Sir Walter Scott Scott, Sir Walter (1771 - 1832) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771 - 1832)

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Jedediah Cleishbotham) Scottish novelist, poet, short story writer, biographer, historian, critic, and editor.

An immensely popular writer of both poetry and fiction during his lifetime, Scott exerted a profound influence on early nineteenth-century European literature. Modern scholars consider him both the inventor of the historical novel and the first best-selling novelist. As the anonymous and enormously prolific "Author of Waverley," Scott not only elevated the novel to a status equal to that of poetry but also influenced the way history has been written and understood by subsequent generations of historians and novelists. Despite the unprecedented success of his novels and poetry, Scott's literary reputation and popularity underwent one of the most pronounced reversals in the history of English literature following his death. Today his poetry is largely ignored, although his novels continue to attract the attention of literary historians. Among the many areas of continued scholarly interest in Scott's fiction, substantial notice has been paid to the Gothic qualities his novels and short stories. Even though Scott urged his readers to distinguish Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since (1814) and the subsequent series of Waverley Novels from tales of Gothic horror, modern scholars have observed that these works nevertheless exhibit numerous affinities to the Gothic literary mode. Scott's fiction, which makes broad use of historical and frequently medieval settings, alludes to the mysterious workings of fate and the supernatural, and often depicts violent clashes between romantic and modern sensibilities, is routinely cited for its substantial exploitation of these and other Gothic themes and devices.


Scott was born in Edinburgh to middle-class parents, the fourth surviving child of Walter Scott and Anne Rutherford. At the age of two, he suffered an attack of polio that rendered him lame for the rest of his life. In spite of his illness, however, Scott led an active outdoor life during his childhood and developed an appreciation for the picturesque scenery that later figured so prominently in his writings. He enrolled in Edinburgh High School in 1778 and five years later entered the University of Edinburgh, studying history and law. In 1786, he was apprenticed to his father's legal firm and was called to the bar in 1792. While serving his apprenticeship, Scott traveled extensively in the Scottish Border country and Highlands, where he delighted in the natural settings and rural inhabitants. In 1800 he was able to combine his love for Scottish lore and literature with his ongoing excursions into the countryside as he started collecting and editing ballads for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–03). Although the work produced only modest sales when published, the collection enjoyed critical favor. The positive reception of the Minstrelsy and the encouragement of his friends prompted Scott to attempt an original work based on Scottish themes. His efforts resulted in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). The success of this work when it appeared was immediate and substantial. Determined to earn a living through his writings, Scott gave up the law as a full-time profession and, beginning in 1808 with Marmion, published a series of highly popular and remunerative poems with Scottish backgrounds and themes, including what is perhaps his best-known long poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). From this time, Scott's expenditures increased as quickly as his income, and many critics and biographers have tied his enormous output directly to a desire for material gain. Scott had purchased a farm in 1811 and, after renaming the property Abbotsford, began devoting huge sums of money to building, planting, and collecting relics from Scotland's past. Thus, though his income was large, his financial situation was often precarious. By the time Rokeby appeared in 1813, readers were also beginning to lose interest in his poetry. In addition, the triumph of the first two cantos of Lord Byron's Childe Harold in 1812 had convinced Scott that he could not compete with the younger poet. Anxious to retain his audience and large income, Scott decided to revise and complete a fragment of a novel that he had begun ten years before.

Waverley proved a popular sensation when published in 1814. Considered the first historical novel, Waverley quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear, and brought huge profits to Scott and his publishers. Buoyed by his first venture as a novelist, Scott began writing at a rapid pace, and over the next seventeen years produced more than two dozen novels and tales in a series that has since become known as the Waverley Novels. He was able to maintain his prolific output not only because he never plotted his works ahead of time and seldom revised his manuscripts, but also because he maintained strenuous work habits even when gravely ill. Because at the time writing novels was perceived as less respectful than writing poetry, Scott had published Waverley anonymously. When the success of Waverley increased the public's appreciation for novelists, he nevertheless chose to retain his anonymity for many years, a practice his biographers have traced both to his love of secrecy and to his perception that the mystery surrounding the novels contributed to their sales. Many of the novels were published as "by the Author of Waverley," and he was often referred to simply as the "Great Unknown." Despite his policy of anonymous publication, numerous readers and critics knew of his authorship; he became the most popular writer in contemporary English literature and a highly respected and admired figure throughout Europe. In 1818 he accepted a baronetcy, becoming Sir Walter Scott. In 1826, disaster struck when a publishing house in which he was a silent partner failed. Instead of choosing to declare bankruptcy, Scott arranged to work off the debt through his writings. The remainder of his life was devoted to the increasingly difficult task of producing saleable works in a variety of genres. Beginning in 1830 he suffered a series of strokes as he labored to pay his creditors. A trip to the Mediterranean in 1831 to regain his health proved unsuccessful, and after experiencing further strokes and paralysis he died at Abbotsford in 1832.


