Sir Walter Scott Biography
Sir Walter Scott, as one of his country’s earliest prominent writers, helped establish Scotland’s place in the literary canon. Scott was a prolific poet as well as the author of numerous historical romances and adventures. Despite his early success and the influence he exerted over nineteenth-century English literature, time had not always been kind to Scott. Later critics denounced his works on grounds of structure, tone, and content. Yet, in many ways, Scott was at the forefront of the romantic, larger-than-life style that pervaded the late nineteenth century. A renewed interest in Scott has overlooked his faults and helped cast his work in a more positive light. He remains a significant figure in both the Scottish canon and literature as a whole.
Facts and Trivia
- When he was just two years old, Scott became afflicted with polio. Though he survived the illness, his right leg would be unusable for the rest of his life.
- Writing was not Scott’s first career choice. He studied law, which he practiced after completing his studies. He later served as sheriff-deputy of his county.
- In the second half of the twentieth century, Scott’s novels inspired two highly acclaimed films: Ivanhoe (based on the novel of the same name) and Rob Roy.
- A song commonly referred to as “Schubert’s Ave Maria” is in fact a musicalization of Scott’s “The Lady in the Lake.”
- Scott's works are often attributed with popularizing the kilt as a staple of Scottish garb.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2365
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, dramatic events. Scott drew largely from the tales he had heard as a child, and Waverley, like the best of his novels, has an immediate, energetic quality that engages and excites the reader.
Scott now began a ten-year period of intense, almost unparalleled creativity; nine novels were finished within a five-year time span. Guy Mannering and The Antiquary appeared in 1815 and 1816, respectively, then the Tales of My Landlord series commenced in 1816 with the dual publication of The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality. Rob Roy (1818) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818) proved that the works were growing increasingly popular, as did another double publication, The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose (1819).
In 1819, Scott tried a new setting for his fiction, the Middle Ages. Ivanhoe (1819) was the first of a line of novels which drew, not on Scott’s knowledge of his native land, but on his reading. The vivid characters, and the forward, exciting thrust of the narrative made Ivanhoe immediately, and permanently, popular.
These were Scott’s most successful years as a writer. His works were widely read and were bringing him a considerable income. He was constantly enlarging and expanding his home, Abbotsford, where he received many illustrious visitors and entertained the countryside in a fashion worthy of a Scots laird. He received a baronetcy from George IV in 1820, and the next year was active in the reception of the king in Edinburgh.
Scott continued to write, working the new vein of medieval romance. The Monastery (1820) and The Abbot (1820) fell short of the power and popular reception of Ivanhoe, but Kenilworth (1821) and The Pirate (1821) regained much of his earlier audience. In quick succession appeared The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Peveril of the Peak, Quentin Durward (both published in 1823) and St. Ronan’s Well (1824). The skill and ability Scott showed in these works varied considerably; he was clearly out of his element in tales of the gothic (The Abbot) or in the novel of society (St. Ronan’s Well), but was adept at accounts of action and descriptions of the picturesque.
With the publication of Redgauntlet in 1824, however, Scott returned to the Scottish themes he knew so well. The novel is one of his finest, with memorable characters drawn from Scott’s family and friends. In 1825, Scott brought out the dual set Tales of the Crusaders, containing the rather weak The Bethrothed, and the much more successful The Talisman.
Scott’s complicated relationship with the Ballantynes now brought about financial disaster. He had changed publishing houses from Ballantyne to Constable and Cadell, but considerable obligations were shared between his former publishers and Scott himself. Scott’s continued expenses from Abbotsford further weakened his position. In 1826, after a long period of increasingly frantic negotiations, and amid general economic crisis, Scott and his publishers found that they faced bankruptcy. Scott declared himself personally responsible for the continuation of business and the settlement of all debts. The creditors’ faith in Scott as an author and a man was shown by their prompt agreement to an arrangement which would permit Scott to take care of the debt without personal ruin or disgrace. Even as he returned to his writing desk, to work on a multivolume biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh misfortunes dogged him. On May 15, 1826, his wife died. Although the couple had not been especially close, the loss was still keenly felt by Scott.
