Sir Walter Scott’s work is little read nowadays, yet everywhere there are reminders of his former status. In the twentieth century there was a vogue for naming streets after his works and places associated with him. I grew up on a West of Scotland council estate, in Abbotsford Drive; nearby were Kenilworth Road and Ivanhoe Drive. If you looked out of the back windows you could see Waverley Crescent. In Edinburgh, your train arrives at Waverley Station; close by are the Waverley Bridge, the Waverley Steps and Waverley Gate. Scotland still resounds with the very English name that Scott borrowed for the eponymous hero of his first prose novel.

That novel, Waverley, is two hundred years old in 2014, just the latest in a series of Scottian anniversaries; the rollicking verse epic The Lady of the Lake reached the same milestone in 2010. These early verse efforts, which also included The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, had made Scott a publishing sensation. The Lady of the Lake went viral, and single-handedly began the tourist industry around Loch Katrine and The Trossachs; it’s still invoked to pull in visitors two hundred and four years on. Scott’s later verse was less successful (who ever reads Rokeby?) and Byron was offering tough competition. So Scott switched to prose fiction.

Like many of Scott’s works, Waverley has a reputation for unreadability, yet this story of a romantically-inclined, ill-educated young English gentleman, Edward Waverley, has some familiar plot elements. Waverley finds himself in the Scottish Highlands during the 1745 Jacobite Rising and struggles to adapt to a people and a culture he simply doesn’t understand. Edward Waverley’s more recent parallels might include Captain Waggett from Whisky Galore and Calvin B Marshall from The Maggie. Or, perhaps, TV’s Doc Martin, with Cornwall substituted for Scotland.

But the novel is far richer and deeper than this caricature of its plot suggests. And in his introduction to the current Penguin edition, Ian Duncan makes the staggering assertion that ‘Waverley has a strong claim to be the most influential work in the modern history of the novel.’ This will astonish many and even offend some.

Waverley, as we’ve seen, is set in 1745; the novel’s subtitle is ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, implying an 1805 date of writing. In Scott’s introduction to the 1829 Magnum Opus edition, he claimed that the first few chapters had, in fact, been composed around 1805 but, having been found wanting, they were put away in a drawer. He only rediscovered the MS in 1813 when rummaging in the drawer for fish-hooks.

It’s a tale that is often repeated in biographies but the facts don’t stack up and it feels a bit, well, fishy, not least because of the echoes it carries of the story of Scott’s ‘discovery’ of the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s ‘crown jewels’) in 1818. The baubles had been locked away at the time of the Union in 1707, and turned out to be stored exactly where they were expected to be; but Scott made the most of their stage-managed unearthing. The fish-hooks story reads like a reworking of this.

Many scholars have tried to unravel the actual compositional timetable for Waverley and Scott’s reasons for creating the fish-hooks creation myth. I think the answer may be simple; an 1805 authorial voice enables the refrain of ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, which flows a good deal better than ‘Tis Sixty-nine Years Since.

Waverley was published anonymously, though most readers either knew the truth or could work it out; Jane Austen certainly had no doubts when she read the novel. The follow-up works – including The Antiquary, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian – were credited to ‘The Author of Waverley’ and became known as The Waverley Novels. They sold in such phenomenal numbers that they put even Scott’s verse epics in the shade. He became perhaps the world’s first media superstar.

Some commentators in more recent times have not shared this mass enthusiasm for Scott; Edwin Muir’s poem Scotland 1941 put the boot into not only Scott but Robert Burns; ‘mummied housegods in their musty niches/Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation.’ More recently, Kevin Williamson, former editor of the ground-breaking Scottish literary magazine Rebel Inc., posted on his blog;

… Sir Walter Scott was not a great Scottish patriot nor even a particularly good writer – his prose is stodge – but he was an arse-licking royalist, a falsifier of Scottish history and a Tory c*** of the worst order.

Lest he had not made his point fully, Williamson accompanied his post with a picture of himself appearing to dance on Scott’s grave. Classy. Williamson certainly has a point regarding stodgy prose, but everything else he says is either untrue or simplistic. Scott remains perhaps the most successful Scotsman who has ever lived in any field of creative activity, so perhaps there is an element of envy behind Williamson’s splutterings.

Broadcasters seem to share the contemporary distaste for Scott; they pushed the boat out for recent two hundredth anniversaries relating to Austen, Darwin and Dickens but not for Scott. At one time his works were regularly mined for swashbuckling Sunday teatime TV drama, but no longer. Oddly, given its colour, intrigue, action and romance, Waverley has never been adapted for either TV or cinema.

To understand Ian Duncan’s remarkable statement we have to strip away our preconceptions and prejudices about Scott and the Waverley Novels. We see them as old, dusty and belonging firmly to the past, yet in its time Waverley was innovative, fresh and original. Its characters inhabit a genuine and identifiable past, interact with real historical events and meet with historical figures. More, they become the means by which Scott examines what is happening in the Scotland and Britain of 1745, and its relevance to his own time.

