Waverley, Walter Scott

Waverley by Walter Scott — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs ...

My father was an old fashioned man, an Anglophile until he actually went there, in his forties, and discovered he preferred Europe. So, although I was never permitted to read his books, he made sure I had copies of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley from a young age. Now he’s gone, in my study and in my lounge my rude Australians stare across at his hardback, embossed pocket versions of Scott, Dumas, Hazlitt’s Essays etc., etc. with their tiny print and prayer book paper. Though for safety’s sake I’m doing this review from a Penguin paperback, 491pp and still in 8 point maybe. I may go blind.

I think it may be said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were the progenitors of the modern English novel. I’ve been discussing off and on in these pages the writers who came before Austen, and there’s a lot to like in the writing of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Austen’s immediate predecessor, but Austen’s clear writing and exact descriptions of everyday upper middle-class life, mark a clean break with those who came before her. In the same way, Scott’s historical fiction, in its adherence to known events, the absence of melodrama, and in the easy flow of its plot lines, if not in the actual writing, was a major step forward.

Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Scott began publishing poetry around 1796, and by 1813 he was sufficiently well respected to be offered the position of Poet Laureate (of the UK). Brought up in Edinburgh and on the family estate on the Borders (of Scotland and England) at Sandyknowes, Scott had an abiding interest in Scottish folk history and Waverley (1814), his first novel, is a fictionalised account of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Like Austen, Scott the novelist was anonymous – to protect his reputation as a poet he said. In his Introductory to Waverley he  refers to himself as ‘the author of Waverley’, and so he was known until 1829 – by which time he had published 20-odd novels – when he acknowledged what was already well known, with a revised edition of Waverley whose prefaces and introductions amount to 50 pages.

I have written previously on Scott’s view of Austen as a new direction in literature (here and here), and Sue/Whispering Gums has only recently discussed Scott, Waverley and Austen (here), but I would like to set out my own views (not that we differ) before, hopefully, going on to Ivanhoe. Scott wrote in the original Introductory

By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners …

and goes on at some (excruciating) length to describe the sort of scenes the reader will not find in his work – neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”, nor damsels reduced “to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout”.

Then in the General Preface to the 1829 edition he says he had initially thought of writing a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto (the first Gothic novel) but the success of his narrative poem the Lady of the Lake and some local knowledge led him to begin Waverley –

I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many of the old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again, for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.

and so the genre of Historical Fiction was born.

The history with which Scott’s readers were familiar is as follows (and if you want dates, look them up). The Stuarts (Stewarts until Mary adopted the French spelling), kings of Scotland became the royal family of England when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth (Tudor). Parliament and the Stuarts were at loggerheads throughout 1600s, and eventually, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Catholic James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, followed, on William’s death, by Mary’s sister Anne. After which, the Elector of Hanover, some sort of second cousin, was called in from Germany and a string of Georges were King (the last Hanover was Queen Victoria).

Politically, Whigs supported the Hanovers and a constitutional monarchy and Tories were for the restoration of the Stuarts. The novel commences with Edward Waverley’s father, a prominent Whig, and his childless older brother, Sir Everard, a Tory. Edward is Sir Everard’s heir, and is largely brought up by him.

Edward’s father gets him a commission in the army, and he is posted to Scotland, where he takes leave to visit his uncle’s friend, Bradwardine, who has a property in the Lowlands. From there he goes on an excursion to the Highlands, to recover Bradwardine’s milk cows stolen by raiders and then on to Glennaquoich, the home of local chieftan MacIvor. At each stop there is a beautiful girl – Bradwardine’s daughter Rose, the cattle thief’s daughter Alice, and MacIvor’s sister Flora, brought up in the French court, but now living in splendid isolation and praying for the return of the Stuarts. It is Flora Edward falls for but she cannot give him her heart in return as he is an officer in the King’s – her enemy’s – army.

At the end of six weeks incommudicado in Glennaquoich, Edward discovers his father has been disowned by the Whigs,  he has been dismissed from the army as a deserter, and all his family are counted as supporters of Prince Charles Stuart who has landed in Scotland and will shortly march on Edinburgh.

Edward leaves Glennaquoich, and after various injuries and misadventures, is imprisoned, rescued by Highlanders and conveyed to Edinburgh where he swears allegiance to the Pretender. Over the course of a few days Edward is outfitted in MacIvor tartan, meets and is rebuffed by Flora, and finally one late autumn day sets out on the great adventure.

When he had surmounted a small craggy eminence, called St Leonard’s Hill … [the valley below] was occupied by the army of the Highlanders, now in the act of preparing for their march… The sort of complicated medley created by the hasty arrangements of the various clans under their respective banners, for the purpose of getting into the order of march, was in itself a gay and lively spectacle.

The leading men of each clan were well armed with broadsword, target and fusee, to which all added the dirk, and most the steel pistol … But in the lower rank to these, there were found individuals of an inferior description, the common peasantry of the Highland country, who, although they did not allow themselves to be so called … bore nevertheless, the livery of extreme penury, being indifferently accoutred, and worse armed, half naked, stinted in growth, and miserable in aspect.

Disaster isn’t immediate. The English are engaged at Prestons, outside Edinburgh and flee. Charles holds court at Holyrood for some weeks while his forces lay siege to Edinburgh castle. Both Flora and Rose are amongst the ladies of the court. Discussing Romeo and Juliette, Flora makes clear to Edward that he would be sensible to transfer his favours from ‘Rosalind’ to ‘Juliette’.

Edward is an odd hero. He does not much like the trade of soldiering, he enters Charles’ service in a pique, and while he is honour bound not to change back to the English side, it is clear that he wishes to, or rather that he was peacefully back home on the family estate. And the Flora/Rose situation is an analogy for that. Edward is told more than once that he causes problems by not knowing his own mind.

It barely needs saying that things don’t go well for the rebels. However, Edward survives. Scott sets Edward’s history within well-known historical events, but rarely describes much more than Edward’s part in them. And he describes lovingly the countryside and people, whom he obviously knows very well.

I was interested in what languages were spoken. An English officer comments, “the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the Negroes in Jamaica” and Scott generally transliterates this, with footnotes for unfamiliar words. The Highlanders speak Gaelic, and very few of them except the chiefs seem to have any English. But most of Edward’s conversation is with educated men and women and so there is not an awful lot of dialect to endure.

Did I like it? Yes I did. There is not the sheer joy in reading that you get with Austen, and Edward is sometimes more wishy-washy than you’d like, but his story is well, though archaically, told.


Walter Scott, Waverley, first pub. 1814. