An Appreciation of Sir Walter Scott After a Big Anniversary

Sir Walter Scott

At the end of my August 15 post last Sunday, I mentioned that it was the 75th birthday of acclaimed songwriter Jimmy Webb. Well, by the time I got to…not Phoenix, but to thinking of a post for this week, I remembered there was a much more milestone-y birthday on August 15 — the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s 1771 birth. So, today I will offer an appreciation of that renowned Scottish novelist and poet.

Some have criticized Scott’s writing for being too sentimental, too romanticized, too elitist, and so on. Mark Twain certainly disliked Scott’s work, but, heck, authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were strong admirers. (And Scott admired Austen’s fiction.)

While I “get” some of the criticism, I’m still a big fan of many Scott novels. They’re compelling, well-written, full of memorable characters, and packed with historical information. (Most novels by Scott are historical fiction; he was among the pioneers of that genre.) Scott’s historical takes weren’t always 100% reliable, but he did do lots of research.

Even as they usually looked back, some of Scott’s 25 or so novels were ahead of their time in certain ways. For instance, The Heart of Midlothian — my favorite book of his — features female working-class protagonist Jeanie Deans as she makes an epic journey on foot from Edinburgh to London to seek a royal pardon for her wrongly imprisoned sister. And Scott’s most famous novel — the rousing Ivanhoe, set in 12th-century England — includes surprisingly non-stereotypical-for-the-time Jewish character Rebecca (even as her father, Isaac, is depicted less three-dimensionally).

My second-favorite Scott novel is the 17th-century-set Old Mortality, featuring the author’s most memorable writing about war and its effect on people. Rob Roy (in which the titular Scottish outlaw is not quite the main character) is also great, as are the tragic The Bride of Lammermoor and the underrated Quentin Durward — the last starring an adventurous 15th-century Scottish archer serving under King Louis XI of France.

I can take or leave Scott’s first two books — Waverley and Guy Mannering — which were written when the author was getting his footing as a novelist after achieving huge renown as a poet. I’ve read little of Scott’s verse, though of course know the line that’s one of the most famous in literature: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” from the long narrative poem Marmion. A line often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare.

Many of Scott’s novels were published without his name on them, though it was an open secret that he was the author. Why the anonymity? One possible reason is that many people at the time considered novels a lesser form of writing than poetry.

The highly productive Scott also penned plenty of nonfiction, including a biography of Napoleon.

Speaking of biographies, Edgar Johnson’s massive study of Scott is a page-turner. Reading it, we see that Scott led quite a life — dealing with a pronounced limp after surviving childhood polio, working in the legal profession in addition to penning fiction, building the massive Abbotsford estate, and, after going bankrupt, refusing all help as he determinedly tried to write his way out of insolvency. He almost did before dying in 1832.

Any thoughts about Sir Walter Scott and his work?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about trying to raise money to fix my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

121 thoughts on “An Appreciation of Sir Walter Scott After a Big Anniversary

  1. Inheriting shelves of Scott, Scott, from grandparents and great grandparents, he’s booked for the next winter. jhNY’s sixth grader memories match names and ages in some of our inherited books – Like Jane Eyre, reading Bewick, were children formerly less constrained by age appropriate books ?
    Years ago, Smailholm Tower held a Scott themed exhibition, memories of this are still strong, That Border landscape and the drama of that fortress explain so much. Imagine being a small and frail child there,, – Lammermoor’s near too,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Esther! What a great inheritance! You have an interesting winter ahead. 🙂

      Re sixth-grade reading, no reason why students can’t enjoy books that are allegedly above their age level. “Ivanhoe” seemed a bit of a stretch, but…no problem, really!

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  2. I’ve never read any of Sir Walter Scott’s novels or poetry, at least none that I can remember, which amounts to the same thing. Probably the only thing I know about him is that he was a favorite of Jane Austen’s, which you already mentioned, so I don’t have anything to offer to add to this discussion. I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland, especially Edinburgh — Bill would really love to attend the Royal Edinburgh Military Tatoo — but with our ages, health and finances, that’s probably never going to happen.🙁

    I’ve continued with my grieving over the loss of Nanci Griffith and have only been listening to her music and watching on-line performances and interviews for the past 12 days. There are two connections to Jimmy Webb that I’ve found. She recorded his lovely song “If These Old Walls Could Speak” for her “Ruby’s Torch” album. Then in 1994 she and Webb performed that song for the “Red Hot + Country” compilation record to raise awareness and money for AIDS/HIV. There’s a video of it, which Nanci sings beautifully and with great emotion. She also mentions him in the lyrics from her song “1937 Pre-War Kimball” about her old piano that she gives away finally: “Mornings in that corner…that piano and me; and I wish for a left hand like Glen D. Hardin; I could play Jimmy Webb or perhaps Randy Newman…”. I was thrilled when I bought my piano five years ago; it was a used Kimball, however not quite as old as 1937!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the comment, Kat Lit!

