Friday, February 27, 2015

Are we in the land of romance and fiction?

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.”


  1. I keep thinking that I want to read Scott, but my golly he doesn't make it easy for me.

  2. Where do you rank Ivanhoe in your list? Even though it's less "real", I find it a lot better paced with more intertwining of subplots than Waverley-- not surprising, since Waverley is a first novel.

    If there's duplicates of this comment under a diff name, sorry, unfamiliar computer problems.

  3. You do want to read Scott! But skip to The Heart of Midlothian. Or - this I owe to Rohan Maitzen - try "The Two Drovers," which is short (10,000 words), contains a lot of what is best in Scott, and is almost a proto-murder mystery.

    1. I will; I keep thinking that I am supposed to start with Waverley but apparently that is a silly notion. I actually have an old Heart of Midlothian that belonged to my great-grandmother. And The Two Drovers sounds fun!

      I have read Ivanhoe. It's the Waverleys I have trouble with.

    2. Oh right - they're not a series, not at all.

  4. The 6 I've read are: Waverley (1814), The Antiquary (1816), Old Mortality (1816), Heart of Midlothian (1818), Bride of Lammermoor (1819), Ivanhoe (1819), and Redgauntlet (1824).

    Of these, The Antiquary is last, Ivanhoe sixth, and Bride the hardest to rank, because it is an odd novel.

    Ivanhoe is better paced than Waverley, yes, and features Robin Hood - hard to argue with the appeal of that.

  5. The next book I start will be Guy Mannering. I've had a copy in the house since sometime in 2013.

    I enjoy those novels where the author says to the reader, "I'm writing a novel, you see, so I must make certain concessions to the form. Allow me to enumerate them here..." Great stuff, often enough. In the introduction to Ethan Frome, Wharton talks about how she's lifted the general structure from The Ring and the Book, but she's still doing something new, dear reader, so hang on. Though it's not like she was writing Tristram Shandy, and there's not a drop of humor in her introduction. Say, I'm rambling, amn't I?

  6. I am more eager to read about Guy Mannering than to read it myself, but I have mentally penciled in Old Mortality for next year - more bicentennial reading, why not?

    I suppose many readers, to the extent that there are many, take Scott's meta-fiction as filler or throat-clearing, but no, he is serious, even if his seriousness takes the form of jokes. What is this thing I am writing? That's a good question.

    Rambling is appropriate here. It is what I did; it is what Scott did. Rambling comments are simply working with the given form.

    1. Hopefully Guy Mannering will give me something to write about. You've probably read Ethan Frome (I seem to be pretty late to that party) and already know that no matter what Wharton says, it ain't no The Ring and the Book. That will be, I think, my only public critical remark about Ethan Frome. Ta for letting me make it on your blog.

  7. I started but then gave up Ivanhoe. Initially liked it a lot and the opening scenes were quite funny in an almost-Shakespearean way of dialogue between two minor characters.

    I read that Balzac also loved Scott and I think you can see it in The Chouans.

  8. In a way, the story is worse - Ethan Frome is the only Wharton I have ever read. What a distorted idea of her I must have. "Ahhh, look out for that-----!"

    Guy, the entire idea of the Human Comedy is inspired by Scott. Balzac realized that it would be exciting to do for France now what Scott did for Scotland then. So to speak. No coincidence that The Chouans, the first novel Balzac put his name on, is so clearly a Scott homage.

    Of course almost every major 19th century novelist had to try out a historical novel, but Balzac understood Scott quite deeply.

  9. So Bride is unranked and an odd novel? I would love to hear more. As it is the only Scott novel I remember reading that leaves me a bit outside your system.

  10. Bride is fifth! But mostly because I do not know what to do with it, so it goes behind the four novels I think I understand better. It's structure is strange, the mix of fairy tale and realism is strange, the pacing is strange. The Donizetti opera only covers 10% of the novel!

    "Strange" is good, but also confusing.

  11. My favorite book by Scott is his strange Letters On Demonology And Witchcraft. Part Justified Sinner, part Ricardo Palma's Chronicles of the Inquisition in Lime with sprinkles of Charles Nodier's Infernaliana. A greatly entertaining, antiquarian book. It includes real pathos in some of its stories about the sad fate of witches.

    "The intervention of [familiar spirit]Thome Reid as a partner in her trade of petty sorcery did not avail poor Bessie Dunlop, although his affection to her was apparently entirely platonic--the greatest familiarity on which he ventured was taking hold of her gown as he pressed her to go with him to Elfland. Neither did it avail her that the petty sorcery which she practised was directed to venial or even beneficial purposes. The sad words on the margin of the record, "Convict and burnt," sufficiently express the tragic conclusion of a curious tale."

  12. Wow. If we were DJs, I would call that a deep cut. Yes, that is genuinely pathetic.

    Scott must have paid off that giant debt at this point. This book cannot have been a commercial venture? Rather the work of a great amateur turned professional.