BORN: 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland
DIED: 1832, Abbotsford, Scotland
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
The Lady of the Lake (1810)
Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814)
Sir Walter Scott. Scott, Sir Walter, photograph. AP images.
Modern scholars consider Scottish author Sir Walter Scott both the inventor of the historical novel and the first best-selling novelist. In addition to elevating the novel to a status equal to that of poetry, Scott single-handedly created the genre of historical fiction, vividly bringing to life both Scottish and English history.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Illness. Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 15, 1771, into a prosperous middle-class family. His father, also named Walter, was a lawyer with strong ties to the Scottish Border country, the area on the border of Scotland and England. His mother was Anne Rutherford Scott, daughter of a professor of medicine.
When he was eighteen months old, Scott contracted polio (an infectious virus that can cause paralysis in the arms and legs due to lesions to the central nervous system), which left his right leg permanently crippled. Despite his illness, Scott was an active child, and his parents often sent him to the countryside to stay with his paternal grandfather, hoping the fresh air and country living would improve Scott’s health. Interested in Scottish history and literature during his childhood, Scott also developed an appreciation for the natural scenery that became such a defining characteristic of his writing.
Embraced Scottish Culture. Scott enrolled in Edinburgh High School in 1778, and five years later entered Edinburgh University, where he studied history and law. In 1786, he was apprenticed to his father’s legal firm and became a lawyer in 1792. During his apprenticeship, Scott traveled a good deal in the Scottish Border country and Highlands, gathering folk ballads and enjoying the oral tradition of simple farmers and shepherds.
In 1797, Scott married Charlotte Carpenter, with whom he had two daughters and two sons. Scott read widely in politics and history, and soon he was composing his own versions of traditional oral ballads. In 1798 he was appointed sheriff of Selkirkshire, Scotland, in the Border country. Shortly thereafter, the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland was passed. Thus, in 1800, the United Kingdom, which included Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland, formally came into being. Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, was ruled by King George III of the House of Hanover at this time.
Poetic Success. In Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), his first publication, Scott’s interests as a poet, an antiquarian, and a Scottish cultural nationalist came together for the first time. This work contained the Scottish ballads he had collected over the years, many of which had never before appeared in print. Encouraged both by praise from friends and by the popularity of this collection, Scott wrote the highly successful narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), a work Scott intended to illustrate the customs and manners of inhabitants on both sides of the Scottish-English border during medieval times.
Around this time, Scott quit practicing law full time and entered into a longtime relationship with the printer James Ballantyne, purchasing a third share in the business that would publish many of his works throughout the years. Scott followed the success of The Lay of the Last Minstrel with a series of highly popular poems featuring Scottish backgrounds and themes. Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), for example, tells of a famous—and disastrous—Scottish battle against the English. In 1810, Scott published his best-known long poem, The Lady of the Lake, set in the Scottish Highlands.
The Waverly Novels. The triumph of the first two cantos of Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold in 1812 convinced Scott that he could not compete with the younger poet. By the time Scott’s next work, Rokeby, appeared in 1813, readers were beginning to lose interest in his poetry. Anxious to keep his audience and income, Scott decided to revise and complete a fragment of a novel that he had begun ten years before about the Jacobite revolution in Scotland, an attempt to restore the old Stuart line to the Scottish and English thrones. Published in 1814, Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear, and the novel brought huge profits to Scott and his publisher.
Over the next seventeen years, Scott wrote more than two dozen novels and stories in a series now known as the Waverly Novels. Because he never worked out his plots ahead of time, rarely revised his manuscripts, and followed strict work habits, Scott was able to maintain an impressively prolific pace. Through the speech, manners, and customs of past ages, most of the Waverly Novels describe the lives of ordinary individuals who become involved in historical events. This body of work is often divided into three groups: the ‘‘Scotch Novels,’’ including Old Mortality (1816), which deal with Scottish culture and history; the novels that focus on medieval history in England and Europe, such as Ivanhoe (1820); and those that are concerned with the Tudor-Stuart era in England, including Woodstock (1826).