The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte was published in 1827, and Scott immediately began a new project, Tales of a Grandfather, which was to be a history of Scotland for children. It appeared in the winter of 1827 and was so successful that two more volumes appeared in 1828 and 1829. Plans were made for a uniform edition of the Waverley novels, with autobiographical prefaces by Scott; the edition proved a considerable success, and gave proof that Scott’s better work remained popular with readers.
Such was not the case, however, with his later efforts. The Fair Maid of Perth (1828) and Anne of Geierstein (1829) showed an unmistakable decline in his abilities. His physical condition also declined, and in February, 1830, he suffered a stroke; another followed in November. During this time, he continued to work on a new novel, Count Robert of Paris, which was interrupted by a third, yet more serious attack in April of 1831. Upon his recovery, he completed Count Robert of Paris and his last novel, Castle Dangerous; these were published together in the fall of 1831.
Scott’s friends now prevailed upon him to take a tour for his health. The government placed a naval frigate at his disposal to carry him to the Mediterranean. He toured Malta and Italy, where he viewed the tomb of the last of the Stuarts. He was traveling down the Rhine River when, on June 9, a severe attack left him paralyzed; he was carried back to Great Britain semiconscious. Upon his return to his beloved Abbotsford, he rallied briefly, but died on September 21, 1832.
Sir Walter Scott’s enduring contributions to literature fall into three categories: his narrative poems, his Scottish novels, and his novels of chivalric romance. In each of these three genres he produced works which not only delighted his contemporaries but also have shown themselves to be of lasting significance.
Scott himself was modest about the narrative poems, and there is much in them that is more narrative than poetic. Still, at their best, works such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel or The Lady of the Lake have an undeniable power in rhythm and expression that makes them excellent examples of their particular genre.
Scott’s gift for narrative best served him in his prose works, especially in the Scottish novels. In these books, he drew upon his own memories and experiences in the Scottish countryside, and from the tales and stories he had heard since his youth. Many readers find in Waverley or Redgauntlet merely exciting adventures, skillfully told, but Scott put more into his novels than that.
A passionate believer in community and tradition, Scott looked back on the Scottish past with sympathy and upon the present without illusion. He seems to have been acutely aware that the heroic age had passed, and that it had been replaced by one that was more prosaic. It is the tension between these two ideals, and the elegiac sadness for the older society that yet lingered in parts of the Highlands, that give additional resonance and power to the best of Scott’s works.
As the virtual creator of the historical novel, Scott was responsible for an entirely new genre. While some may point to anachronisms of detail or perspective in works such as Ivanhoe, more attention should be paid to Scott’s renovation of history as a suitable topic for fiction. The historical novels have characters who lived in earlier times yet were understandable to contemporary readers. This was a new and often difficult task, and Scott succeeded in it more often than not.
Scott’s place within the pantheon of English literature remains disputed. Some critics believe that he wrote too much and too hastily, and that his work suffered as a result. There is certainly some truth to this view, especially with Scott’s later work, composed while he was in declining health and under intense pressure. Nevertheless, Scott’s finest work can withstand this criticism, for his characters are vivid, his plots compelling, and his style vigorous. His work has weathered time and changes in critical fashions, and remains an essential part of our literary heritage.
Daiches, David. Sir Walter Scott and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971. A well-written and extensively illustrated survey of Scott and his time. Daiches brings a considerable amount of knowledge to the reader in a clear, easily understood fashion.
Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1970. A comprehensive biography of Scott that has become the modern definitive life. Johnson makes good use of the many sources and resources available and has an accurate perception of Scott’s writings.
Lauber, John. Sir Walter Scott. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966. A brief, introductory survey that concentrates on the work rather than the man. This study is excellent for the beginning student and helpful for the new reader of Scott’s works. Contains a good basic bibliography.
Lockhart, John Gibson. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. 5 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1901. Lockhart was Scott’s son-in-law, and this work, first published in 1837-1838, is the seminal biography of Scott, containing much important information and almost as much mythology. Its firsthand material and documents make it essential for the serious student of Scott, but it must be read in conjunction with more recent, and less uncritical, studies.
Pearson, Hesketh. Sir Walter Scott: His Life and Personality. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954. A brisk and readable work, but more in the nature of a popular biography than a serious study. The literary views are sometimes misleading.