Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol. 1 (#BookReview)

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 book cover

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.

Haha, eh?

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)
ISBN: 978-0140430714

40 thoughts on “Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol. 1 (#BookReview)

  1. I wish I’d read along now, I probably had time. You can see why he was so popular, he’s such a friendly and amusing author to spend time with, apart from being a cracking story teller. I think also you can see, despite his protestations, that there was a general move at the time away from Knights and castles towards more realistic portrayals – though I love that he enjoys Austen despite her protagonists being only middle class.

    • Thanks Bill … yes, I can see why he was so popular – I loved his humour, even if most in my group didn’t. And yes, it’s shows an openness of mind (that Charlotte Bronte didn’t have) to see what Austen had to offer.

  2. Oh, that tragic, tragic time .. sweet william or stinking billy, Culloden was the culmintation of so many years of wanting freedom.
    As for the review: as delightful as always, and as honest. Thank all the gods you don’t take against writers who speak to their readers !

  3. Oh dear, this has been on my TBR for a long time… I have a nice little hardback copy that I must have found in a second-hand bookshop…
    It is quite small, maybe it’s not the whole thing, just Vol 1…

    • My copy is prayer book size and on prayer book paper too probably, 574pp less than 2cm thick. I can’t see where WG’s Part 1 ends – halfway is about Chapt XXVIII.

      • In my edition, Volume 1 ends at Chapter 23, and then Volume 2 starts with Chapter 1. It is, I understand, the original 1814 ed. not the one produced later with some changes I understand. I haven’t got it next to me – but I think each volume is 20-23 chapters

        • Mine is 1829. Scott says he has take the opportunity to “make some emendations”. It’s a big book for 2 volumes, P&P was 3. I wonder if Waverley was originally 4.

        • Yes, that’s the date I thought I remembered the Introduction to my edition saying there’s wasn’t! Mine (I’ve gone and got it now) is based on the Edinburgh editions, which published the “corrected” first editions! They explain in detail the process at the time – and how some errors got in. So these Edinburgh editions correct the errors “conservatively bearing in mind that the production of the printed text was a collective effort to which Scott had given his sanction”. From 1827 on, Scott wrote introductions and notes. and reviewed his text for his “Magnum Opus”. By this time he had acknowledged his authorship. The Magnum editions formed the basis for publication, until EEWN (The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels) people chose the first edition as the base-text. My edition is quite scholarly, with additional notes from manuscripts and proof sheets showing in more detail Scott’s intentions and thoughts. I haven’t read them all!

      • That’s a nice way of putting it, ‘prayer-book size’. I recently reviewed a book that size, and I wanted to convey that and ended up lamely giving its dimensions because I couldn’t think of anything better.
        I could dig it out to have a look, but you know what my shelves are like: the S shelf is not only double-shelved, but in front of it are stacks of Ns and Os and two stacks of African books. So Waverley will have to stay where it is for a while. (#DeludedPromise: I’m going to tackle the Ns soon, because there’s only 7 of them and none of them are chunksters.)

  4. I have not read Scott but I think that I want to read this some day. In some ways it sounds like Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I tend to like it when authors address the reader directly. It is something that Anthony Trollope does to good effect.

  5. Your post has encouraged me to read Waverley, especially as I’ve been thinking recently about reading more of Scott’s books after I visited Abbotsfield a few days ago. I’ve only read Ivanhoe (years ago) which I did enjoy. I had thought it might be a bit dry, but I found plenty of humour in it, even with the long, complicated sentences, and detailed descriptions.

    • A few days ago, Margaret! How exciting. I haven’t been to Scotland, but if I did Abbotsford would be on the priority list. My mother loved Ivanhoe when she was young, but I’d only read Old mortality before. I think the humour saves him, doesn’t it.

  6. Scott’s writing is incredibly dense, I think his motto must have been – why write one word when I can write twenty – but you get used to his wordiness, well I do. I visited Abbotsford quite recently as it’s not that far from where I live, it’s well worth a visit.

  7. I enjoyed Waverley and if at an airport bookstore before a long flight might well get another of the novels, say The Master of Stair. Scott does seem to me to be something of a boy’s writer: writing for the boy of ten or twelve who can imagine wielding the broadsword or claymore, rescuing Rebecca and Rowena from kidnapping or Diana Vernon from a convent; and without much personal knowledge of the other sex to use in evaluating the women in.novels.