Because writing novels was considered less respectable than writing poetry during this time, Scott published the Waverly Novels anonymously. Even when the success of this series increased general public appreciation for novelists, Scott chose to remain anonymous—most likely a result of his perception that the mystery surrounding the novels contributed to their sales. The Waverly Novels were published as ‘‘by the Author of Waverly,’ and the author was often referred to simply as the Great Unknown. Although the Waverly Novels were published anonymously, many readers and critics alike knew Scott's identity, and he became not only the most popular writer in contemporary English literature, but also a highly esteemed personality throughout Europe. In 1818, Scott was made a baronet and thereafter was known as Sir Walter Scott.
Personal Tragedies. In 1826, a dual tragedy struck. His wife, Charlotte, died in May of that year, followed by Scott's financial ruin when the Ballantyne printing company went bankrupt. His debt was well over one hundred thousand pounds, an enormous sum. The following year, so that he could begin putting his affairs in order, Scott publicly acknowledged authorship of the Waverley Novels and turned with renewed urgency to his writing. Eventually, the debt was paid, but at a terrible cost to the author’s health. Despite suffering a stroke in 1830, Scott continued to write and travel. Everywhere he traveled, he was received as a celebrity, one of the first authors to enjoy international fame. During his travels, however, he was forced to return home after another stroke, and he died on September 21, 1832.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Scott's famous contemporaries include:
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): The French military commander and self-appointed emperor conquered much of Europe until he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.
Robert Burns (1759-1796): Regarded as the ''national poet of Scotland,'' Burns wrote extensively in the Scottish vernacular. His poems include ''Auld Lang Syne'' (1788), traditionally sung on New Year's.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824): An English Romantic poet who was known for his scandalous life and who died while fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. His poems include Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (c. 1812).
William Clark (1770-1831): An American explorer, he was coleader of the Lewis and Clark expedition through unexplored overland territory to the Pacific coast.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): An Austrian composer who wrote symphonies and chamber music. His works include The String Quartet in D Minor (1926).
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Although deaf for much of his life, this German composer and musician was one of the world's greatest classical composers. The Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1824) is among his best known works.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850): One of the Lake Poets, this English Romantic poet was poet laureate of England from 1843 until his death in 1850. Among his best-known poems is The Prelude (1850).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Scott essentially invented the genre of historical fiction, a genre that still flourishes today. Here are some more recent works of historical fiction:
Gudrun's Tapestry (2003), a novel by Joan Schweighardt. Set in the fifth century, this story vividly brings to life Attila the Hun and an ancient Norse saga.
I, Mona Lisa (2006), a novel by Jeanne Kalogridis. The author creates the life of a young woman in fifteenth-century Florence, Italy, who is the model for Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting.
Joshua's Bible (2003), a novel by Shelly Leanne. This novel follows a young African American man in the 1930s who goes to South Africa as a missionary and confronts the early days of apartheid.
Night of Flames (2007), a novel by Douglas W. Jacobson. In this novel, a married couple is separated while fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2006), a novel by Lisa See. This novel, set in nineteenth-century China, examines women's roles in rural China.
The Sugar Cane Curtain (2000), a novel by Zilia L. Laje. This novel explores the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba.
Works in Literary Context
Influenced by History. Scott’s reading of the workds of Edmund Spenser and Torquato Tasso and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) did much to shape his later poetry, as did his many expeditions to the countryside, where he spent time collecting ballads, local legends, and folklore. Scott was greatly influenced by the history and life of people who lived in his native Scotland.
Novel Incorporations. Scott worked a number of ballads, songs, and other lyrics into his novels. Gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis had revived the convention of interspersing lyric poems in prose narratives that was characteristic of earlier English romances such as Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, 1593) and Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590). Scott used this device to much greater effect than his Gothic predecessors did. His early mastery of song and ballad forms enabled him to establish atmosphere and character, and his use of lyrics to comment on or foreshadow the action of the novels is often quite subtle and effective.