      The mutual admiration between Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen is heartening, and I’d love to visit Scotland, too. Closest I got was London — not that close, and a whole other world.

      I didn’t know about those Nanci Griffith/Jimmy Webb connections. Interesting, and well-described by you! Two great talents.

      Very nice that you have a piano. 🙂

      Like

  3. Sir Walter Scott, beyond being the subject of a large actual monument, is, as a literary figure, at least as large. He may be the single biggest reason that novels became the province of male readers too, in addition to the female readers that made up the majority of the audience for earlier narrative fiction. And he did, in a way, invent Scotland, at least insofar as he brought his particular light to bear on the place for readers around the world, and insofar as he reshaped the collective memory of its people for English readers who, prior to his novels, had in mind a wild unruly band of fierce gingers brandishing claymores and howling. Scott made characters and individuals out of Scots people, and inspired a general interest in all things Scottish, where previously there was little.

    Two famous essays would detract from the great man’s legacy and high regard among readers. But each essay is also a kind of grudging testament to the enduring power and influence of Scott’s novels.

    Writing in “Life On the Mississippi” (1883), Twain, in his particular decrying of Scott, knew he was being unreasonable in a literal sense. Scott could have had no idea how his notions of chivalry and honor projected onto the historical activities of a vanished time and a vanquished royalty might appeal to the sensibilities of readers in the American South decades after his own death. Nonetheless, in the antebellum South his books found a great many avid readers, which prepared them for a war they could not win, for which depressingly, they were entirely willing to sacrifice everything and endure any hardship, any privation. And for this posthumous effect, Twain would hold dead Sir Walter to account. In a way, Scott not only made his mark on incipient Confederates, but free Scotland may be productively considered as the Original Lost Cause– a model for the post-Confederacy’s version, the latter at least a ruinous nostalgia.

    In 1825, English essayist and critic William Hazlitt also wrote against Walter Scott in “The Spirit of the Age”– but did so with an eye on his contemporary politics, and Scott’s ultra-conservative leanings. Whatever is good, and memorable and true about his fiction– and Hazlitt spends a good deal of his time recounting scenes and listing characters that, if nothing else, show an easy and fond familiarity with the entire range of Scott’s writing– his support, in fiction and in fact, of the rule of kings, his distaste for the ‘mob’, and social reforms, condemns him, politically, in Hazlitt’s eyes.

    “Through some odd process of servile logic, it should seem, that in restoring the claims of the Stuarts by the courtesy of romance, the House of Brunswick are more firmly seated in point of fact, and the Bourbons, by collateral reasoning, become legitimate! In any other point of view, we cannot possibly conceive how Sir Walter imagines “he has done something to revive the declining spirit of loyalty” by these novels. His loyalty is founded on would-be treason: he props the actual throne by the shadow of rebellion. Does he really think of making us enamoured of the “good old times” by the faithful and harrowing portraits he has drawn of them? Would he carry us back to the early stages of barbarism, of clanship, of the feudal system as “a consummation devoutly to be wished?” Is he infatuated enough, or does he so dote and drivel over his own slothful and self-willed prejudices, as to believe that he will make a single convert to the beauty of Legitimacy, that is, of lawless power and savage bigotry, when he himself is obliged to apologise for the horrors he describes, and even render his descriptions credible to the modern reader by referring to the authentic history of these delectable times?