Re-reading Waverley after a gap of around twenty-five years I could certainly understand why some find Scott difficult to get into. In his later novels, Scott used some elaborate and often frustrating narrative framing devices but in Waverley there’s just a single omniscient narrator and the entire first chapter is an orotund explanation of how the author arrived at his title. There’s a whiff of post-modernism here, a self-aware authorial voice, but it is not a chapter that gently eases readers from the iPad generation into the novel.

Subsequent chapters describe the background of the Waverley family and of Edward Waverley. These sections would give a fit of the vapours to any modern Creative Writing tutor who stresses showing over telling. Then Waverley, though a scion of an old Jacobite family, is packed off to Scotland in the service of the Hanoverian military. The narrative acquires some drive but there’s one more snare for unwary modern readers in Waverley’s Scottish host, the Baron of Bradwardine, loyal Jacobite and laird of Tully-Veolan. The Baron is a likeable, gentlemanly figure, but Scott makes his conversation pompous and verbose, loaded with legal terms, Latinisms, spurious learning and obscure points of heraldry. You quickly learn to skim-read when the Baron is speaking. He’s probably intended as a satirical pop at figures within Scott’s circle, perhaps even Scott himself, but the joke falls flat now and probably always did.

The vague and vacillating Waverley warms to the exotic people and culture of the Highlands. After he is mistakenly accused of desertion, he resigns his commission and throws in his lot with the Jacobites. At Stirling and Edinburgh, with the advancing Jacobite host, he meets Charles Edward Stuart himself.

Waverley’s desultory education has left him a hopelessly dreamy romantic, hence his beguilement with the Jacobite cause; the same accusation is often thrown at Scott, especially in the way he depicts his country’s past. But was his portrayal of the Highlands and its people really a misty anticipation of Brigadoon? Here’s how he describes the Highland Perthshire village of Tully-Veolan;

The houses seemed miserable in the extreme, especially to an eye accustomed to the smiling neatness of English cottages. They stood, without any respect for regularity, on each side of a straggling kind of unpaved street, where children, almost in a primitive state of nakedness, lay sprawling, as if to be crushed by the hoofs of the first passing horse.

Scarcely stuff to draw the tourists, and just one of many instances in the novel where Waverley’s romantic assumptions and anticipations are punctured.

In the later novels, Scott’s narration is more assured, character and scene and plot flow more naturally. In Waverley he’s still feeling his way, learning the craft of prose writing as he re-invents the Novel itself. All the same, I sometimes recommend people to start reading Scott not with a Waverley novel, but rather with The Lady of the Lake. There’s no hanging about in The Lady; just as much plot and character and incident, but much less wordy flab.

Waverley does grow into an absorbing and thought-provoking read (especially where the Baron of Bradwardine is off the page) for those who persevere and it becomes possible to understand why it matters. Throughout the novel, the phrase ‘sixty years since’ reappears, echoing the subtitle, and highlighting the differences in Scotland and the UK between 1745 and 1805 (or 1814). In 1745 there is rebellion and discord, nations and communities and families are divided, manners and mores are rougher and simpler, life is harder and shorter.

Scott’s narrator represents enlightenment advance and progress, but for Scott the novel is also a warning. In 1814, the Napoleon problem is fresh in the memory (and about to re-emerge) while at home there is agitation by radicals and working-class demands for justice. Scott was an old-fashioned Tory who had little time for radical thinking or social justice. If there is no vigilance, the novel suggests, the present settlement may crumble; capitulate to the lower orders, and the country could descend into the chaos of sixty (-nine) years since.

Even today’s most conservative reader would reject Scott’s feudal worldview, but this mustn’t detract from his literary achievement. Scott used fiction to interrogate the process of historical change and interpret tumultuous events and attempted to portray a nation – two nations – at a painful time when old things are passing away. Scott’s prose may hang heavy on the page, lacking the sparkle and wit and style of his contemporary Jane Austen, yet he is harnessing fiction to address matters much weightier than whether some single women can find husbands.

In Waverley and other works, Scott’s vivid and intelligent portrayal of Scottish history and character helped to preserve a distinct Scottish identity at a time when it was in danger of extinction. Scott’s role in the creation of modern tartan kitsch is often condemned; yet there can only be tartan kitsch in a nation that still has some sense of itself, however distorted. Scott helped that sense to survive; he made it cool, if you like, to be Scottish again, albeit within the Union – with preferably no shouting from the working classes at the back, there. More importantly, he had taken the novel into new territory; through fiction it was now possible to investigate history and analyse political change and chance. In Chapter Five, Scott’s narrator apologises to the reader;

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.

Yet it was that focus that was new and, at the time, exciting. We may reject Scott’s Tory view of cultural and historical change, but we must respect the breadth of his historical and artistic vision, and the cultural impact of his work. And nothing had more impact than Waverley.

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