Influence. Twentieth-century critics have emphasized Scott’s important role in English literary history, as well as his considerable impact on nineteenth-century European literature. Literary historians have traced his influence on the masterpieces of novelists as diverse as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Scholars have also explored Scott’s significant contribution—through his invention and development of the historical novel—to the history of ideas, specifically with respect to the modern concept of historical perspective.
Works in Critical Context
Influence on Historical Perspective. The novelty of Scott’s writing style, as well as his compelling subject matter, captivated his early audience. Most early reviewers of his poetry and novels noted the superiority of his works, citing their originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters. Throughout the nineteenth century, Scott’s reputation among readers and critics alike had progressively declined to the point that by the turn of the century, many conceded that Scott was no longer a major literary figure. Many contemporary critics observed such flaws as careless plotting, prolixity, and bad grammar, especially in his shorter fiction, but the critical tide turned in the mid-twentieth century. Modern scholars have acknowledged Scott’s seminal influence on the development of the European novel genre, particularly with regard to historical perspective and the realization of the effects of social change on the lives of ordinary people.
Waverly; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since. The first in the Waverly Novels series, Waverley (1814), proved a popular sensation when first published and quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear. Contemporary critical reaction, though also positive, did cite certain deficiencies in the work, including careless construction and prolixity. Yet most early reviewers quickly acknowledged the strengths of the novel, noting its originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters.
Like most of Scott’s novels, Waverley has fallen out of favor, although it continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the view of history it offers. In the late 1960s, Robert C. Gordon wrote in Under Which King? A Study of the Scottish Waverly Novels, “Waverly, then is one of the most distinguished innovations in literary history. It is also a splendid work in its own right. Scott found his solution to the problems of dealing with Jacobitism in the story of an immature, vain yet fundamentally proper young hero who becomes a warrior.’’
Other studies have been greatly influenced by the criticism of Georg Lukacs in The Historical Novel. In this work, Lukacs examined Scott as a dialectical historian, claiming that he ‘‘endeavors to portray the struggles and antagonisms of history by means of characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.’’ Numerous critics have taken up Lukacs’s idea and applied this thinking to Edward Waverley as he represents a significant moment of cultural transition in Scottish and English history.
Responses to Literature
1. In an essay, address the following questions: Do you think that novels are worth reading even if they are not considered ‘‘great literature’’? When you read something, do you think about how well it is written, or do you simply enjoy the story? Who should define what ‘‘good’’ literature and music are—the critics or ordinary people? Why?
2. Since 1999, Scotland has had its own governing body, although it is still part of Great Britain. There is a movement toward Scotland’s breaking its union with England and establishing complete independence. Research the independence movement and write an essay that analyzes the pros and cons of Scottish independence.
3. Historical novels and movies can make history come alive in a way that textbooks often cannot. Choose a period or movement that you have studied in school, and find a novel or movie about it. Read the novel or watch the movie and write a short essay analyzing it. Did it engage you or make you think differently? Did it contain historical inaccuracies in order to enhance dramatic effect?
4. Research the history of the state you live in. When was it established, and what were the conflicts in its early days? Do any of those conflicts continue today? Choose one event from your state’s history, and write a short story patterned after the historical fiction of Scott. Develop your characters in such a way that captures the language, clothing, and settings of the past.
Brown, David. Walter Scott and the Historical Imagination. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
Chandler, Alice. A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
Devlin, D. D. The Author of Waverley: A Critical Study of Walter Scott. London: Macmillan, 1971.
Hart, Francis R Scott’s Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1966.
Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Kerr, James. Fiction Against History: Scott as Storyteller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Narrative Art. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
Shaw, Harry E. The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Smith, D. Nichol. ‘‘The Poetry of Sir Walter Scott.’’ University of Edinburgh Journal 15 (1951): 63-80.
Edinburgh University Library. The Walter Scott Digital Archive. Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk.