is worth liking, because he liked Austen! Here are three references he made to Austen in his journal a decade after she died:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! Journal, 14/3/1826)
The women do this better – Edgeworth, [Susan] Ferrier, Austen have all had their portraits of real society, far superior to anything man, vain man, has produced of the like nature. (28/3/826)
Wrote five pages of the _Tales_. Walked from Huntly Burn, having gone in the carriage. Smoked my cigar with Lockhart after dinner, and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable. (Journal, 18/9/1827)
Waverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction. Its subtitle, “Or, Sixty years since”, tells us its historical setting, which is, specifically, the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The plot concerns Edward Waverley, an idealistic, impractical young man who joins the army, and is sent to the Scottish Highlands. He meets passionate Scottish patriots, Fergus and his sister Flora, who support Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), and is attracted to their cause. Not a wise move! Initially published anonymously, Waverley was a big success, marking, says Penguin’s blurb, “the start of his extraordinary literary success”.
So, why do I like it, and yet am not planning to finish it? I like it for its humour and Austen-like observations on human nature. I like the way the novel starts with Scott, as first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character Waverley’s name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”), and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – including Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:
By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.
Examples of his Austen-like observations, include:
Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure; (Ch. 4)
There is no better antidote against entertaining too high an opinion of others, than having an excellent one of ourselves at the very same time. (Ch. 5)
There are many satirical or humorous comments made in this first volume, such this to the modern “soft” education methods:
I am aware I may be here reminded of the necessity of rendering instruction agreeable to youth, and of Tasso’s infusion of honey into the medicine prepared for a child;
Unfortunately, this method, he argues, did not serve our young hero well:
With a desire of amusement therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder.
Don’t you love that image, “like a vessel without a rudder”? Anyhow, he then elaborates on the ills of unstructured, uncritical reading.
Later, he describes Waverley’s arrival in the Highlands:
Three or four village girls, returning from the well or brook with pitchers and pails upon their heads, formed more pleasing objects, and with their thin short-gowns and single petticoats, bare arms, legs, and feet, uncovered heads and braided hair, somewhat resembled Italian forms of landscape. Nor could a lover of the picturesque have challenged either the elegance of their costume, or the symmetry of their shape, although, to say the truth, a mere Englishman, in search of the comfortable, a word peculiar to his native tongue, might have wished the clothes less scanty, the feet and legs somewhat protected from the weather, the head and complexion shrouded from the sun, or perhaps might even have thought the whole person and dress considerably improved by a plentiful application of spring water, with a quantum sufficit of soap. The whole scene was depressing, for it argued, at the first glance, at least a stagnation of industry, and perhaps of intellect.
This paragraph has so much in it: the cheeky reference to the mania for “the picturesque“, the “dig” at the English (and their preference for comfort, and, by implication, for “niceness”), and the social commentary regarding the poverty of the peasants.
Now, I know some people don’t like authors who talk to you. I understand it destroys their engagement – the fantasy that what they are reading is “real” – but I don’t feel that way. It could be argued, I think, that this style particularly suits historical fiction because it can remind us that this is someone telling us a story and that we need to think about what we are being told? Anyhow, I did start Volume 2, which opens:
Shall this be a short or a long chapter?—This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences; just as probably you may (like myself) have nothing to do with the imposing a new tax, excepting the trifling circumstance of being obliged to pay it.
However, the book is slow reading. There are so many long descriptions, and, in my Kindle version, the frequently appearing blue-links to footnotes kept distracting my eye, regardless of whether I decided to click on them or not! I just can’t love it enough, right now, to finish it.
So, I’ll leave you with Penguin’s praise that “with its vivid depiction of the wild Highland landscapes and patriotic clansmen, Waverley is a brilliant evocation of the old Scotland – a world Scott believed was swiftly disappearing in the face of a new, modern era.” Scott’s heart was in the right place. He treated his oppressed characters (peasants, for example) with respect, and he recognised that defeat was often accompanied by loss of culture. He is worth reading!
Sir Walter Scott
Waverley, Vol. 1
Penguin Classics, 2004 (Orig. pub. 1814)