All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: WAVERLEY by Sir Walter Scott (1814)

Plot: Waverley is the first great historical novel and should be ranked alongside Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma or Tolstoy's War and Peace, both of which are bathed in the blaze of Scott's molten genius.

The novel opens just prior to the '45 Jacobite rebellion. Mild-mannered, simpering Edward Waverley, neglected by his uncle, spends time devouring books on medieval derring-do; he enrols in the army, seeking romance. Posted to Scotland, he meets kind but anaemic Rose Bradwardine. The tepid couple become mildly involved.

Seeking further romance, Edward whips up to the Highlands where he becomes entangled with a bunch of Jacobite freedom fighters/ terrorists. They are led by the suave and calculating Fergus Mac-Ivor. Edward drifts towards Fergus's sister, the sexually compelling but politically naive Flora. Understandably, the English are suspicious of Edward's idiosyncratic choice of chums. In a huff, he defects to the Highlanders' cause.

Our hero meets Bonnie Prince Charlie, witnesses the rebels' victory at the battle of Prestonpans and saves the life of good Colonel Talbot, an English officer. Eventually, the Jacobites are routed but, luckily, Talbot speaks up for Edward.

Fergus and his team are executed, Flora rejects Edward and chooses, instead, to wither in a convent. On his return to England, Waverley at last embraces the pallid charms of Rose. His various experiences have left little impression.

Theme: The individual seeks freedom yet is enmeshed in the medium of history. Flitting along the borders of Augustan sensibility and Romantic angst, Scott shows two societies locked in destructive opposition; the spontaneous, nostalgic but essentially violent Highlanders against the prosaic, mercantile but law-abiding English. Throughout, Scott maintains a disinterested equilibrium; acknowledging the attributes of both sides, he demonstrates the impossibility of compromise.

Style: Scott does pull off the odd descriptive tour de force, but the main body of the prose is written in an uneven, clumping Augustan style, full of abstract vocabulary; this is interposed with taut, expressive Scots dialect. The tension between the two enacts the unresolved conflict of the novel.

Chief strength: Scott is the "single Shakespearean talent of the English novel" (V. S. Pritchett). His unforced humanity illuminates both prince and peasant, while his deft analysis of historical forces makes even Tolstoy seem a bit mechanical; fair to his characters and their situation, Scott is never self-congratulatory about his authorial stance.

Chief weakness: Scott's attempts at humour. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to rely on comic types with names like Duncan Macwheeble who are not very funny.

What they thought of it then: Waverley caused a seismic shift in Europe's aesthetic consciousness. It was consumed from Milan to St Petersburg, spawning historical novels, plays and operas over the entire continent.

What we think of it now: Scott is patronised as a regional writer. There is some scholarly interest, but he is largely unread outside specialist university courses. Given the brilliance of his achievement, this neglect is absurd.

Responsible for: The historical novel (A Tale of Two Cities), the panoramic novel (Middlemarch), Balzac, Balmoral, Kilts and the Highland Tourist Board.

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