Article abstract: Scott’s narrative poems about the stirring events in Scottish and medieval history were immensely popular in the nineteenth century, and in fiction he created the genre of the historical novel.
Walter Scott counted among his ancestors many notable and colorful figures from Scottish history, and during his early years, after an attack of polio crippled his right leg, he spent hours listening to family stories and songs about their exploits. Even as a young boy, he collected these ballads and folktales, which vividly presented the past. He would later use this knowledge in the poems and novels which won great acclaim during his lifetime, and which endure to this day as classics of English literature.
After being educated at home, Scott was sent in 1778 to high school in Edinburgh. He impressed both his teachers and his peers with his intelligence, his good nature, and his ability to tell stories; he was less accomplished in his scholarship. In 1783, he entered the Old College, but his interest remained the study and pursuit of ballads. In 1786, he joined his father, who was a lawyer, as an apprentice and was called to the bar in July of 1792.
Scott made a competent though not outstanding lawyer, and his main interest continued to be literature, although he seemed to regard the writing profession as not quite suitable for a gentleman. Despite his doubts, however, he could not refrain from seeking out, collecting, and reciting the poetry of his native land. Inevitably, he tried his hand at composition.
In 1797, Scott visited the Lake Country, where he met Charlotte Mary Carpenter, daughter of a deceased French refugee. After a brief courtship, Scott’s suit was approved by Charlotte’s guardian, the Marquess of Downshire, and the couple were married on Christmas Eve, 1797. Their union, comfortable rather than passionate, produced four children.
Through exercise to overcome his infirmity, Scott developed a powerful and robust physique; he was an avid horseman and walker, and graceful, despite his lameness. Scott’s many portraits show a man of regular, rather than handsome, features, with keen, bright eyes. They also reveal the intelligence, good humor and compassion for which he was well-known. Scott’s contemporaries were universal in their admiration for him.
Scott’s entry into the literary world was almost casual. After collecting the ballads of others, he began to compose some of his own. A government appointment with few duties gave him time to collect and write, and some of his earlier attempts were published in 1802 and 1803 in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Encouraged by the favorable attentions of friends and critics, Scott next wrote the The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was published in early 1805.
This work was immediately popular and established Scott as a major contemporary literary figure. Unfortunately, at this same time Scott entered into a long, complicated, and ultimately ruinous relationship with the printers and publishers John and James Ballantyne. Scott began loaning money to the Ballantynes in 1802; by 1805, he was a silent financial partner in the firm. This connection would eventually lead to fiscal disaster.
In the meantime, Scott continued his industrious and successful efforts. He edited a complete collection of John Dryden’s poetry, wrote for the Edinburgh Review, and started writing Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814). Putting aside the novel, however, he turned to another narrative poem, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, which was published in 1808 with great success. In 1810, The Lady of the Lake followed and was equally well received.
In 1809, Scott joined with the Ballantynes in a publishing firm, John Ballantyne and Company. Scott advanced half of the capital himself, and perhaps provided the Ballantynes’ portion as well. The unequal nature of this arrangement was to continue throughout the short life of the company. In 1813, the firm narrowly endured a serious crisis, surviving only through Scott’s intercession with another publisher, Archibald Constable, whom he persuaded to purchase large amounts of debt-laden Ballantyne stock. Part of the problem lay in Scott’s enthusiastic but injudicious support of other, less talented, authors, and part in the Ballantynes’ business misadventures. By 1810, all the considerable income from Scott’s writing was going to meet outstanding obligations.
Unfortunately, a threat appeared to that income. His next two books, Rokeby (1812) and The Bridal of Triermain (1813), sold reasonably well, but by no means as well as Scott’s earlier works. Scott had probably exhausted himself in this particular genre and was faced with the growing competition from younger poets, such as George Gordon, Lord Byron. Scott’s final attempts in historical narrative verse were The Lord of the Isles (1815) and Harold the Dauntless (1817). Neither poem was a major success, but by then Scott had found success in a genre of his own creation, the historical novel.
According to tradition, Scott rediscovered his manuscript of Waverley while looking for some fishing tackle and decided to finish it. It was published in July of 1814; six editions were printed the first year. Scott published this, and subsequent novels, anonymously; not until 1827 did he admit authorship, although it was widely known almost from the first.
Waverley was a new departure in British literature, a work that mingled fiction with historical fact, placing its imagined characters in the middle of real,...
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