Quentin Durward appeared when Sir Walter Scott’s career as a novelist was nearly a decade old. Although Scott was still signing his novels “By the Author of Waverley,” his authorship was by no means unknown. The “Wizard of the North” touched the familiar formulas of his fiction with an undeniable magic. With Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), Scott had invented the historical novel, a new genre. This fictional treatment of the last of the Stuart uprisings in 1745, manifesting genuine insight into events “sixty years since,” had been solidly founded on his knowledge of Scotland, its history, and its people. The author had perceived in the Jacobite-Hanoverian conflict the clash of two cultures at the very moment when the former was passing away forever and the other was just coming into being. He had made figures from history a part of his fiction, through them creating the tensions in which his fictitious characters were caught. This first novel established the pattern and theme for the serious historical novel, not only Scott’s “Waverley novels” but also the works of later writers such as James Fenimore Cooper.
Abounding in wealth and fame, his energies given also to public service, business, an estate in Scotland, an active social life, and other kinds of writing, Scott worked too hard and wrote too fast—one novel a year, sometimes two. With his tenth novel, Ivanhoe (1819), he sagaciously determined that his English reading public, after so many Scottish novels, would welcome a foray into English history. Ivanhoe became the talk of London, and his career gained new impetus. By 1823, however, his publisher, conscious of Scott’s waning popularity, advised him to turn to other kinds of writing. The author, however, boldly moved into the foreign territory of fifteenth century France and once again created a literary sensation—the reception of his new novel in Paris rivaled that of Ivanhoe in London. After Quentin Durward, Scott was recognized as a great writer both at home and abroad.
Quentin Durward stands as a milestone in Scott’s career rather than as a significant novel. His own remarks on the work contain casual apologies for his license with historical facts; some critics charge him with the worse fault of allowing superficial knowledge to make of Quentin Durward a mere costume romance rather than a serious historical novel. Others rate it simply as a good tale of adventure.
Nevertheless, Quentin Durward provides a good example of the conflict at the heart of Scott’s best historical novels—the thematic clash between the old order and the new. The order that is passing away is the age of chivalry, with its feudal system and its chivalric code. The age that is coming into being takes its traits from the leader who, rather than the titular hero, is the central character of the novel—King Louis XI of France. Louis is the antithesis of the chivalric ideal. Honor is but a word to him; he studies the craft of dissimulation. His unceremonious manners express contempt rather than knightly humility. He exercises the virtues of generosity and courtesy only with ulterior motives. Crafty and false, committed to his own self-interest, he is a complete Machiavellian.
If Louis is the chief representative of the new age, no...
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