All you need to know about the books you meant to read
This week: WAVERLEY by Sir Walter Scott (1814)
Saturday 28 October 1995
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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election
- 2 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever