Leading Article: Repayment of an overdue debt to Sir Walter Scott

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IN MANY a second-hand bookshop and on not a few private bookshelves, alongside the poems of Algernon Swinburne and Alfred Tennyson, there languishes unbought and unread a uniform edition of the 30 novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Father of the historical novel he may have been, and vastly popular in his own time; but nowadays those tens of thousands of yellowed pages from his fecund pen are rarely perused.

It might therefore seem little short of commercial masochism for the Edinburgh University Press to be launching this week the first three volumes of a new uniform edition. In reality, there are good academic reasons for the venture, and the cost will not be high.

The editorial logic behind the project lies in Scott's modus scribendi. Having made a considerable name as a poet and anthologist, he published virtually all his novels anonymously. Since his crabbed handwriting was instantly recognisable, the manuscripts had to be copied by someone else, a process that introduced many errors. Other changes were introduced by the printers, who were given a licence to alter or supply punctuation and correct what looked like errors.

Yet more alterations were made by Scott's publishing partner, printer and editor, James Ballantyne, who even - as we report today - censored some of the author's more indelicate passages, decorous though these were by today's standards. The editors of the new edition have studied all the variants, and chosen the version that seems truest to the author's intentions and times.

Scott himself habitually wrote very rapidly, especially - of necessity - after his partner Ballantyne became involved in 1826 in the bankruptcy of the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable. Scott himself was left with a debt of pounds 120,000 - several million pounds in today's money. He committed his future literary earnings to repaying it. Such was his commercial success that he succeeded in doing so by the time of his death, with the aid of a new collected edition of his Waverley novels.

Among those who benefited as a consequence were the publishers' creditors, including the Bank of Scotland. The bank had further cause for gratitude: in the same year of 1826, the Government planned to curtail the right of Scottish banks to issue their own notes. Scott penned the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther in their defence, to such effect that the Government was obliged with withdraw its proposal. Scottish banks still issue their own notes to this day, and those of the Bank of Scotland currently bear a portrait of Sir Walter himself.

As a further gesture of thanks, the bank is subsidising the new edition. Scotland's universities are also contributing, since the literary detective work is being done by academics. Whether the new edition will inspire a Scott revival cannot be foretold. But it seems likely to render those ancient editions all the more unsellable.