    ***

    ….he administers charms and philtres to our love of Legitimacy, makes us conceive a horror of all reform, civil, political, or religious, and would fain put down the Spirit of the Age. The author of Waverley might just as well get up and make a speech at a dinner at Edinburgh, abusing Mr. Mac-Adam for his improvements in the roads, on the ground that they were nearly impassable in many places “sixty years since;” or object to Mr. Peel’s Police-Bill, by insisting that Hounslow-Heath was formerly a scene of greater interest and terror to highwaymen and travellers, and cut a greater figure in the Newgate-Calendar than it does at present. — Oh! Wickliff, Luther, Hampden, Sidney, Somers, mistaken Whigs, and thoughtless Reformers in religion and politics, and all ye, whether poets or philosophers, heroes or sages, inventors of arts or sciences, patriots, benefactors of the human race, enlighteners and civilisers of the world, who have (so far) reduced opinion to reason, and power to law, who are the cause that we no longer burn witches and heretics at slow fires, that the thumb-screws are no longer applied by ghastly, smiling judges, to extort confession of imputed crimes from sufferers for conscience sake; that men are no longer strung up like acorns on trees without judge or jury, or hunted like wild beasts through thickets and glens, who have abated the cruelty of priests, the pride of nobles, the divinity of kings in former times; to whom we owe it, that we no longer wear round our necks the collar of Gurth the swineherd, and of Wamba the jester; that the castles of great lords are no longer the dens of banditti, from whence they issue with fire and sword, to lay waste the land; that we no longer expire in loathsome dungeons without knowing the cause, or have our right hands struck off for raising them in self-defence against wanton insult; that we can sleep without fear of being burnt in our beds, or travel without making our wills; that no Amy Robsarts are thrown down trap-doors by Richard Varneys with impunity; that no Red Reiver of Westburn-Flat sets fire to peaceful cottages; that no Claverhouse signs cold-blooded death-warrants in sport; that we have no Tristan the Hermit, or Petit-Andre, crawling near us, like spiders, and making our flesh creep, and our hearts sicken within us at every moment of our lives — ye who have produced this change in the face of nature and society, return to earth once more, and beg pardon of Sir Walter and his patrons, who sigh at not being able to undo all that you have done!”

    Hazlitt’s essay in its entirety can be read here: http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/CommentRecord.php?action=GET&cmmtid=4404

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY, for all the thoughts and information! Fascinating that Sir Walter Scott might have been a big reason why more men began reading novels.

      Scott was indeed conservative in various ways, but his novels don’t “scream” that. Much of his writing is pretty humane, including sympathy for the underdog. The fact that some people in the Antebellum South glommed onto him seems — as you note — unfair to Scott, who was not a slaveholder, lived in a country far from the U.S., and died decades before the American Civil War.

      That’s some vivid writing by Hazlitt you excerpted!

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      • I spent a year in the Aughts reading little else but whatever I happened to find of Hazlitt’s– being drawn to him first by the strength of a single essay’s title, read, as so many things I read have been, at a bookseller’s table on Broadway: “Man Is a Frog-Eating Animal”.

        Somehow, he was never required, or even mentioned, so far as I remember, at college, though I majored in English. Great essayist, breathtaking the force of some of his opinions, and the steadfastness with which held fast to them, for example on the French Revolution and later, Napoleon, to whom he devoted himself and his time in the form of a 3-volume and laudatory biography, not well-received. Interestingly, I think Sir Walter also wrote a biography of Napoleon, which I’ve never read a word of. I am confident their conclusions and emphases differed throughout each, especially having learned that, after publication, a Bonapartist challenged its author to a duel..

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post Dave. I don’t have anything of literary merit to add this week as ‘The Pirate’ is still marooned on my shelf, half read. However, I will say that Edinburgh is my home town and whenever I’m passing through by train (and the opportunity arises) it’s great to pop up to Princes Street and take in the view, including the impressive Scott Monument.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is fascinating.
    The quote mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare, is very famous. I actually never thought about where it came from. I’ve used it much in my life, thinking it was some old folk wisdom.
    I wonder what other and how many famous quotes are attributed incorrectly to Shakespeare?

    The only book of his I’ve read is Ivanhoe. I saw the movie Rob Roy, which I figure is taken from his novel

    Crazy that novels were considered less than poetry. I always think that long ago poetry was the pop culture form of the day.

    I took a minute to read a bit about him, and found this.
    “The poem that pushed Scott into the limelight was The Lay of the Last Minstrel which told an old story of love and intrigue in the Scottish Borders.”

    “Moor, moor the barge, ye gallant crew!
    And, gentle ladye, deign to stay,
    Rest thee in Castle Ravensheuch,
    Nor tempt the stormy firth today.

    The blackening wave is edg’d with white:
    To inch and rock the sea-mews fly;
    The fishers have heard the Water-Sprite,
    Whose screams forbode that wreck is nigh.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Resa!

      Yes, that famous line of Scott’s feels like it could have been around long enough to be originally folk wisdom. And I’m sure a number of other great lines have been misattributed to Shakespeare — an embarrassment of riches considering how he coined so many memorable lines of his own.

      Yes, the 1990s movie starring Liam Neeson as Rob Roy was taken from the Scott novel, though Rob Roy was given a more prominent role in the film. In the novel, he was a secondary character (albeit a major secondary character) despite the book being named after him.

