When the noted scholar Edgar Johnson published his biography of Sir Walter Scott in 1970, he chose for his title Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. Recognizing that the subtitle refers to an epithet Scott inherited in his own day, one might still think that Johnson was being unfair to modern readers, for Scott has not been “unknown” for some time. On the other hand, considering the educated public’s familiarity with the bulk of Scott’s works, Johnson might just as well have selected for his subtitle “The Great Unread.” In the 1980’s, only a modest number of people can claim to know many of Scott’s works, though many have read (or skimmed through) at least one. High school students plod through Ivanhoe (1820). College undergraduates who enroll in novel courses take home from the bookstore copies of Waverley (1814) or The Heart of Midlothian (1818). An occasional enterprising graduate student makes his or her way through Rob Roy (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), or Redgauntlet (1824).
From crib sheets and critical surveys, students (and teachers, in many cases) learn that, in addition to being a competent poet whose verse narratives were popular until Lord Byron began writing in the genre, Scott wrote a series of works now known as the Waverley novels. The student may also learn from a secondary source that Scott was “prolific” and that he was the father of the historical novel.
A trip through the library shelves gives one a hint as to why, in today’s fast-paced world, in which best-selling fiction often runs to less than three-hundred pages, Scott remains largely the property of the academic community. Forty-eight volumes, neatly arranged and often covered with a uniform coating of library dust, bear the Waverley imprint and the gold-lettered Scott on their spines.
It may be hard to imagine that, once upon a time, Sir Walter Scott was the most widely read novelist in the world, his works the standard against which others’ novels were judged. Taste in fiction changes rapidly, however; only a scant thirty years after he died, Scott was dubbed “irresponsible” by the young Henry James, and as the art of fiction became more sophisticated, Scott became less a “must-be-read” figure.
The popularity of the form which Scott created did not diminish. Historical novels appeared in abundance throughout the nineteenth century; a turn-of-the-century scholarly study reviewed almost three thousand of them. With academic interest in the form itself taking precedence over attention to individual works, Scott’s novels became a touchstone for evaluative, or genre, criticism. In ways curiously (if somewhat perversely) reminiscent of Aristotle and the neoclassical critics, literary analysts turned to Scott’s works to discover the “elements” of the “true” historical novel. How far removed from the present did the action of the novel have to be to merit the term “historical”? What proportion of real-life characters had to inhabit the pages? How closely must the events of the fiction parallel history? In Scott, the critics found answers, usually with little regard to the artistry of the Waverley novels themselves.
It is no surprise, then, that the modern scholar who chooses to write about Sir Walter Scott’s works faces a task both easy and difficult. There is no lack of materials: In addition to the forty-eight volumes of the Waverley collection, there are about a dozen volumes of verse. (By contrast, James Joyce, one of the most intensely studied twentieth century figures, produced only four major works in his lifetime.) Certainly, someone who really wants to write about Scott’s work can find an angle that has not been used before on one or more of the lesser-read novels or poems. That seems possible even in the face of a substantial body of criticism, which includes both individual monographs and shorter studies numbering in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. If one wishes to say something worthwhile about Scott, though, one is still faced with having to read a mountain of material, much of it requiring a considerable background in both history and literature to appreciate fully. Any scholar who does so deserves special attention. Jane Millgate is such a scholar, and her new investigation of the early Waverley novels merits a close look by both nineteenth century literary specialists and the academic community in general.
Millgate’s thesis is that, if read correctly, the early Waverley novels can reveal something about Scott’s theory of fiction. With remarkable skill and a deft ability to introduce other scholarship without making it appear obtrusive, she begins by showing how the poems Scott wrote immediately prior to publication of Waverley, the first novel in the series, anticipate what Scott will do in his fiction. The chapters on these poems do more than demonstrate Scott’s interest in preserving the heritage of the Scots Highlands and the Border culture: Millgate shows that Scott’s method of narration is a key to understanding his eventual need to shift to the form of the novel to explore topics that really interested him. In relating these fantastic tales, Scott was careful to maintain a firm base in the real world. He created a framework for presenting the minstrel’s ballads so that the reader could accept the veracity of the fantastic by having a realistic point of reference. What had really begun to interest Scott, however, was the way in which changing human situations and the press of events affect the lives of individuals and make them change and grow. Having found the conventions of verse narrative too inflexible for dealing with the developmental process of a hero, Scott turned to the novel as a means of exploring this phenomenon. The novel provided a way of introducing the domestic as well as the heroic side of life; what Millgate finds in virtually all of the early Waverley novels is a constant balancing of heroic and domestic which allowed Scott to explore at length the changing characteristics of human nature.
Without harping on the point, Millgate quietly dispels the notion that frustration with losing his readership to Byron is what drove Scott to...
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