Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

Again mixing historical facts with fiction, Sir Walter Scott wrote a delightful novel originally called THE CAVALIER. He later changed the title to WOODSTOCK. There is enough historical fact to make the story plausible, but it is fact highly colored by Scott’s Romantic imagination in a plot dealing with a monarch in disguise, thwarted lovers, and a hateful villain. In turn, these characters are overshadowed by the gallant old gentleman who could die happily at the instant he saw the king return to glory.

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WOODSTOCK covers a pivotal period in English history, the Great Rebellion, and ends with the Restoration. The opposing forces are represented by Markham Everard, a Puritan Colonel, and the fugitive King Charles II, disguised as a page. Everard, who combines idealism and pragmatism, must struggle for freedom and fight against absolutism. Charles II, who is also a paradoxical blend of different traits, signifies the Restoration but is finally obliged to come to terms with many of the demands and accomplishments of the rebels.

Despite these interesting portrayals of historical figures, there are serious flaws in the work. Scott remarked that he wrote WOODSTOCK so quickly that he was not sure how the tale would be ended when he was halfway through its composition; many of the novel’s weaknesses arise from this hastiness. Some critics have pointed to the prominent role of Charles II in the novel as another weakness. Scott was accustomed to mediate between the great figures of history and his audience with relatively minor personages, observers, and go-betweens; but the melodrama in WOODSTOCK is not softened by any of these intermediaries of humbler social standing. There is less historical and social realism and less description of various social groups than in previous novels.

Other critics have questioned the use of language in WOODSTOCK. A lengthy discussion in WESTMINSTER REVIEW of April, 1826, makes the point that Scott has his characters use highly figurative, poetic language no matter how appropriate that language may be. For example, men of all social ranks—from high to low—speak in elaborate and ingenious poetical devices. The result is that characters are not adequately distinguished from one another, and the dialogue, which comprises such a large portion of the novel, is artificial and even distracting. Despite these defects, WOODSTOCK nevertheless contains some memorable characterizations—such as that of old Sir Henry Lee—and has an intriguing plot; although not one of Scott’s best works, the book is still a delight to read.

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