    • I can completely understand your enjoying Waverley, George. And I really think that one of the things that made it hard for me were all those blue hotlinks to the footnotes (which were very interesting actually). My getting-on-in-years practice is to read non-Aus books in e-versions and Aus books in print, but I think in this case the print version would have been better.

      Love your description of Scot’s ideal reader, though I should say that my mother, and another member of my Jane Austen group both loved Ivanhoe in their youth!

      • My stepmother greatly enjoyed Ivanhoe when young. (And maybe later–I’m not sure she re-read it.) And I do enjoy Scott, but bring judgment to the reading that I would not have brought once.

        I believe that my copy of Waverley is in a Penguin edition, with the notes at the back. That is not a bad arrangement, for one then looks for the note only when baffled. Hyperlinks make it easy to go chasing after bits of perhaps informative, certainly inessential, information.

        • The hyperlinks are what I’ve always thought to be a major advantage of eBooks, but there are just too many on some pages here. Too much to explain to we 21st century-ites!

  8. Sue…this is my new reading motto:
    Just remember, when you should grab something,
    grab it;
    when you should let go,
    let go.”
    — Taoist proverb


      • As we speak….reading a collection 32 short stories…so far
        Fancies and Goodnights (32 short stories) – John Collier

        Bottle Party – reviewed — good
        De Mortuis – good 10 min reading time
        Evening Primrose – …confusing not good – 18 min
        Witch’s Money – awful – 12 min
        The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It – awful – 8 min
        Three Bears Cottage – awful – 5 min
        Wet Sunday – awful – 10 min
        Squirrels Have Bright Eyes – awful – 10 min
        …time to pull the plug on this one!

  9. I suppose that Scott is doomed to be one of the great unread both because he is too slow moving, even ponderous, for modern readers and because he is very much the great novelist of British unionism which, as a cause, is buckling under both English and Scottish nationalisms.

    I can recommend Old Mortality and Scott is probably at his best when examining this period of Scottish history and the religious fanaticism of the late 17th century covenanters and their opponents.

    • I think unionism is buckling in many places, Ian. It’s a worry because in the UK and here it’s done so much good for workers hasn’t it. I hadn’t thought the nationalism was the cause here, but we don’t have your particular issue do we?

      Thanks for your comments on Old Mortality. I wish I could remember more about it.

      • I am uneasy about what is ripping us apart (Brexit of course). I never felt much sympathy for Scottish nationalism but the wave of English nationalism is making me a reluctant separatist… In this situation Scott finds it harder than ever to have a hearing that his importance in Scottish history and history merits.

        • I’m sorry to hear this Ian. Philosophically, like you probably, I don’t like separatism. I think we should be trying to get on better rather than move apart, and I find the increasing nationalism everywhere sad and disturbing. But, I understand that practically, it might be the only answer.

          I love your point about the relevance of Scott to all this.

        • With Johnson’s coup yesterday I am no longer a reluctant separatist. Scotland must become independent. Waverley was the Scottish novel that attempted to reconcile the country to being an integral path of the British state (with all the collusion in Imperialism that involved). That’s over as England seems to want to wallow in a ghastly nostalgia for empire and Enid Blyton…

        • I understand completely, Ian. What more can one say on the face of such – well, I can’t even find the words to describe the things some of our leaders and politicians are saying and doing now. They defy all sense of reason.

  10. I have a new-ish publication of this a special edition (ie pretty cover) Vintage I think. One of those all in together editions with super small font and tight line spacing. Everything you’ve said about this book so far, makes me think it’s the Moby-Dick of Scottish fiction…and so far I’m loving my time with Melville and Ishmael…but it does take time & I’m glad I’ve planned a slow and steady schedule. Sounds like I will have to do the same with Waverley, when its turn comes around.

    • Interesting you say this, Brona, because my JA group thought we should have chosen a Scott – probably Waverley – and done one of our slow reads. We have done that with most of the Austens over the years. I’d love to try Scott like that.

  11. Pingback: Waverley, Walter Scott | theaustralianlegend

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