BORN: 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland
DIED: 1832, Abbotsford, Scotland
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
The Lady of the Lake (1810)
Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since (1814)
Modern scholars consider Scottish author Sir Walter Scott both the inventor of the historical novel and the first best-selling novelist. In addition to elevating the novel to a status equal to that of poetry, Scott single-handedly created the genre of historical fiction, vividly bringing to life both Scottish and English history.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Illness Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 15, 1771, into a prosperous middle-class family. His father, also named Walter, was a lawyer with strong ties to the Scottish Border country,
the area on the border of Scotland and England. His mother was Anne Rutherford Scott, daughter of a professor of medicine.
When he was eighteen months old, Scott contracted polio (an infectious virus that can cause paralysis in the arms and legs due to lesions to the central nervous system), which left his right leg permanently crippled. Despite his illness, Scott was an active child, and his parents often sent him to the countryside to stay with his paternal grandfather, hoping the fresh air and country living would improve Scott's health. Interested in Scottish history and literature during his childhood, Scott also developed an appreciation for the natural scenery that became such a defining characteristic of his writing.
Embraced Scottish Culture Scott enrolled in Edinburgh High School in 1778, and five years later entered Edinburgh University, where he studied history and law. In 1786, he was apprenticed to his father's legal firm and became a lawyer in 1792. During his apprenticeship, Scott traveled a good deal in the Scottish Border country and Highlands, gathering folk ballads and enjoying the oral tradition of simple farmers and shepherds.
In 1797, Scott married Charlotte Carpenter, with whom he had two daughters and two sons. Scott read widely in politics and history, and soon he was composing his own versions of traditional oral ballads. In 1798 he was appointed sheriff of Selkirkshire, Scotland, in the Border country. Shortly thereafter, the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland was passed. Thus, in 1800, the United Kingdom, which included Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland, formally came into being. Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, was ruled by King George III of the House of Hanover at this time.
Poetic Success In Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), his first publication, Scott's interests as a poet, an antiquarian, and a Scottish cultural nationalist came together for the first time. This work contained the Scottish ballads he had collected over the years, many of which had never before appeared in print. Encouraged both by praise from friends and by the popularity of this collection, Scott wrote the highly successful narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), a work Scott intended to illustrate the customs and manners of inhabitants on both sides of the Scottish-English border during medieval times.
Around this time, Scott quit practicing law full time and entered into a longtime relationship with the printer James Ballantyne, purchasing a third share in the business that would publish many of his works throughout the years. Scott followed the success of The Lay of the Last Minstrel with a series of highly popular poems featuring Scottish backgrounds and themes. Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), for example, tells of a famous—and disastrous—Scottish battle against the English. In 1810, Scott published his best-known long poem, The Lady of the Lake, set in the Scottish Highlands.
The Waverly Novels The triumph of the first two cantos of Lord Byron's poem Childe Harold in 1812 convinced Scott that he could not compete with the younger poet. By the time Scott's next work, Rokeby, appeared in 1813, readers were beginning to lose interest in his poetry. Anxious to keep his audience and income, Scott decided to revise and complete a fragment of a novel that he had begun ten years before about the Jacobite revolution in Scotland, an attempt to restore the old Stuart line to the Scottish and English thrones. Published in 1814, Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear, and the novel brought huge profits to Scott and his publisher.
Over the next seventeen years, Scott wrote more than two dozen novels and stories in a series now known as the Waverly Novels. Because he never worked out his plots ahead of time, rarely revised his manuscripts, and followed strict work habits, Scott was able to maintain an impressively prolific pace. Through the speech, manners, and customs of past ages, most of the Waverly Novels describe the lives of ordinary individuals who become involved in historical events. This body of work is often divided into three groups: the “Scotch Novels,” including Old Mortality (1816), which deal with Scottish culture and history; the novels that focus on medieval history in England and Europe, such as Ivanhoe (1820); and those that are concerned with the Tudor-Stuart era in England, including Woodstock (1826).
