Yes we are! We are in Walter Scott’s Waverley; or ‘tis Sixty Years Since (1814), the novel that launched a craze for historical fiction that persists today. I had meant to read the novel for its bicentennial, but blah blah etcetera and here I am.
This year’s 200th birthday party is for Guy Mannering, which I have not read but is probably pretty good since it is about smugglers.
I have read seven Scott novels and rank Waverley third, for whatever that is worth, with Old Mortality (1816) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818) as its betters.
Waverley is good, though. The characters are not exactly real, but they are original; the weight of events feels significant; the meta-fiction is amusing. Or deadly, as it seems to be for many (non-)readers. Scott has written a heroic adventure novel that is not just in places pedantic but actually about pedantry, which is a good if patience-testing trick. Two novels later, with The Antiquary, he would toss out the adventure in order to focus more on the pedantry.
Waverley is about 500 pages long, and it takes 200 pages for Scott to put in place some elements that begin to look like a conventional story, and then another 50 pages for that story to lurch into motion, after which it cooks along pretty well. Kidnappings, battles, chases, lots of narrative tension for the young protagonist as the central question moves from Who will he marry? to How will he not be hanged by the neck for treason? The land of romance and fiction begins to seem pretty substantial.
Re-reading the book reminded me that Scott is as curious about how fiction works as was Henry Fielding before him, or Thackeray and Trollope after. The short first chapter is entirely about the title and genre of the book. Is it a Gothic novel, for example, with
a castle… of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited, and the keys, either lost, or consigned to the case of some aged butler or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts? Would the owl have shrieked and the cricket cried in my very title-page?
But no, it is not a Gothic novel, nor one of three more genres covered in the same paragraph. The first paragraph of the book, I want to emphasize. Scott is doing his (non-)readers a service – if the owl sounds more appealing, bail out now. What Scott has done, he claims, is to write “from the great book of Nature, the same through a thousand editions, whether of black-letter, or wire-wove and hot-pressed.” All of his fuss about fictionality is in the service of Truth.
Readers of Jane Austen – Mansfield Park is an exact contemporary – may wonder why he thinks he needs all this, but that has been a perpetual question.
The title quotation is in Chapter 27, “Upon the Same Subject.”