      It IS hard to believe novels, even literary ones, were once not as prestigious as they later became.

      Those are a couple of striking Scott stanzas you posted! Maybe I should read his poetry one of these days…

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I was thinking of Sir Walter Scott this past week. As you know, Don read all of Scott’s novel as a child. Generally Scott’s novels are mostly unread outside a literature course, or if there are, they usually are read in a synopsis format. But there are some who believe that Scott invented a raft of English National stereotypes. “That quintessentially English hero, Robin Hood, for example, owes some of his most famous exploits to the author. The notion of Robin’s arrow splitting that of the Sheriff of Nottingham – which appears in the Disney cartoon – comes direct from Ivanhoe, in which Scott’s character Robin of Locksley performs the deed.” https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/16/walter-scott-edinburgh-book-festival

    And here is where I will digress. What will readers think of our generation’s greatest writers? Will they be unread and held only in reverence within the walls of academia. Writer’s give us the story of their times, even if the setting is in the past or in the future. A wonderful post, celebrating Sir Walter Scott and the joy of reading.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! 🙂 And fascinating to hear about that Sir Walter Scott/Robin Hood “connection”!

      Yes, Scott had quite a cultural impact, for better or for worse. Ultimately, I don’t agree with some of his worldview, but he was quite a storyteller.

      And that’s a GREAT question about how today’s notable living novelists will stand the rest of time. Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, Liane Moriarty, Zadie Smith, Khaled Hosseini, Kazuo Ishiguro, J.K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, etc., etc.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Dave- you have started an excellent thought for a podcast discussion. Writers and how they relate to the society in which they live. The difference between what is popular and what is considered notable. And who decided what is notable. According to a 2019 LitHub article that cited NPD Bookscan the best-selling book of the last decade in the US was E.L. James publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold 15.2 million copies from 2010 through 2019. This was followed by E. L. James, Fifty Shades Darker (2011) – 10.4 million copies And E. L. James, Fifty Shades Freed (2012) – 9.3 million copies.https://lithub.com/these-are-the-10-best-selling-books-of-the-decade/. Not one of the writers mentioned in your comment was included in this list. A brilliant discussion – as always.

        Liked by 4 people

              • Once paper and printing became cheap enough that books came within the buying power of ordinary people, I think a number of not-so-great books sold better than what we perceive to be better ones. But in the aggregate, at the height of books as the most popular conveyances of narrative art, a great many very good ones came out among a great, great many more mediocrities.

                According to wikipedia “In 1900, “Ben-Hur” became the best-selling American novel of the 19th century, surpassing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.”

                Apart from now-departed booksellers, there are likely to be few folk who would conclude that either or both of these books surpass, as literature, the writings of Irving, or Poe, or Hawthorne, or Melville, or Twain, or…

                Liked by 1 person

                • Great examples, jhNY! Yes, a number of “popular fiction” novels will sell much better than most “literary” novels.

                  As we might have discussed before, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is better as a piece of literature than some people give it credit for. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is not as literary as a number of works by those other 19th-century American authors you mentioned, but it’s still a great piece of writing.

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    • Hi Rebecca, based on my interaction with young people in their late teens, there are very few who would elect to read classics or books by authors like Scott and Defoe as they find them to much of an effort. Sadly, as I mentioned in my comment to Liz on your post this morning, the computer now rules and computer generated stories and visuals are ever so much easier than reading a book. Everything is given to our children on a silver platter in the way of visuals and auditor stimulation so they don’t want to put effort into anything. My son Greg is very academic, he recently achieved 99.3% for his maths paper 1 in his preliminary final year examinations, but alas, he does not read that much any more. Reading has given way to easier and quicker ways of obtain gratification. I suppose this sounds very critical of youngsters, but I don’t blame them really. If I were living their lives, I would probably go the computer route too.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you very much, Dave, for your very interesting reportage concerning Walter Scott, whom I do not really know! I read once a biography after we had travelled in Scotland, but probably it was not as unputdownable as the one you proposed by Edgar Johnson! I will have to add it on my booklist:)

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sheila!

      I didn’t realize L.M. Montgomery — an author whose work I love — was an admirer of Scott. Interesting! Just did a quick Google search, and found this: “As a child, Montgomery read as much as she could. At that time, novels were considered inappropriate reading material for children. In an article titled ‘The Story of My Career,’ Montgomery wrote that the only novels kept in her grandparents’ house were Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott, The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, and Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.”

      Hope you enjoy a Scott novel if you get to one!

      Liked by 2 people

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