Because writing novels was considered less respectable than writing poetry during this time, Scott published the Waverly Novels anonymously. Even when the success of this series increased general public appreciation for novelists, Scott chose to remain anonymous—most likely a result of his perception that the mystery surrounding the novels contributed to their sales. The Waverly Novels were published as “by the Author of Waverly,” and the author was often referred to simply as the Great Unknown. Although the Waverly Novels were published anonymously, many readers and critics alike knew Scott's identity, and he became not only the most popular writer in contemporary English literature, but also a highly esteemed personality throughout Europe. In 1818, Scott was made a baronet and thereafter was known as Sir Walter Scott.
Personal Tragedies In 1826, a dual tragedy struck. His wife, Charlotte, died in May of that year, followed by Scott's financial ruin when the Ballantyne printing company went bankrupt. His debt was well over one hundred thousand pounds, an enormous sum. The following year, so that he could begin putting his affairs in order, Scott publicly acknowledged authorship of the Waverley Novels and turned with renewed urgency to his writing. Eventually, the debt was paid, but at a terrible cost to the author's health. Despite suffering a stroke in 1830, Scott continued to write and travel. Everywhere he traveled, he was received as a celebrity, one of the first authors to enjoy international fame. During his travels, however, he was forced to return home after another stroke, and he died on September 21, 1832.
Works in Literary Context
Influenced by History Scott's reading of the workds of Edmund Spenser and Torquato Tasso and Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) did much to shape his later poetry, as did his many expeditions to the countryside, where he spent time collecting ballads, local legends, and folklore. Scott was greatly influenced by the history and life of people who lived in his native Scotland.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Scott's famous contemporaries include:
Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821): The French military commander and self-appointed emperor conquered much of Europe until he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824): An English Romantic poet who was known for his scandalous life and who died while fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. His poems include Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (c. 1812).
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Although deaf for much of his life, this German composer and musician was one of the world's greatest classical composers. The Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1824) is among his best known works.
Novel Incorporations Scott worked a number of ballads, songs, and other lyrics into his novels. Gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis had revived the convention of interspersing lyric poems in prose narratives that was characteristic of earlier English romances such as Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590, 1593) and Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde (1590). Scott used this device to much greater effect than his Gothic predecessors did. His early mastery of song and ballad forms enabled him to establish atmosphere and character, and his use of lyrics to comment on or foreshadow the action of the novels is often quite subtle and effective.
Influence Twentieth-century critics have emphasized Scott's important role in English literary history, as well as his considerable impact on nineteenth-century European literature. Literary historians have traced his influence on the masterpieces of novelists as diverse as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Scholars have also explored Scott's significant contribution—through his invention and development of the historical novel—to the history of ideas, specifically with respect to the modern concept of historical perspective.
Works in Critical Context
Influence on Historical Perspective The novelty of Scott's writing style, as well as his compelling subject matter, captivated his early audience. Most early reviewers of his poetry and novels noted the superiority of his works, citing their originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters. Throughout the nineteenth century, Scott's reputation among readers and critics alike had progressively declined to the point that by the turn of the century, many conceded that Scott was no longer a major literary figure. Many contemporary critics observed such flaws as careless plotting, prolixity, and bad grammar, especially in his shorter fiction, but the critical tide turned in the mid-twentieth century. Modern scholars have acknowledged Scott's seminal influence on the development of the European novel genre, particularly with regard to historical perspective and the realization of the effects of social change on the lives of ordinary people.
Waverly; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since The first in the Waverly Novels series, Waverley (1814), proved a popular sensation when first published and quickly became the most successful work of its kind ever to appear. Contemporary critical reaction, though also positive, did cite certain deficiencies in the work, including careless construction and prolixity. Yet most early reviewers quickly acknowledged the strengths of the novel, noting its originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters.
