Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029

Rob Roy, which captures the raging cultural and religious debates of the early eighteenth century, is considered one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels because it too employs the technique the author first used in his Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), that of using historical fact within...

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Rob Roy, which captures the raging cultural and religious debates of the early eighteenth century, is considered one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels because it too employs the technique the author first used in his Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), that of using historical fact within a novelistic setting. To read this novel profitably, it is important to get a sense of the history that frames its characters and events. Rob Roy is set in northern England and in Scotland at the time of “the fifteener.” This was an attempted invasion in 1715 by the son of James II, whose Catholic family line was ousted in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. His two daughters, Mary and Anne, were allowed to finish the Stuart legacy, which ended with the accession of King George I in 1714. James II’s son was known as the Old Pretender, and by some Jacobites as James III. Those who supported the newly crowned King George were known as Royalists, and those who were for the Stuart family line were known as Jacobites because they were supporters of the Old Pretender, James III. That name was used because the names James and Jacob have the same linguistic root. It is important to keep these lineages and names in mind while reading Rob Roy.

After the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, Scotland became a subordinate part of Great Britain, a position it was not happy to assume. The vast majority of people in the south of England solidly supported George I, but in the north, and especially among the Highland clans of Scotland, there was much support for the Stuart line and fervid anti-English sentiment. One reason for this is that both the Stuarts and the Highlanders were nominally Catholic, and they were able to establish lasting ties while the Stuarts were trying to remain in power during the Civil War. Memory of this loyalty was so strong that as late as 1745 the son of the Old Pretender tried one last invasion, again by way of Scotland, to place himself on the throne. It failed, but the attempt shows the great cultural differences between Scotland and England. These cultural differences lie at the heart of Rob Roy.

Rob Roy, or Robert MacGregor, was a historical figure who became an outlaw as a result of political intrigue and shifts in cultural values. He was also a Jacobite. At times a cattle thief and always at the fringes of the law, he skirmished and raided his way along the Scotland-England border and was seen as a sort of Robin Hood. The relation between this historical character and the one in the novel is important, for it marks Scott’s attempt to combine authentic or true history with fictive romance. Indeed, Rob Roy was already the stuff of legend, and Scott was able to make use of this popular fascination and combine it with the more realistic elements of law and culture. The result was one of the groundbreaking novels in literary history.

Scott’s melding of the romance and historical genres is an important contribution to the history of the novel as well as a fascinating element within Rob Roy itself. At the time Scott wrote Rob Roy, it was popularly assumed that the novel genre was dominated by women and what was considered feminine “romance” discourse. Scott began to change this not only by creating strong male and female characters but also by interfusing historical elements and those of chivalric romance. This combination of what most people considered opposing traditions began a new development in the history of the novel.

The figure of Rob Roy in Scott’s novel is interesting not only because he is an outlaw but also because at many times his lawlessness is more legitimate than the laws wielded by the state. Rob Roy’s ultimate contribution in the novel, killing Rashleigh after he tries to serve a warrant for Diana, aids in establishing Frank as the legitimate lord of Osbaldistone Hall. Furthermore, his apparently irresponsible and lawless act creates a marriage that transcends the limits of the anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant cultures that threaten to destroy the union between Frank and Diana. Rob Roy’s actions in the novel show the ambivalence of power as it is wielded by the government, and they show that the correct use of power and law cannot be fully claimed by the state alone. Rob Roy also shows that the normal conventions of society do not prove to be useful and valid at all times. Even Frank’s father realizes this. When he allows the marriage to take place, the novel shows that it is possible for people to transcend the given prejudices of any culture.

The epistolary structure of Rob Roy is on the surface rather traditional, following in a long line of novels that includes Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) and Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802; English translation, 1803). Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which was published the same year as Rob Roy, also has a similar format. Much has been made of the fragmentary style of these novels, but it must be kept in mind that these authors assumed they were telling the complete story and that nothing was left out or incomplete. However, a more verifiable antitraditional element in Rob Roy is its emphasis on things that many people considered real.

Rob Roy centers on legalistic elements such as wills, courts, and other things with which a trained lawyer such as Scott would have been familiar. In fact, Scott was interested in reforming many of the law practices at the time, and it has been argued that the legalistic elements in this novel are a part of this agenda. Rob Roy also centers on religious and ethnic issues that, just seventy-five years earlier, were considered too inflammatory to discuss openly. All these elements combine to create a novel that was quite revolutionary for its time and continued to demand attention in subsequent times. Its analysis of power, ethnicity, culture, and the proper use of law speaks powerfully to any century.

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