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Robert C. Gordon (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gordon, Robert C. “Waverley.” In Under Which King? A Study of the Scottish Waverley Novels, pp. 11-25. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Gordon evaluates Waverley as a historical/political novel, focusing on its Jacobite theme and Scott's presentation of character.]

“… the contest between the loyalists and their opponents can never be obsolete …”

—Coleridge

The incorporating Union that brought England and Scotland under one government in 1707 was, paradoxically, both a typical example of eighteenth-century political jobbery and a gesture of political faith—a premature ratification of things hoped for, if not seen.1 It could only acquire validity when Scotland began to profit as a partner in British commercial, political, and intellectual life. Otherwise Scotland risked becoming what Scott sometimes feared it would become—“a very dangerous North British neighbourhood.”2

For a long time after the passage of the Union there were few visible benefits to the Scots. They had, it seems, lost their independence for nothing, and when in 1736 the Crown pardoned the unpopular Captain Porteous of the Edinburgh City Guard, a man whose unruly authoritarianism had made him a symbol of London's oppression of Scotland, the Edinburgh mob rioted in a mood of nationalistic defiance. What was needed to prevent an endless recurrence of this sort of thing was precisely the development that seemed to take place after mid-century—a lively incursion of Scots into the higher places of English life and an intellectual renaissance in Edinburgh. When the time came for Benjamin Franklin to remark that Jonah had swallowed the whale, the Union was validated.3

Before this could happen, however, the Jacobites were to be heard from. In the eighteenth century Jacobitism existed in a halfway house between activist determination and nostalgic gesture. There were chiefs in Scotland who were prepared to die for the old cause, and there were Tories in London who squeezed oranges in a marked manner, or, if they were like Samuel Johnson on a later occasion, recommended Jacobitism to pretty girls.4 Between these poles were varying degrees of resolution (and a large measure of total indifference); and when Prince Charles misread the evidence and brought an army into the field it soon became clear where the preponderance lay. Nostalgia was one thing, grapeshot quite another.

As David Daiches has indicated, Scott looked back upon Jacobitism with divided feelings.5 He was perfectly well aware that Scotland's commitment to a mercantile, secular, British world was irrevocable, and that such a world had great advantages over that of the Stuarts and the Highland patriarchs. Yet he sympathised with the rebels as the possessors of virtues no longer fashionable—feudal loyalty, personal heroism, chivalric flamboyance—and it would be ridiculous to underestimate the force of this sympathy. Not long before Waverley appeared he wrote to a correspondent, with his customary distaste for punctuation marks:

Seriously I am very glad I did not live in 1745 for though as a lawyer I could not have pleaded Charles's right and as a clergy man I could not have prayed for him yet as a soldier I would I am sure against the conviction of my better reason have fought for him even to the bottom of the gallows.6

His “better reason” could properly judge his Jacobite impulses, but it could never completely contain them, and the consequences for the novel of this failure of containment were enormous.

After Maria Edgeworth had opened his eyes to the possibility of serious fiction exploiting distinct national traits,7 Scott dramatised his conflicting impulses in novels of Scottish history. The result was a new fictional mode—one that has been with us ever since. For wherever novelists present social and political conflicts—France against Russia, America against Europe, North against South, modern Africa against tribal Africa—they are followers of Scott.

Waverley,

(The entire section is 109,172 words.)