A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Scott enjoyed astounding popular success as a writer in both these genres during a literary career that roughly spanned the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Among his earliest poetic collections, the three-volume Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border contains numerous Scottish ballads that had never before appeared in print, as well as imitated ballads written by Scott and others. His The Lay of the Last Minstrel is an original poem set in medieval times that, in Scott's words, was "intended to illustrate the customs and manners which anciently prevailed on the borders of England and Scotland." The work launched his career as a poet, and was followed by several more narrative pieces crafted in the same spirit. Scott's first novel Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since, features the tale of an Englishman who travels to the Scottish Highlands and becomes caught up in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Waverley spawned more than twenty similar works of historical fiction, collectively known as the Waverley Novels. In these stories, most of which describe the lives of ordinary individuals who become involved in great historical events, Scott presented in lavish detail the speech, manners, and customs of past ages. In studying these works, critics have often divided them into three groups. The first, the so-called "Scotch Novels," are stories that evoke the declin-ing feudal culture of the Scottish Highlands prior to Scotland's absorption into Great Britain. They include Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), and Old Mortality (1816), as well as two novels set during the Jacobite uprising of 1715, Rob Roy (1818) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818), followed by The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), The Legend of Montrose (1819), and Redgauntlet: A Tale of the Eighteenth Century (1824). The second group features works concerned with medieval history in England and Europe, including such novels as Ivanhoe (1820), set during the reign of King John and depicting the figure of Locksley (better known as Robin Hood), Quentin Durward (1823) and Anne of Geierstein; or, The Maiden of the Mist (1829). Works placed in the third category are those focused on the Tudor-Stuart era in England, including Kenilworth (1821), which plays out among the intrigues of the Elizabethan court, The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Peveril of the Peak (1822), and Woodstock; or, the Cavalier (1826), the last two set during the seventeenth-century English Civil War. Other novels by Scott particularly noted for their use of mystery, the uncanny, and other Gothic literary conventions include The Black Dwarf (1816), featuring a deformed, enigmatic hero who hides his identity until the end of the novel, The Pirate (1822), set in the remote Orkney islands in 1700 and detailing a struggle between two half-brothers, the pirate Cleveland and his rival Mordaunt, St. Ronan's Well (1824), also depicting a brutal rivalry between half-brothers but set in early nineteenth-century Scotland, and Castle Dangerous (1832), concerned with the excesses of the late medieval chivalric code.

While many of the Waverley Novels feature hints of the supernatural, Scott generally relegated his literary depiction of the inexplicable and otherworldly to his short fiction. Among these works, the collection Chronicles of the Canongate (1827) includes two darkly pessimistic short stories. The first of these, called "The Highland Widow," is a tale that dramatizes the passing of the old Scotch way of life in the death of a widow's son, apparently caused by the supernatural power of a fatal curse. In the second story, "The Two Drovers," a misunderstanding coupled with the strange and tragic workings of fate leads to the murder of an English cattleman by a Scottish drover, and eventually to the Highlander's execution for his crime. Another collection of short fiction, The Keepsake for 1829 (1828) includes Scott's ghost story "The Tapestried Chamber; or, The Lady in the Sacque," and a tale of sorcery, "My Aunt Margaret's Mirror," featuring a magical mirror that allows gazers to witness important events as they transpire miles away. Further evidence of Scott's interest in the supernatural is located in his critical writings, notably in his late study of folk superstitions entitled Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830).


The novelty of Scott's writing style and subject matter captivated his early audience; in fact, his writings created a vogue for Scottish culture and even led to an increase in tourism in Scotland. Many contemporary critics, however, have agreed that Scott's poetry and novels reveal glaring deficiencies, including careless construction, prolixity, and bad grammar. Yet most early reviewers acknowledged the superiority of his novels, arguing that their originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters outweighed their faults. Scott's ability to bring Scottish and English history to life—to capture the language, costumes, and settings of the past—as well as his understanding of the effects of social change upon the lives of ordinary people, were entirely new contributions to English fiction. To many early Victorians, Scott was a heroic figure whose exemplary life and courageous struggle to pay his debts were reflected in the morally irreproachable qualities of his works. Yet certain critics, prominent among them Thomas Carlyle, felt that Scott's life should not be confused with his works, which were shallow, lacking in true passion, and written largely for material gain. As the nineteenth century progressed, the increasingly sophisticated design and self-conscious art of the novel as practiced by such writers as George Eliot and Henry James caused numerous commentators to deride the disorganized plots and intellectual superficiality of Scott's fiction. Although his admirers countered by praising his enduring appeal as a storyteller and the entertainment value of the Waverley Novels, by the turn of the century many critics maintained that Scott could no longer be considered a major English novelist. His readership as well as his critical stock had been declining since mid century, and while the second half of the twentieth century would show mounting scholarly interest in his works, Scott, a writer who in his own day had been compared with William Shakespeare, would eventually be described by W. E. K. Anderson as the "Great Unread."

