Allan Massie: We are the heirs of Scott’s Waverley

Walter Scott's novel Waverley is 200 years old this year. Picture: John Devlin
Walter Scott's novel Waverley is 200 years old this year. Picture: John Devlin
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SOON after Sir Walter Scott’s debut novel was published, 200 years ago, it became a worldwide classic. Allan Massie explains why it is so important for Scots to read – or re-read it – as the referendum nears

A novel, Waverley, Or ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, was published 200 years ago this week, with no author’s name on the title-page, and met with huge, unprecedented success. Though it was years before Walter Scott, already famous as a poet, acknowledged his authorship, few who knew him had any doubt that he was indeed the author. Within a couple of years, Jane Austen in Hampshire, was complaining, humorously, that really Walter Scott shouldn’t be allowed to write novels; he had fame enough without trading on, as it were, her territory.

Scott was not the first great Scottish novelist. That title should go to Tobias Smollett, greatly admired by George Orwell, who wondered why we Scots made so little of him. Nevertheless Waverley may be fairly considered the first great Scottish novel. It has a Scottish theme, though the hero – a decidedly unheroic hero – Waverley himself is a young Englishman, and the theme, the Jacobite Rising of 1745, has been a staple of Scottish song and romance. Everybody has heard of “Bonnie Prince Charlie”.

Scott had Jacobite sympathies, or a tenderness for the Old Cause. Nobody was ever better equipped to write the Jacobite novel that told the dramatic and moving story from the moment the Prince arrived with a mere handful of followers to raise his standard at Glenfinnan to the closing tragedy of Culloden, and the perilous flight through the heather. This is what you might expect. It is not what you get. All these episodes are missing and the first chapters of the novel tell of the upbringing and education of young Edward Waverley in the south of England. He is reared in the household of an uncle who had himself taken part in the 1715 Jacobite Rising, but whose attachment to the cause is now merely sentimental, and when young Waverley comes north to Scotland it is as an officer in King George’s army.

These opening chapters are slow. Some readers may get stuck in them. Scott is feeling his way into his story and doing so in the manner of his 18th century predecessors, notably the English novelist, Henry Fielding. The leisurely pace, which has its own charm, is necessary. In one sense, the novel is about the education of Edward Waverley – and indeed, by extension, of the reader. Waverley will in the course of the novel shed illusions and come to see things as they are.

Once in Scotland, the pace quickens. There is comedy when he stays with his uncle’s old friend, the Jacobite laird of Tully-Veolan, Baron Bradwardine. People who haven’t read Scott, or haven’t read him in adult life, don’t think of him as a writer of comedy, but he was that too. Virginia Woolf, who adored the Waverley novels, called him a great comic novelist, and someone reading one of the novels (Old Mortality) for the first time recently asked me why I hadn’t told him Scott was funny. The English novelist AN Wilson has suggested that the early chapters of Rob Roy are as funny as PG Wodehouse.

When Waverley crosses the Highland Line, the mood changes again. This is the moment of take-off. The wild mountainous landscape and the Highlanders he meets were exotic to his first readers. We now enter the world of Jacobite romance, but do so with qualifications. The Highland chief, Fergus McIvor, seems at first to be the romantic hero that Waverley so evidently isn’t. Certainly, spurred on by his idealistic sister Flora, he is a dashing adherent to the Prince’s cause. But we soon learn that he is a calculating Jacobite too. He is gambling on the Prince’s victory. After which, with the Stuarts restored to the throne, he will be a great and powerful man. So we learn that men may be Jacobites just as others may be Whigs or Hanoverians, for personal advantage. Scott shows that they may be men with the same ambitions as those on the other side. Instead of romance he offers a sceptical realism.

From this point the novel moves fast as the story unfolds. And it is a splendid and gripping story, as any fortunate enough to have heard Alan Caig Wilson’s remarkable abridgement of it for four voices at the Borders Book festival last month would confirm.

It is also a highly intelligent novel. Scott was a many-sided man, combining the Border minstrel and the Edinburgh lawyer schooled by the philosophical historians of the Scottish Enlightenment. He is a novelist who makes you think as well as feel.

Scott was a novelist who set out to see Scotland whole, and succeeded in doing so because he realised, and was able to show us, that though the country and people have so often been sharply and even bitterly divided throughout our history, nevertheless the Scotland that emerges from these conflicts does not reflect the absolute victory of one party, but succeeding generations are heirs to both sides. Waverley shows us this: the Jacobites lose, Highland society will be transformed or even destroyed. Yet Scotland, as we know, will come to present an image to the world that is Jacobite and Highland rather than Whig and Lowland.

I have often told foreigners that if you want to understand Scotland and the Scottish character you should read the Waverley novels. This is good advice for us too, in this referendum year, this year of a sharp and even bitter division. Read the Waverley novels and come to a better understanding of who and what we are.

I have no doubt that Waverley is a great novel. The history is not here for decoration. It is a public novel: Scott was concerned to explore and determine the significance of a historical episode that had fired his imagination when he was a boy and met men who had been “out with the Prince”. He had been brooding on it ever since, so much so that the novel often seems to be remembered rather than invented. In Waverley and his other two Jacobite novels, Rob Roy and Redgauntlet, Scott, despite his emotional – and family – connection to the Old Cause, shows that it had been bypassed by History. Accepting the Enlightenment idea of social and moral progress, he recognised that attachment to the Jacobite Cause was attachment to a society that was passing away. There has been talk in our time of “a clash of civilisations”. Waverley dramatises just such a clash and may lead us today to a better understanding of contemporary conflicts. So, even if one sets aside its other merits – its humour, characterisation and narrative interest – Waverley is a novel for all time.

The novel is itself of historical importance. Its influence, reinforced by the novels that followed in such quick succession, as if a dam had broken under the force of a river in spate, was extraordinary. It spread across Europe, from France to Russia. In France, Dumas, Balzac and Hugo are evidently Scott’s heirs. Alessandro Manzoni, author of the classic novel, I Promessi Sposi, said he would never have thought of writing a novel if he hadn’t read Scott. Tolstoy, in War And Peace, very evidently derives his method of using fiction to reveal the shifting patterns of history from Scott.

Not everyone of course agrees that Waverley is a great novel. Even one of Scott’s most sympathetic biographers, Hesketh Pearson, found it “one of his least interesting works” and an “immature one”. This seems to me an extraordinary judgement, but, though an engaging, indeed delightful, biographer, Pearson was a quirky critic. He thought The Abbot one off Scott’s best novels. And not many would agree with that judgement either.

Yet it’s worth recording for this reason: that you can no more expect to find general agreement as to Scott’s best or greatest novels than about Shakespeare’s best plays. Ivanhoe, for instance, was long the most popular; it has been adapted for the stage, as both an opera and a play, and filmed more often than any of Scott’s other novels. Yet today it embarrasses some of his admirers, not only because Tony Blair once named it as his favourite book. It is neither realistic nor historically accurate. Nevertheless, absurd though it often is, it may still merit John Buchan’s description of it as “a pageant so far-flung and glittering that, in spite of its artificiality, it captivates the fancy.”

Today, as I’ve already observed, we would usually say that Scott’s greatest novels are those set in Scotland between the 17th century and his own time: Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, The Heart Of Midlothian, The Tale Of Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Bride Of Lammermoor, and Redgauntlet. One might put in a plea for others, for his only contemporary comedy of manners, St Ronan’s Wells, or for Quentin Durward, my own favourite among his mediaeval novels. But even if one accepts that the Scottish novels listed above are his best, Scott enthusiasts today, far more numerous than many may suppose, are very unlikely to agree on any order of precedence. Some might put The Heart Of Midlothian first, others Old Mortality, that remarkable study of religious fanaticism and political repression. Myself, I would never omit Redgauntlet from any short-list; it is certainly the one to which I return most often, finding more in it with every reading. Yet, if any suggestion that Waverley is Scott’s greatest novel is never likely to be met with unanimous approval, I am pretty sure that most of those who know the whole canon well, would place it in the top three.

Among other things, Waverley is a study of war. In The Achievement Of Sir Walter Scott, the English critic, AOJ Cockshut wrote: “Waverley shows war in all its bearings, its large cultural implications, its splendour, its absurdity, its sadness. It has a unique place in our literature because it combines the keenest analytical intelligence with the sympathetic presentation of all the feelings aroused by war.”

This is good criticism, an appreciation of the underlying themes of the novel. It is the sort of appreciation you are more likely to arrive at when you have finished the book and laid it aside, rather than during the course of your reading when you are caught up in the compelling narrative and delighting in the rich variety of the characters. In any case it is usually only on a second reading that any considerable novel opens itself to a full understanding. This is why it has been said that you can’t properly read a novel if you read it only once. It is re-reading that enables you to savour the details, re-reading which reveals what it is really about.

Twitter: @alainmas