Walter Scott, Literary Bad-Ass

Raeburn's portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Raeburn’s portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.
I love Sir Walter Scott, but I think I’m the only person who bothers to read him any more. Scott was an innovator, lawyer, writer, scholar and not-so-astute businessman who changed the shape of literature as we know it. And yet most people have no idea why he is such a literary bad-ass. They think he’s important only because he wrote Ivanhoe–you know, that story about that Saxon knight who fell in love with that Jewish girl and fought against those Norman overlords in medieval England. But Scott is really so much more than this one story, which is not even his best novel.

How do you teach a classroom of students that it’s worth while cultivating the patience and skill, and yes, the vocabulary–Scott uses a good deal of Scots dialect in his dialogues, and most good editions of his Scottish novels contain glossaries–to read Scott’s novels? It’s a hopeless cause, but I’m not going to let that stop me. (One blogger who also hasn’t let it stop her is Sydney, who posted on Waverley in her blog, which you can find here: “”>)

Here’s a little tidbit for you: Scott didn’t start out writing novels. His first success came with poetry. That wonderful quote that goes “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive” and that most of us attribute to Shakespeare? That was Scott (Marmion). He was really big stuff in the first few years of the nineteenth century. But just when he was really beginning to settle into his popularity as a poet (and this was at a time when poetry was a big deal; think Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge), Byron hit the scene, and Scott realized he had become outmoded and upstaged in just a couple of years. So, being multi-talented, he switched to writing novels, and thank heavens he did. His last collection of poems was published in 1817, and it was entitled Harold the Dauntless. I think we can say it was probably a good thing he switched to prose. By the same token, Byron never wrote a novel (although we might say that Don Juan is kind of a novel), so Scott wins the literary-decathlon award of his day.

More importantly, Scott’s novels changed the face of literature. First of all, he used dialect freely (something he borrowed from the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and which Mark Twain would use in Huck Finn, to the confusion and disgust of generations of American students), which invested his characters with life-like realism and linguistic freedom, and secondly, under his hand, novels gradually assumed the shape that we recognize today as the Victorian novel. And sure, Victorian novels might really be “loose, baggy monsters,” as Henry James charged, but try reading 18th-century novels, and you’ll see they are a lot less loose and baggy than they had been. Without Scott, whom nearly every Victorian novelist pays homage to in one form in another, the novel would look a lot different than it does today.

Scott even had the good sense to write a very positive (although unsigned) review of Jane Austen’s novels in the Quarterly Review, which you can read in this blog: Only a Novel. Bear in mind that Scott’s novels exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Austen’s: Scott takes dramatic, historical events and gives them an everyday feel, while Austen invests quotidian events with a momentous and dramatic aura. Yet different as they are as novelists, Scott can still appreciate and applaud Austen’s work–and this at a time (1815) well before the world had discovered who she was.

Appreciation for Scott may have died off, but historical fiction remains popular. I believe that all historical fiction writers should read Scott, and yet I’d be surprised if many really do. Alfred Hitchcock once said that it was impossible to fully understand film without going back and studying the films of the silent era, but how many directors today really do that? Like Scott, the age of silent movies seems to be disposable, suitable only for libraries, vaults, and graduate school syllabi. This is a real shame, because in tossing Scott, readers miss great novels like The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley, and Redgauntlet.

However, in 2010, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch (a name that will sound familiar to Scott readers, if there are any out there) established the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. This is a big deal in literary prizes: not only is it among the largest purses for literary achievement at well over $25,000, but it also works to wrench historical fiction out of the realm of consumer literature and place it in the category of serious literature. So hats off to the Duke and Duchess for understanding the value of historical fiction and finding a way to legitimize it.

And hats off, too, to a literary bad-ass extraordinaire–Sir Walter Scott–who may not have single-handedly invented the genre, but who certainly did his part in developing it, while helping to shape the novel as we know it today.

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