Like most of Scott's novels, Waverley has fallen out of favor, although it continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the view of history it offers. In the late 1960s, Robert C. Gordon wrote in Under Which King? A Study of the Scottish Waverly Novels, “Waverly, then is one of the most distinguished innovations in literary history. It is also a splendid work in its own right. Scott found his solution to the problems of dealing with Jacobitism in the story of an immature, vain yet fundamentally proper young hero who becomes a warrior.”
Other studies have been greatly influenced by the criticism of Georg Lukàcs in The Historical Novel. In this work, Lukàcs examined Scott as a dialectical historian, claiming that he “endeavors to portray the struggles and antagonisms of history by means of characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.” Numerous critics have taken up Lukàcs's idea and applied this thinking to Edward Waverley as he represents a significant moment of cultural transition in Scottish and English history.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Scott essentially invented the genre of historical fiction, a genre that still flourishes today. Here are some more recent works of historical fiction:
Gudrun's Tapestry (2003), a novel by Joan Schweighardt. Set in the fifth century, this story vividly brings to life Attila the Hun and an ancient Norse saga.
I, Mona Lisa (2006), a novel by Jeanne Kalogridis. The author creates the life of a young woman in fifteenth-century Florence, Italy, who is the model for Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting.
Joshua's Bible (2003), a novel by Shelly Leanne. This novel follows a young African American man in the 1930s who goes to South Africa as a missionary and confronts the early days of apartheid.
Night of Flames (2007), a novel by Douglas W. Jacobson. In this novel, a married couple is separated while fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2006), a novel by Lisa See. This novel, set in nineteenth-century China, examines women's roles in rural China.
The Sugar Cane Curtain (2000), a novel by Zilia L. Laje. This novel explores the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba.
Responses to Literature
- In an essay, address the following questions: Do you think that novels are worth reading even if they are not considered “great literature”? When you read something, do you think about how well it is written, or do you simply enjoy the story? Who should define what “good” literature and music are—the critics or ordinary people? Why?
- Since 1999, Scotland has had its own governing body, although it is still part of Great Britain. There is a movement toward Scotland's breaking its union with England and establishing complete independence. Research the independence movement and write an essay that analyzes the pros and cons of Scottish independence.
- Historical novels and movies can make history come alive in a way that textbooks often cannot. Choose a period or movement that you have studied in school, and find a novel or movie about it. Read the novel or watch the movie and write a short essay analyzing it. Did it engage you or make you think differently? Did it contain historical inaccuracies in order to enhance dramatic effect?
- Research the history of the state you live in. When was it established, and what were the conflicts in its early days? Do any of those conflicts continue today? Choose one event from your state's history, and write a short story patterned after the historical fiction of Scott. Develop your characters in such a way that captures the language, clothing, and settings of the past.
Chandler, Alice. A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
Devlin, D. D. The Author of Waverley: A Critical Study of Walter Scott. London: Macmillan, 1971.
Hart, Francis R. Scott's Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1966.
Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Kerr, James. Fiction Against History: Scott as Storyteller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Narrative Art. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
Shaw, Harry E. The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Smith, D. Nichol. “The Poetry of Sir Walter Scott.” University of Edinburgh Journal 15 (1951): 63–80.
Edinburgh University Library. The Walter Scott Digital Archive. Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk.
The Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott is recognized as the master of the historical novel. He was one of the most influential authors of modern times.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 15, 1771, the son of a lawyer with a long family tradition in law. By birth Scott was connected with both the rising middle class of Britain and the aristocratic (ruling class) Scottish heritage then passing into history. As a child, Scott battled polio, a disease that attacks children and impairs their development. Despite the ailment, Scott did enjoy a relatively active and happy childhood. During these years he developed a deep interest in literature and reading, especially the folk tales and legends of his native Scotland.
Scott was educated at Edinburgh University and prepared for a career in law, but his true passions lay in history and literature. During his years at the university, he read widely in English and Continental literatures, particularly medieval and Renaissance romances from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. He also enjoyed German romantic poetry and fiction, and the narrative folk poems known as ballads.
