Friday, September 26, 2014

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Important and influential, but antiquated and tedious
Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley is often regarded as the first historical novel in western literature, at least in our modern sense of the term. When it was published in 1814, it became the first blockbuster bestseller in the English language. Scott published the book anonymously and went on to publish a whole series of historical novels “by the author of Waverley,” before finally revealing his identity. Though undoubtedly an extremely influential work, Waverley is unlikely to inspire in today’s reader the same enthusiasm that it generated in those readers of two centuries ago.

The story takes place during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, when Scottish Highlanders tried to restore the Stuart family, in the form of “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” to the throne of England, which at that time was in the hands of George I of the House of Hanover. Edward Waverley is a young man from southern England. His father works for the government of Hanover, while his uncle and benefactor, a wealthy Baron, sympathizes with the Stuart cause. Edward’s upbringing is far from strict, and he develops a propensity for idle daydreaming. When he reaches manhood, his family decides that the best course of action for a young man seeking direction in life is to join the military. Edward dutifully acquiesces, but soon takes an extended leave of absence from his regiment to visit a friend of his uncle’s, Baron Bradwardine, in Scotland. When some of the Baron’s cattle are stolen by highlanders, Edward goes on a mission to recover them. In doing so, he makes the acquaintance of some highland clansman, is introduced into their customs, and begins to sympathize with their ideas of rebellion.

This book is perfect for a movie adaptation or a Classics Illustrated comic book because there’s only about two or three sentences of plot in each chapter. The rest is all decorative window dressing, historical context, snippets of poetry, and tangential asides. Scott interrupts the narrative often to directly address the reader, a convention that was all the rage 200 years ago but is apt to inspire groans and eyerolls from the 21st-century reader. To be fair, there are some engaging and entertaining moments in the book’s second half, but you have to plod through a whole lot of unnecessary digression to get there. Back in Scott’s day, fiction was generally considered to be fare for intellectual wimps, which is perhaps why he felt the need to cram the book with so much historical detail, poetic verse, and folklore. By doing so, he made great strides in legitimizing the novel, raising it to a level of highbrow prestige previously reserved for poetry and philosophy.

Waverley is one of the most important books in the history of the novel. Its influence can be felt in almost any novel that’s been written since. This is most apparent, of course, in the historical fiction and adventure genres, beginning with writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, and continuing to this day. Even literary realism, so antithetical to Scott’s Romanticism, could not have existed without the foundation he built. The problem with Waverley is that most readers of today will find the pupils’ writings far more enjoyable than those of the master. Scott’s writing makes even Cooper look hip and now. Scott himself went on to write much better books. Waverley isn’t in the same league as his classic Ivanhoe, though it’s better written and less boring than his other well-known novel of the Scottish highlands, Rob Roy. The western literary tradition owes a huge debt to Scott. At times, while slogging through the most tedious portions of Waverley, it feels like you’re doing exactly that—paying a debt.

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