Saturday, June 6, 2015

Waverley - Sir Walter Scott

I remember being distinctly dismissive of advice in the introduction to 'The Bride of Lammermoor' regarding a reading strategy, but now my time with Waverley is over - it represents my 4th foray into Scott's writing - I'm ready to admit I have indeed formed a strategy for reading him and it helps. 

It's not just Scott, it's basically the same strategy for any 18th or 19th century author I read (I'm looking at you inparticular Anthony Trollope...) but the first thing I need to do is accept that it'll take me a while to get through whatever book it might be. Then it's a question of making time to get to grips with the beast. In this case it took about 75 pages to really get into the story which meant making myself sit and read of an evening and not giving into other distraction. Avoid other distractions; it's not that I find Scott's language particularly difficult, but he's not in a hurry to get through his story or to pile in the action and he takes what I can only think of as the scenic route. It all demands a certain amount of concentration so no picking up other books and so on. I also find it works better for me to read ahead on the notes before I pick the story up again and back on them before I put it down - though in this case I wasn't altogether unfamiliar with the history or politics of either 1745 or 1814 which was helpful. 

In return for this small amount of effort and organisation Scott more than repays me in terms of enjoyment and interest - and this is a point I can't stress enough - Waverley is fun to read. It's also important for all sorts of reasons - the invention of the historical novel in its modern form, immensely influential on literature generally, and then there's Scott's vision of Scottishness and a wider national identity. 

'Waverley' opens somewhere in England (possibly in Worcestershire) with the early history of Our Hero; Edward Waverley of Waverley Honour. He is the nephew and probable heir of Sir Everard, a rich baronet who finding himself unsympathetic to the house of Hanover and the current government, lives a life of pleasant retirement on his estates. His younger brother, our hero's father, has incurred a certain amount of family disapproval by turning his back on their traditional Tory/Jacobite sympathies and pursuing a successful political career. As a politician however he's happy to leave his son in Sir Everard's care as the most likely way of securing the estate. 

Young Edward is educated at home in a haphazard manner, essential doing only what he likes, until his father decides he shall join the army at which point he's dispatched to Scotland as a captain of dragoons to fit in as best he can and armed with letters of introduction to old Jacobite friends of his uncles. Unsurprisingly the rigours of army life soon pall on young Edward so he applies for a leave of absence and takes himself off into this land of romance. Following his inclination and the hospitable demands of his hosts he stays away far to long, and in company quite inappropriate to a young officer in king George's army. Eventually he finds himself in the stronghold of the Mac Ivor's, a clan headed by the charismatic young chieftain, Fergus, and his beautiful sister Flora. Waverley naturally falls in love with Flora, or thinks he does, and is hardly less taken with Fergus, but these two are far more sophisticated than our hero, deeply invested in the hopes of the young pretender, and keen to recruit a wealthy and well connected Englishman to the prince's cause. Eventually after a series of accidents  befall Waverley they succeed, though for Scott's purposes it's important that we understand this is really accidental. 

Early infatuation with the glamour of Bonnie Prince Charlie doesn't survive Edwards first real experience of battle, but by now he has nowhere else to go - he's a traitor to his own government with the very real threat of death hanging over him if he's caught, and dishonour in his own eyes if he abandons the cause he pledged himself to. Meanwhile his family are also caught up in the implications of his actions and supposed actions. And then, eventually, it's a happy ending for almost everyone with the exception of the Mac Ivor's.

The first thing to say is that Scott invests a great deal of humour into 'Waverley' along with a reasonable amount of drama. There are funny characters, and Waverley's habit of falling over and literally being carried off at key moments also becomes something of a running joke as well as a device to make it clear that he's far from master of his own fate. Because Edward is generally laid up with a sprained ankle in the middle of nowhere, or inconveniently snowbound, or otherwise engaged whilst momentous events happen it comes as something of a surprise when Scott suddenly demands a deeper emotional response from his readers, but he gets it - in Waverley's last interview with Flora I cried into my lunchtime sandwich. It's a beautifully done scene - Flora has lost everything she believed in and loved. Home is gone, her brother is to be executed the next day, and she won't even get all of his body back as his head will be displayed on a pike adorning Carlisle castle. The mix of pride, regret, and grief is masterly and in many ways it's a shame the book doesn't end there because the last chapters smack to much of pro Union propaganda to be really satisfactory. 


  1. Sounds great! I've always had trouble with Scott, and I'm sure it's my impatience to get on with it -- reading slowly must be the way to go.

  2. I won't lie, the first 70 pages were a bit of a struggle but after that it really got going. The slow pacing adds to the tension by the start of volume 2, because we know roughly what's going to happen off stage and want to know how Waverley will get caught up in it, and by the end more than anything I really enjoyed Scott's company. I'm very glad you prompted me to read this!

  3. I did enjoy your review, as Scott is so little read today, and as you say, these troubles still affect the Scottish situation at the moment. I was wondering about reading it, but decided not to as I now know how it ends, and there would be no suspense. Perhaps you should leave the endings a bit vague for future readers. But thanks again for highlighting this forgotten author.

  4. Oh Michelle, you have made me sad for poor old Scott. Not so long ago the plot of Waverley would have been as generally familiar as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre! It's sometimes difficult to decide how many spoilers to put in, but with a book that's been around for 200 years I must admit I don't worry about it much. I really haven't given that much away - the historical circumstances of its setting also mean that certain conclusions are inevitable anyway, and the important bit us what happens in the middle. Please don't be put off if you have a mind to read it, there will still be all manner of surprises in there.