Translations and poetry
From these intense interests Scott's earliest publications developed: a translation of J. W. von Goethe's (1749–1832) play Götz von Berlichingen (1799) and other translations from German; Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803), a collection of ballads that generated great interest in folk poetry; and a succession of narrative poems, mainly of historical action. These poems—including The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810)—became best sellers, and Scott established his first literary reputation as a poet of the romantic school, an artistic movement developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
During these years Scott also pursued a legal career, rising to the official position of clerk of the Court of Session. His enormous energies allowed him to engage in scholarly and journalistic activities. His edition and biography of John Dryden (1631–1700), the English poet and dramatist, published in 1808, remains of value. His politically motivated founding of the Quarterly Review, a literary journal, helped make Edinburgh the most influential center of British intellectual life outside London. In these years Scott also began to create an estate, Abbotsford. He modeled its furnishings and architecture on the traditions of the medieval era (c. 470– 1470 c.e., also known as the Middle Ages).
When sales of Scott's verse narrative Rokeby (1813) declined and a new poet, Lord Byron (1788–1824), appeared on the literary scene, Scott began to develop another of his many talents. Picking up the fragment of a novel he had begun in 1805, he tried his hand at fiction, and his most fully characteristic novel, Waverley (1814), resulted. As its subtitle, 'Tis Sixty Years Since, established, Waverley was a historical novel about the 1745 rebellion to restore the Stuart line to the British throne. By leading a young and foolish Englishman through a wide range of Scottish classes, political factions (rival groups), and cultural modes, Scott built up a substantial picture of an entire nation's life at a dramatic historical period.
The success of Waverley established Scott in the career of a novelist, but it did not establish his name in that role. Unwilling to invest his career in fiction, he had published Waverley anonymously (without the author's name). Finding that the mask of anonymity had stimulated public interest, Scott signed his later novels "by the Author of Waverley." This signature became his trademark, the novels bearing it being called the "Waverley" novels. The Waverley novels exercised enormous fascination not only for Scots and Englishmen but also throughout Europe. These novels provided the characters and plots for countless stories, plays, and operas, the most famous of which is Gaetano Donizetti's (1797–1848) opera Lucia di Lammermoor.
Scott's achievement as a novelist can best be summarized by grouping his novels according to their topics and settings. His first successes were largely in the realm of Scottish history. In the order of their chronological setting (date in which the story takes place), the Scottish novels are Castle Dangerous (1832) and The Fair Maid of Perth (1828), both set in the fourteenth century; The Monastery and its sequel The Abbot (both 1820), set during the sixteenth century's religious upheavals; A Legend of Montrose (1819) and Old Mortality (1816), which deal with the campaigns of the seventeenth-century civil wars; and a series of novels of the Jacobite (Stuart) rebellions of the eighteenth century—Rob Roy (1817), Waverley, and Redgauntlet (1824). Other Scottish novels indirectly related to historical themes are The Black Dwarf (1816), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and The Pirate (1822). Scott also wrote a group of novels set in his own times: Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), and St. Ronan's Well (1824).
Scott, at a critical point of his career, turned to English history for his subject matter. Critics generally agree that the English (and Continental—those of Europe) novels, mainly set in medieval times, are inferior, but they include Scott's most lasting popular works. He began with Ivanhoe (1820) and then wrote three other novels set in the period of the Crusades: The Talisman (1825), The Betrothed (1825), and Count Robert of Paris (1832). Quentin Durward (1823) and Anne of Geierstein (1829) deal with the later Middle Ages, and the Renaissance is represented by Kenilworth (1821) and The Fortunes of Nigel (1822).
So massive a literary output cannot be reduced to broad generalizations. Most critics and readers seem to prefer Scott's early novels. On the whole, Scott's work is flawed by overly emotional writing, but his novels command the power to put modern readers in touch with men of the past.
Scott's later years were clouded by illness, throughout which he continued to write. He spent the energies of his last years trying to write enough to recover honorably from the bankruptcy of a publishing firm in which he had invested heavily. He died in Abbotsford, Scotland, on September 21, 1832.
