Saturday, February 28, 2015

I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible - Waverley's strange fate

What I do not want to do is write about why no one reads Walter Scott anymore, how Scott dropped from World’s Greatest Novelist to whatever he is now.  Previously Important Writer.  My first serious encounter with Scott, before I had read any of his books, was in Irving Howe’s 1992 essay “Falling Out of the Canon: The Strange Fate of Walter Scott,” and I have never been able to separate Scott’s novels from his Strange Fate, a problem that only grew stranger when I finally read the novels and discovered that many of them are indeed good – ingenious, complex, ethically meaningful, and well-written.  He has pacing problems when compared to the novels of today, but what fool measures literature by the novels of today?  The same fools who insist that history is boring.  For them, Scott must read like gibberish.

Young, unformed, “romantic” Edward Waverley is an English officer stationed in Scotland who goes on a little tour, encountering Scottish drinking customs and Highland bandits and similar exotic adventures.  The novel is a bit picaresque at the beginning, something of a fictionalized travel book.  A reader might wonder if Waverley will penetrate further into the Highlands, ending the novel in the Outer Hebrides or someplace like that.  A reader, I mean, who was not paying attention to the time of the novel or does not understand its significance, the reader who does not know that Waverley is stumbling into the 1745 Jacobite uprising and into the side that will get him hanged for treason.

What looks like a problem with the pacing can actually be a great source of narrative tension.  By the time Bonnie Prince Charlie lands in Scotland and gathers the Clans to his side for one last grab at the crown of England, Scott has set up a serious problem for Waverley.

It was at that instant, that, looking around him, he saw the wild dress and appearance of his Highland associates, heard their whispers in an uncouth and unknown language, looked upon his own dress, so unlike that which he had worn from his infancy, and wished to awake from what seemed at the moment a dream, strange, horrible, and unnatural. ‘Good God!’ he muttered, ‘am I then a traitor to my country, a renegade to my standard, and a foe, as that poor dying wretch expressed himself, to my native England!’  (Ch. 46)

The Romantic adventure has turned into something with high stakes.  Almost three hundred pages earlier, while wandering through stuff about Waverley’s ancestry, childhood, and education, Scott wonders if “the reader may perhaps anticipate, in the following tale, an imitation of the romance of Cervantes” (Ch. 5).  In a sense, Waverley is such an imitation, but one in which the sheep suddenly become a real army and Don Quixote a real knight.

I must link to Rohan Maitzen’s post about teaching Waverley to (good) undergraduates, the problems she has encountered and some of the successes she has had overcoming their resistance to this book. She reminds me that even Scott did not envision readers who were reading quite right:

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probable, without it.  (Ch. 5)

Well, there are different kinds of amusement.  Scott has become an increasingly difficult pleasure.


  1. " ingenious, complex, ethically meaningful, and well-written. "

    And funny, very funny. I love how Waverley doesn't so much stumble into treason as decide to after everyone already thinks he's a traitor.

    The downside of the fun he pokes at his protags is that they can seem too stupid/useless to live.

    1. Yes, it's a hilarious book, isn't it? For one thing, Waverley spends half his most potentially heroic moments falling down, hiding under tables, unconscious, or saving people supposedly on the 'other side.'

    2. Yes! And the bit where Fergus tries to get Waverley to marry Flora is hilarious as well, in a way that comes completely naturally out of their characterizations to that point.

      Thirding the love for Fergus and Evan Dhu's trial scene.

    3. The first time I read the novel I assumed that it would cover the Battle of Culloden. But no, Waverley has, characteristically, been knocked out of action by that point.

  2. There's a quote somewhere from Scott explaining the purpose of his having comparatively inactive, outsider-to-the-area protagonists who need everything explained to them (to allow for exposition to the reader), but unfortunately I can't find it.

  3. The stakes do get high, and one of the brilliant things about the book is that Scott (while insisting that the [already fufilled] future is the only reasonable option, meaning moving away from feudalism to the modern nation-state etc.) shows us what is lost in the process. I think the scenes of Evan Dhu and Fergus on trial are extraordinary. At that point they threat they embody is contained so the ideals they represent can be safely contemplated and mourned. Fergus going to his death is a genuine hero -- but it's Waverley's lack of heroism that will define the kind of world that's more stable, if less poetic. Great stuff. Amazing, really.

    But will I assign it again next year, when I teach that class again? I feel exhausted at the thought of going through all that again...

  4. A funny book, a funny writer, I agree. Not quite Austen, but not too far off, either. I'll pick out a couple of little examples in my next post.

    The outsider protagonist is probably a necessary device for a story like this one or Old Mortality where Scott wants to portray a movement or side he opposes with clarity. John Galt's Ringan Gilhaize, written as an argument against OM, is narrated by an intensely "inside" character, and although the novel is brilliant it is in places quite hard to understand.

    The trial scene is great. Scott makes the argument explicit in Redgauntlet - now the glory, the heroism, lies in giving up the cause.

    Rohan, I am convinced that reading Scott well now requires some effort. In a class, you have a budget for effort, the students' and your own. Waverley is costly.

    1. Funny, yes. I'm reading Guy Mannering, and it's sure a curious thing, but it's also hi-sterical.