Sunday, June 7, 2015

More on Waverley and Sir Walter Scott

I spent a couple of weeks reading (my by now quite battered copy of) 'Waverley' and more time thinking about what Scott's doing in this book - far to much to fit into one post, so I'm writing another one. Bare with me.

I remember exactly when I began to appreciate how important Scott was - I would have been 8 or 9 and being shown Edinburgh where Princes street is dominated by the Scott monument and Waverley station. Shakespeare doesn't get quite that kind of treatment even in Stratford and because book shops in Scotland almost uniformly have a Scottsh section (in which Scott will feature) he becomes part of the scenery. Studying History of Art he popped up again, both as the inspiration for various paintings, and for his baronial fantasy at Abbotsford. Finally, when I actually got to know the Borders (Scott's home territory) including Abbotsford I started reading his books - and wondered why it took me so long.

Seeing Scott's home, stuffed with objects that celebrate a romantic vision of Scottish history, it's hard not to share his delight in them (at least if, like me, you share his magpie instinct). The story of how when his publishers, in which he had a financial interest, went bust he determined to accept no help but shoulder the debts and write his way out of them (Wikipedia says the equivalent of £9500000 in today's money) suggests that chivalry really meant something to him. It also explains the patchy quality of some of the later books.

'Waverley' isn't patchy though, it's a masterpiece that's well worth exploring. There were two things I was particularly aware of whilst I read it - the way Scott deals with Waverley's radicalisation into the Jacobite cause, and the current political climate in Scotland.

Scott gives us plenty of time to get to know Edward Waverley (his name is apt). He's a romantic and naive youth, his ideas formed by reading, and highlights from family history that include dashing cavaliers and the like. He's a pleasant boy who's grown up insulated by prosperity, and who is in no way experienced enough to understand or deal with the circumstances he finds himself in. History is going to happen to him.

When Waverley ventures into the highlands he takes the hospitality of the people he meets at face value (and why shouldn't he?) most notably failing to understand the ambition that motivates his friend Fergus, or why he himself might be a useful pawn for the Jacobites. As a guest of the Mac Ivor's, Waverley is completely isolated from the outside world, susceptible to the charms of Flora, and through a judicious blend of poetry, tradition, and spectacle encouraged to sympathise with the Jacobite cause. Then suddenly, or so it seems, he's puplically accused of treason, sacked from his regiment, and generally disenfranchised from his former comrades. The reader can better guess than Waverley some of what's happened and how he's been manipulated, but still it's natural that he should turn to his new friends at this point even if his convictions aren't fully engaged. It's a story still being repeated in the news on a regular basis.

After the events of 1745 distinctly Scottish identity, especially in the highlands where the clan system had held sway was rigorously suppressed. The wearing of tartan (or perhaps more accurately - plaid) was banned, especially in the form of a kilt, as was the bearing of arms. Traditional loyalties to clan chiefs were challenged and feudal rights revoked. The highland clearances broke down those old loyalties even further (there are even stories of hard up chieftains selling their clansmen into slavery to fund lavish lifestyles in London). Sixty years on when Scott published Waverley, and certainly by 1822 when he stage managed the prince regents visit to Edinburgh the time was right to reclaim and reinvent some of that suppressed culture. 'Waverley' celebrates it like anything because Scott was keen to preserve what he saw being lost in his own lifetime.

What came as a surprise to me is how familiar Scott's vision of Scotland still is. It may mostly be the Scotland of tourism posters and films, of shortbread tins and postcards - full of stags, purple heather, distant mountains, and bagpipes - along with more complex ideas of national identity and pride, but the roots are all here.

Scott was a committed unionist and for most of 'Waverley' this is a strength. The balance between head which supports the economic prosperity that union with England has bought, and heart which isn't immune to the romantic appeal of the Stuart cause is skilfully maintained right until the end which feels clumsy in comparison. Naturally Waverley must be got off the hook somehow, and his reprieve from a death sentence is apparently based on a true story, but Scott spreads it a bit thick in places and there's an odd moment when he describes a portrait of Waverley and Fergus dressed in tartan at the head of the clan pouring down a glen which could surely only have been seen as a provocative move to commission in 1747 when you'd narrowly escaped being convicted of high treason... Waverley's English money puts things right to quickly for his Scottish friends.

Now that I've had time to think about the book the other thing that really sticks with me is how feminized Waverley is as a character. The way he changes his mind, his relative inaction, his habit of falling over and being injured, the way he accepts his fathers choice of career, and is courted by Fergus and the Prince, not so much for the practical aid he might provide but because as a representative of an influential English family his very presence is enough to suggest support for the cause and reassure some of the doubtful Scots about their reception south of the border. None of this fits the profile of a traditional hero, and it's more noticeable because the two women in his life are so much more dynamic. Flora is committed to her cause to the exclusion of all else, and Rose Bradwardine, the meek and proper maiden who will be Waverley's reward (all he wants in the end is domestic bliss) still has the wherewithal to negotiate for his safety with a bandit, intercede on his behalf with the prince, and shift for herself when her rebel father is away and her home garrisoned by English soldiers. It makes Waverley so much more human, and it also gives Scott the chance to have some fun with him.


  1. Delighted you've got so much out of this! Will you be able to condense it all into a review for Shiny, though!

  2. I think I've got most of it out my system now, Harriet and am working on how to frame it for shiny! There's such a lot in it that there's plenty to go round.

  3. You have enthused me to read my copy of Waverly. I recently read a biography of Scott, so this will get even going on the novels. I can't understand why Scott is so neglected.

    1. Neither can I, Claire. He's a little old fashioned but no more so than Jane Austen, a bit wordy - but nothing like Trollope in that respect, and he's also funny, humane, and inventive. I needed to make a bit of an effort to keep going at times, but not much of an effort and it was good for me - the results were very rewarding! I should read a biography of him too, as the more I've got yo know of him the more I've liked! Hope you enjoy Waverley!

  4. Carol in MarylandJune 8, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    Interesting comments on a book I was unable to get all the way through. Perhaps I'll try again and be more successful after reading your thoughts.. I did feel a few of my "hackles" raised by your use of the word "feminized". ( Perhaps a phrase such as "stereotypical female behavior" would be less offensive to some of your readers.)Such wimpy behavior is characteristic of many young, inexperienced men. Also, there is a book called DAMN REBEL B-----S by Maggie Craig, based on primary sources, which tells us that there were lots of feisty, courageous real women who were just as committed to their cause as Scott's fictional women. Writer Lin Anderson recommended this book to me as she led part of our tour group on a walking tour of Glasgow three years ago. I had no trouble finding a used copy here in the US, so it is surely easily available where you are. Excellent book.

  5. Hi Carol, I'm sorry you didn't manage to finish, I think it's worth persevering with, but obviously not if you're really not getting much out of it. I admit feminized may not be the best word, but it's not that his behaviour is stereotypically feminine - though it is at times passive, which is a real contrast to the female characters who are feminine but not particularly passive. Nor is Waverley an especially feminine or effeminate character - at least not to my eyes, but the sort of home bound education he's had seems much more in line with what a woman's might have been, and the way the plot continuously disposes of him, often by rendering him weak or helpless, and his passive acceptance of fate - well feminized seemed best to express what I was thinking, but he's not a wimp! Scott comments that Waverleys education was based on his own, and of course he wasn't physically strong after a childhood illness damaged one of his legs so that may be significant in terms of the choices he made for his character. I will look out for that book, it's an interesting part of British history, one that I studied a bit at school and university but not so much since.