Critical Evaluation

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Regarded as the first historical novel, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley is a striking representative of literature about the Highlanders and Lowlanders of pre-nineteenth century Scotland. Like Maria Edgeworth in her Castle Rackrent (1800), Scott intended his novel to be a romanticized sketch of a people and their customs during a time that had faded into history by the time he wrote Waverley. A tension exists in the novel between Scott’s romanticized description of the Highlanders who fought in the Stuart uprising of 1745 and a story based on historical fact and eyewitness accounts.

Scott romanticizes the story by including various vivid, poetic descriptions of the eerie, rugged Highland terrain to elicit a sense of awe in his readers. Inspired by the success of his long poem Lady of the Lake (1810), Scott intended Waverley as a piece of poetic prose. Scott also romanticizes the novel through the plot. Typical of heroes of romances, Edward overcomes many obstacles in pursuit of a valued object. In the course of the novel, a young man whose perceptions were clouded by the romantic tales of English chivalry and Highland nobility that he read as a child experiences disillusionment and education. An introvert who needs someone to care for him, Edward finds a companion in Rose Bradwardine, a gentlewoman more inclined to domestic pleasures than to Highland heroics. At one significant point, Rose proves to be Edward’s rescuer; gaining the support of Prince Charles, she has Edward rescued from his Lowland captors and returned to the forces of Fergus Mac Ivor. When Edward learns that it is Rose who rescued him, he pledges to marry her.

Edward’s romance is made interesting by the nature of his conflict: He is torn in his allegiance between the old Jacobite order, represented by Prince Charles Edward Stuart and Fergus and Flora Mac Ivor, and the new Hanoverian order represented by Colonel Talbut, who ventures into the battle between the Scots and the English to rescue Waverley. Fiercely loyal, the Highlanders supporting Charles Stuart’s claim to the English throne are holding on to a way of life that, to Scott, has become archaic. On the other hand, the Hanoverians—and Edward is initially a part of this order as a young British recruit—are more rational, more benevolent. To Edward, this conflict is intensified by Flora, sister of Highland prince Mac Ivor. Although Edward falls in love with Flora, he finally accepts that this woman, as politically fanatical as her brother, is not the companion he seeks. Edward’s conflict is resolved when he concludes that the warring life of the Highlander is not for him, and Scott creates a traditional ending: Edward marries Rose, characters that become estranged from the Crown are forgiven, and enmities are placed aside.

A possible contradiction of Scott’s romanticizing of the Highlanders is his device of intermingling historical narratives from individuals who witnessed the Highland uprising of 1745. In the final chapter of Waverley, Scott asserts that this work is historically accurate: “The accounts of the battle at Preston, and the skirmish at Clifton, are taken from the narrative of intelligent eye-witnesses, and corrected from the History of the Rebellion by the late venerable author of Douglas.” In his preface to the third edition, Scott defends the character of the ruthless Highlander Callum Beg as being “that of a spirit naturally turned to daring evil and determined, by the circumstances of his situation, to a particular species of mischief.” Following the defeat of the Highlanders and the trial and execution of Mac Ivor, the romantic ending is somewhat anticlimactic.

The one element that most...

(This entire section contains 916 words.)

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contributes to the success ofWaverley is the character of Mac Ivor, who is not only the novel’s most realistic character but also its one true hero. Mac Ivor is an intensely loyal man who is true to his word and incapable of understanding Edward’s doubts about joining the Highland cause. Mac Ivor is a tragic hero, however, because his steadfastness is also his flaw. He remains intensely, even blindly, loyal to the Stuarts, and in the most powerful scene of the novel, he proclaims his loyalty to Scotland and the Stuart cause as he is condemned to execution for his role in the uprising.

The other characters must be judged in relation to Mac Ivor. Edward Waverley, as his name suggests, is not capable of Fergus’s unwavering devotion to a political cause. Because of his friendship with Mac Ivor, Edward learns that his is not to be a life of military endeavor. Mac Ivor makes the point to Edward, completely taken by Charles’s charisma, that the prince mingles foolish words with his military talk and that he is not the gallant, heroic figure that he might seem to be. The Pretender ultimately abandons his Highland supporters and flees to the Continent, but Mac Ivor remains and is finally beheaded. Even Baron Bradwardine, representative of a heroic past that Scott tries to capture, is pedantic, pretentious, and ridiculous when measured by the realistic and heroic standard of Mac Ivor. The only character who is a match for Mac Ivor’s heroism is Colonel Talbut, who also represents the benevolence and rationality of the new Hanoverian order.

The novel’s vivid descriptions and high adventure support Scott’s purpose in writing this novel. Although not born a Highlander, Scott wrote Waverley for “the purpose of preserving some of the ancient manners, of which I have witnessed the almost total extinction.”