Nevertheless, twentieth-century critics have emphasized Scott's important role in literary history. Scholars have traced his influence on the masterpieces of novelists as diverse as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Commentators have also explored Scott's significant contribution—through his invention and development of the historical novel—to the history of ideas, specifically with respect to the modern concept of historical perspective. Modern studies of the Waverley Novels have consistently stressed the superiority of the "Scotch Novels" over the rest, and critics have given particular attention to The Heart of Midlothian, often considered his finest novel. Scott's works have attracted increasing scholarly notice since the general proliferation of English literary scholarship that began in the 1950s, and recent commentators have explored such specific aspects of his novels as his passive heroes and his portrayal of the Middle Ages. Contemporary scholars studying the relationship of Scott's fiction to the Gothic tradition have found numerous points of contact, despite the writer's efforts to distance himself from this literary mode he frequently disparaged. Among them, Marilyn Orr (see Further Reading) has explored the generic conflict between romance and Gothic in The Pirate and St. Ronan's Well. Concentrating on motifs of doubling and repetition in these novels, Orr characterizes the former work as a romance that strives toward a synthetic unification of opposites, while assessing the latter as a thoroughly Gothic work symbolically focused on the subversion and dominance of the double. Fiona Robertson has concentrated on Scott's extensive use of such Gothic devices as deferral, detachment, and denial in his Waverley Novels, particularly in The Pirate, Rob Roy, and Peveril of the Peak, viewing these as works that foreground a sense of mystery, secrecy, and anxiety in a resoundingly Gothic manner. Other critics have traced the extensive use of Gothic motifs in Scott's collected fiction, particularly in his Waverley Novels. Such tropes as the delayed disclosure of a central narrative mystery, an evocation of dread and emotional anxiety caused by threats of violence or imprisonment, and a use of the uncanny and supernatural, often through reference to terrifying ghostly apparitions or in allusions to superstitious beliefs and nefarious secret societies, are common features throughout these works. Likewise, Scott's interest in fatalist themes, his medieval settings, romantic characterizations, and occasional use of the supernatural in both his novels and short fiction strongly recall the English Gothic mode in transition from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. And, while Scott's immensely popular works have now largely become the concern of literary specialists, such studies have reaffirmed Scott's status as a crucial figure in the development of the English novel and a seminal influence on nineteenth-century European literature.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

The Eve of Saint John (poetry) 1800
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 3 vols. [editor and contributor] (poetry) 1802–03
The Lay of the Last Minstrel (ballad) 1805
Ballads and Lyrical Pieces (poetry) 1807
Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (poetry) 1808
The Lady of the Lake (poetry) 1810
The Vision of Don Roderick (poetry) 1811
The Bridal of Triermain; or, the Vale of St. John (poetry) 1813
Rokeby: A Poem (poetry) 1813
Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since. 3 vols. (novel) 1814
The Field of Waterloo (poetry) 1815
Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer (novel) 1815
The Lord of the...

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Sir Walter Scott (Poem Date 1799)

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Scott, Sir Walter. "The Erl-King's Daughter." In An Apology for Tales of Terror, pp. 73-6. Printed at the Mail Office: Kelso, 1799.

In the following poem, Scott offers a companion piece to his translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Der Erlkonig" ("The Erl-King"), collected in the same volume.

O'ER hills and through forests Sir Oluf he wends,
To bid to his wedding relations and friends:
'Tis late, and arriving where sports the elf-band,
The Erl-King's proud daughter presents him her hand.

"Now welcome, Sir Oluf! Oh! welcome to me!

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Sir Walter Scott (Story Date 1828)

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Scott, Sir Walter. "The Tapestried Chamber." In The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, chosen by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, pp. 1-12. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

The following excerpt is from a short story first collected in The Keepsake of 1829, published in late 1828.

'My dear lord,' he at length said, 'what happened to me last night is of nature so peculiar and so unpleasant, that I could hardly bring myself to detail it even to your lordship, were it not that, independent of my wish to gratify any request of yours, I think that sincerity on my part may lead to some explanation about a...

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Title Commentary

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Robertson, Fiona. "Secrecy, Silence, and Anxiety: Gothic Narratology and the Waverley Novels." In Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction, pp. 161-95. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

In the following excerpt, Robertson asserts that in the Waverley Novels "Scott's narrative techniques of deferral and denial have much in common with the Gothic, and are used with a complex alertness to their literary signification."

What is this secret sin; this untold tale, That art cannot extract, nor penance cleanse?1

They dare not...

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Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Boatright, Mody C. "Scott's Theory and Practice Concerning the Use of the Supernatural in Prose Fiction in Relation to the Chronology of the Waverley Novels." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 50, no. 1 (March 1935): 235-61.

Elucidates the critical principles Scott devised concerning the proper use of the supernatural in fiction, ideas and techniques that he believed would distinguish his novels from those of his Gothic precursors. Boatright then goes on to apply these principles to Scott's works in an attempt to verify the rough order of composition of his novels.


(The entire section is 649 words.)