For More Information
Sutherland, John. The Life of Walter Scott: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.
Todd, William B., and Ann Bowden. Sir Walter Scott: A Bibliographical History, 1796–1832. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1998.
SCOTT, WALTER (1771–1832), Scottish poet and novelist.
If no longer lauded as "Scotland's Shakespeare," in the twenty-first century Walter Scott is recognized as a writer of immense talent, energy, and cultivation who single-handedly laid the way for the later glories of Victorian fiction. He was the founding genius of the British historical novel (and, via Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, and James Fenimore Cooper, those of France, Italy, and the United States).
Scott was born in Edinburgh's "Old Town" in 1771 (probably—he was never quite sure of his birth date), the third surviving son of a solicitor, or attorney, and the grandson on his mother's side of a professor of medicine at the city's university. His lineage, as he loved to recall, could be traced nobly back to the Scottish Middle Ages, but intellectually Scott was a mature product of the Scottish Enlightenment—that unique fusion of national, international, vernacular, and neoclassical cultures that made Edinburgh, for a few years, the "Athens of the North."
Scott was made lame, in his second year, by polio and was sent to recuperate at his paternal grandfather's farm, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Here he picked up the rich folk-culture (legend, ballad, and border dialect) that underpinned his later creative writing. It was not, however, as a creative writer that he was trained. His father prudently enrolled him as an apprentice solicitor. After studying at Edinburgh's high school and university, young Walter rebelled against the "old trade" and struck out, in 1792, as an advocate, or barrister. His "infirmity" precluded him from the military career he yearned for. During the 1790s he was also writing and collecting ballads: something that would bear fruit in his monumental, three-volume, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).
Scott married Charlotte Charpentier, a French woman with noble English connections, in 1797. The couple and their growing family occupied a number of town and country houses, culminating in the construction of his magnificent (and ruinously expensive) baronial pile, Abbotsford, near Melrose and Scott's beloved River Tweed. Over these years, Scott secured himself a series of semi-sinecurial legal posts, which set him up financially. He also formed a business relationship with the printers John and James Ballantyne. Literary fame came with the long poem, Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). It was followed by others, equally popular, culminating in The Lady of the Lake (1810), a work that glamorized, forever, the Scottish highlands and its Celtic heritage (Scott was, as he proudly asserted, a lowland "Saxon"). Over these years—in which his literary, journalistic, and scholarly production was prodigious—Scott formed another partnership with the dynamic publisher, Archibald Constable.
Scott gave up poetry when trumped by Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, in 1812. He outdid even Byron, however, with his first historical romance, Waverley; or, 'tis Sixty Years Since (1814). There followed a spate of anonymously authored, hugely best-selling, romances. The first phase of his work contains the admired "Scottish Novels": Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), Rob Roy (1818), and The Heart of Midlothian (1818). In 1820, Scott struck into English history, with Ivanhoe—a tale set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
In 1818 Scott, whose politics were staunchly Tory and Unionist, accepted a baronetcy from the prince regent. On the regent's accession as George IV (r. 1820–1830), Scott supervised the monarch's visit to Scotland in 1822. Throughout the early 1820s he was producing fiction at an astonishing rate. The quality was palpably declining, but romances such as The Fortunes of Nigel (1822) and Quentin Durward (1823) sustained his reputation.
In 1826 Scott, together with his business partners the Ballantynes and Constable, was ruined in the disastrous crash that rocked the British publishing industry. Scott's last years—during which he was widowed and suffered a series of crippling strokes—were devoted to clearing his massive debts, and his honor, with his pen. His last great work was the multivolume Life of Napoleon (1827). He died at Abbotsford in 1832. His death was an occasion for national mourning in Scotland.
Lockhart, John Gibson. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. London, 1837–1838.
Rubenstein, Jill. Sir Walter Scott: A Reference Guide. Boston, 1978.
Sutherland, John. The Life of Walter Scott: A Critical Biography. Oxford, U.K., 1995.