ST. RONAN’S WELL was not favorably received by the critics of its day; in fact, following publication of the novel, Sir Walter Scott’s reputation fell considerably. The unpopularity of the novel may be partly attributed to the fact that the scene of ST. RONAN’S WELL is not Scott’s customary historical setting but rather a contemporary setting, a fashionable watering place. This change no doubt upset many of his readers. In an introduction attached to ST. RONAN’S WELL, Scott defended the setting of his book on the neoclassical basis that it helped him in the imitation of life. The setting, he argued, allowed him to portray contemporary figures. Unfortunately, this argument was not persuasive.
Another problem in the novel was that Scott was forced by his publisher to eliminate a key section. Clara, the aristocratic lady, had been seduced prior to the opening scene of the book. Despite the fact, however, that the seduction was only reported and not described, Scott’s publisher balked. Scott is reported to have objected that if the woman had not been an aristocrat but had been a working girl, the publisher would never have called for a change. Nevertheless, Scott surrendered to the pressure and rewrote more than twenty pages of ST. RONAN’S WELL in order to try to account for the change in motivation. He was not entirely successful, and his “imitation of life” suffered.
There were also other weaknesses apparent in ST. RONAN’S WELL. Since Scott did not choose a historical theme, there was little historical conflict to give resonance to the plot. Thus, the conflict between the brothers, the death of Clara, and the disguises and intrigues seem nakedly melodramatic. Furthermore, although Scott was able to draw some interesting and accurate Scottish and English types, he was not able to portray that variety of social types to which his audience had become accustomed in the Waverley series.
On the positive side, however, Scott’s use of dialect in ST. RONAN’S WELL is less forced and unnatural than in the historical romances. Meg Dods, for example, speaks a fluent Scots, interesting and readable. Since she was a contemporary, Scott did not have to make her language “poetic” or lace it with archaic, figurative expressions.