(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since Sir Walter Scott

The following entry presents criticism of Scott's novel Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since (1814). See also, Ivanhoe Criticism.

Generally regarded as the first historical novel, Walter Scott's Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since concerns a young Englishman who travels to Scotland and becomes caught up in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Published anonymously in 1814, the work spawned a vogue in historical fiction that not only elevated the novel to a status equal to that of poetry, but also helped shape the way history has been written and understood by subsequent generations. In addition, its unprecedented success prompted Scott to write more than two dozen novels in a similar vein—commonly designated the Waverley Novels—which describe the lives of ordinary individuals who become involved in great historical events and present in lavish detail the speech, manners, and customs of past ages. In Waverley, this past record focuses on the declining feudal culture of the Scottish Highlands prior to Scotland's absorption into Great Britain.

Plot and Major Characters

After informing his readers of those things that Waverley is not, including a tale of sentiment or Gothic horror, Scott goes on to explain how his young hero, Edward Waverley, was left in the care of his uncle, the chivalrous Sir Everard, at the ancestral home of Waverley-Honour, while his opportunistic father busied himself with schemes for accumulating wealth and power in London. Growing up with Everard, Edward receives a haphazard education, preferring instead to indulge his imagination in romantic tales. When the time comes to decide on a profession, Edward chooses the military, quickly rising to the rank of captain in the English dragoons. Assigned to a post in Scotland, Edward visits the village of Tully-Veolan and the nearby manor house belonging to the Baron of Bradwardine. He makes the acquaintance of the somewhat pedantic but hospitable Baron and his daughter, Rose. The Baron introduces Edward to the Mac-Ivors, a highland clan headed by Fergus Mac-Ivor. An ambitious and determined supporter of Jacobism, Fergus wants to see the current Hanoverian king of England, George II, overthrown and the exiled Stuart line restored to power. Later, Edward also meets Flora Mac-Ivor, Fergus's younger sister, and immediately falls in love with her, though pressing political matters hinder the romance. Caught up in the Jacobite cause by his association with the Mac-Ivors, Edward joins the army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the throne. Charles has only recently returned from France and mustered a force of sympathetic Highland warriors, whom he intends to lead to London. Meanwhile, visiting the village of Cairnvreckan, Edward is suspected of his involvement with the conspiracy and is arrested. After being interrogated by an English major named Melville, Edward is subsequently rescued by a small group of Highlanders. Soon the army of Prince Charles begins preparations to meet the English forces. The battle occurs at Prestonpans and ends in Jacobite victory. During the conflict Edward saves an English officer from the blow of a Scottish axe. Taken prisoner, the officer reveals himself as Colonel Talbot, a friend of Edward's uncle. An excellent soldier, thoroughgoing realist, and ardent supporter of England, Talbot assures Edward that the rebellion will be quashed. Nevertheless, Prince Charles has taken the city of Edinburgh and installed himself at Holyrood Palace—although Edinburgh Castle, held by forces loyal to King George, proves impenetrable. Lifting their siege of the castle, the Jacobite army marches into England and toward London. Charles and his Highlanders advance as far south as Derby before they are forced to retreat back to Scotland as the tide of the rebellion shifts. In an ensuing skirmish near the town of Clifton, the English capture Fergus Mac-Ivor and Edward is separated from his allies. By the time he rejoins the army back in Edinburgh, Edward learns that the rebellion is exhausted and Prince Charles's forces have been handed a final defeat at Culloden. In the aftermath, Fergus is tried and sentenced to execution for treason. An offer by the Highlanders to exchange the lives of a number of their men for that of their chieftain is regarded with disbelief by the English, and Fergus is sent to the gallows. The Baron of Bradwardine, though a Jacobite sympathizer, receives the King's pardon and survives with his life. Later he is able to buy back his confiscated manor, and Edward becomes engaged to the Baron's daughter Rose.

Major Themes

Much of the interest in Waverley focuses on its hero Edward Waverley, whose romantic imagination colors the work, though his illusions are consistently undercut by the situational ironies of Scott's narrative. The sweep of the novel is frequently interpreted as a progress from Edward's fascination with the romanticism of Highland culture to his inevitable disillusionment as the Jacobite rebellion turns from a stimulating adventure into a bloody and ultimately disappointing reality. Edward is naïve, and Fergus uses his infatuation with the beautiful Flora, an emblem of the mythic allure of the Highlands, to initiate Edward into the Jacobite cause. During the course of the novel, Edward's youthful enthusiasm for the rebellion is tempered by the events he witnesses. Likewise, his love for the ethereal Flora gives way to a more practical and sensible attraction to Rose Bradwardine. Overall, the thematic texture of Waverley is generally viewed as a struggle between romance and history, culminating in Edward's rejection of his early imaginative illusions as he comes to accept the harsh realities of life. A parallel movement occurs in the novel's historical plot, as the noble but anachronistic ideals of the Scottish Highlanders yield to modern actualities, represented by the English, and particularly voiced by the pragmatic Colonel Talbot. The novel also illustrates what many critics see as Scott's theory of history, in which the gradual but inevitable process of historical change guides the lives of ordinary individuals who are unable to alter its path, while the motivations of human nature—whether noble or wicked—remain unchanged.

Critical Reception

Waverley proved a popular sensation when first published and quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear. Contemporary critical reaction, though also positive, did cite certain deficiencies in the work, including careless construction and prolixity. Yet most early reviewers quickly acknowledged the strengths of the novel, noting its originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters. Like most of Scott's novels, Waverley has fallen out of favor, although it continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the view of history it offers. Such studies have been greatly influenced by the criticism of Georg Lukács in The Historical Novel. In this work, Lukàcs examined Scott as a dialectical historian, claiming that he “endeavors to portray the struggles and antagonisms of history by means of characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.” Numerous critics have taken up Lukàcs's idea and applied this thinking to Edward Waverley as he represents a significant moment of cultural transition in Scottish and English history. Such analyses have demonstrated Waverley's enormous impact as the prototypical English historical novel, and its status as a pivotal work of nineteenth-century European literature.