Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832
Scottish novelist, poet, short story writer, biographer, historian, critic, and editor. See also Ivanhoe Criticism, Sir Walter Scott Poetry Criticism, and Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since Criticism.
Scott exerted a profound influence on nineteenth-century European literature. During his lifetime he was immensely popular—first as a poet, then later as a novelist. To modern scholars Scott is both the originator of the historical novel genre and the first best-selling novelist. As the anonymous and enormously prolific "Author of Waverley," Scott not only elevated the novel to a status enjoyed previously by poetry but also influenced the way history was written and understood by subsequent generations of historians. In addition, Scott experimented with short fiction, albeit minimally, which has led some scholars to name Scott the father of the modern short story in English literature. Walter Allen, in a study of the short story form published in the March 28, 1974, issue of The Listener, declared Scott's "The Two Drovers" "the story that I recognise as the first modern short story in English." As Richard D. McGhee has observed, "Scott will be known best for his novels and poems, but he will not be forgotten for his short fiction."
Born in Edinburgh into a middle-class family, Scott was stricken at age two with polio, which rendered him lame for the rest of his life. In spite of his illness, however, he pursued outdoor activities and developed an appreciation for picturesque scenery, a prominent feature of his literary work. Scott also relished Scottish history and literature as a boy, and he nurtured both his enthusiasm and knowledge by befriending several Scottish antiquaries in his neighborhood. In 1783 Scott enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied history and law, and apprenticed at his father's law firm from 1786 until 1792, when he passed the bar. During his apprenticeship, Scott began to travel extensively in the Scottish Border country and Highlands, delighting in the natural settings and its rural inhabitants. Around 1800 he started to collect Scottish ballads, including many that survived only in the oral tradition, which he later published as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03). The positive critical reception of this collection prompted Scott to write The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which garnered him substantial success. Giving up his law practice, he published several extremely popular and financially lucrative poems with Scottish backgrounds and themes, including his perhaps best-known poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). His career as a poet proved short-lived, however, as he soon devoted himself to writing novels, which he published anonymously since writing novels commanded less respect than writing poetry. Scott's first novel, Waverley (1814), quickly became the most successful novel ever at the time, bringing huge profits to both Scott and his publishers. Buoyed by his popular success, Scott wrote feverishly, producing over the next seventeen years the more than two dozen novels that comprise what has since become known as the Waverley Novels, most notably The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818) and Ivanhoe (1820). Biographers have speculated that Scott's prolific literary production was motivated in part by a desire for a large income to settle excessive debts largely incurred by his improvements to and maintenance of Abbotsford, a modest farm he had purchased with the profits from his poetry. In 1826, when a publishing house in which he was a silent partner failed, Scott resisted declaring bankruptcy by attempting to produce salable writings in a variety of genres, including the short story collection Chronicles of the Canongate (1827). Beginning in 1830 he suffered a series of strokes as he worked to pay his creditors. After an unsuccessful recuperative trip to the Mediterranean in 1831, Scott suffered further strokes that left him paralyzed until he died at Abbotsford in 1832.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Like his novels and narrative poetry, Scott's short fiction features elements of Scottish folklore, legend, and history, revealing aspects of the Scottish national character and often incorporating supernatural circumstances. The bulk of Scott's work in the short story genre, however, must be extracted from the multiple plots and framing devices that constitute his novels. For instance, "Wandering Willie's Tale," widely regarded as Scott's best story, occurs as an episode in the novel Redgauntlet (1824). Set near the end of the seventeenth-century and written almost entirely in Scottish vernacular, "Wandering Willie's Tale" involves Willie's forebear, Steenie Steenson, and Sir Robert Redgauntlet, Steenie's landlord. One night Steenie visits Sir Robert to pay him his overdue rent, but before a receipt is made, Sir Robert suffers a violent seizure and dies, apparently bound for hell. When the rent money is later found to be missing and other mysterious events ensue, Steenie is summoned to hell, where he finally receives his receipt but with the condition that he must return one year later. The three stories that comprise Chronicles of the Canongate—"The Highland Widow," "The Two Drovers," and "The Surgeon's Daughter"—are introduced by the fictional editor of the series, Mr. Chrystal Croftangry, whose own tale has been sometimes referred to as "Mr. Croftangry's Memoirs." These stories represent Scott's sole contribution to the genre in modern terms. In "The Highland Widow" a widow—disappointed that her gentle son joined the army to support her instead of following in the footsteps of her vicious husband who was a marauder of the Lowlands—prevents him from returning to service after his leave is up and pressures him to kill the soldier sent to retrieve him. When the son consequently is executed for murder, the widow wanders the Highlands, terrorizing the inhabitants until she disappears. Dramatizing the differences between the Highland and Lowland cultures, "The Two Drovers" concerns a fight between two long-standing friends, cattle drovers from England and Scotland, respectively, that culminates in the murder of the Englishman and the execution of the Scotsman. "The Surgeon's Daughter" traces the development of a bizarre love triangle between a kindly doctor's only daughter, her foster brother, who entered the family under questionable circumstances, and a good-hearted apprentice to the doctor. Their intertwined fates are resolved eventually in India, during the halcyon days of the East India Company, but only the girl returns home.
The novelty of Scott's writing style, as well as his compelling subject matter, captivated his early audience. Most early reviewers of his poetry and novels noted the superiority of his works, citing its originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters. Scott's Chronicles, too, met with similar critical enthusiasm, although his readers were somewhat puzzled and dismayed with what they perceived as the collection's dark, pessimistic views. Consequently, his short stories fell into obscurity. Throughout the nineteenth century Scott's reputation among readers and critics alike had progressively declined to the point that by the turn of the century many conceded that Scott no longer was a major literary figure, with many contemporary critics observing such flaws as careless plotting, prolixity, and bad grammar in his short fiction. During the 1930s, however, Lord David Cecil edited a new collection of Scott's short stories, declaring them "the most satisfactory things he ever wrote." Moreover, John Lauber has reported that F. R. Leavis, an influential critic of the 1930s and 1940s, thought that "The Two Drovers" and "Wandering Willie's Tale" were "the only parts of Scott's work that retain any vitality." While modern scholars have acknowledged Scott's seminal influence on the development of the European novel genre, particularly with respect to historical perspective and realizing the effects of social change on the lives of ordinary people, Scott's distinction as a short story writer also has come to be appreciated for similar reasons. McGhee has echoed the opinions of many: "His short fiction is not great in quantity, but it is often powerful . . . [and] there is no loss of craftsmanship."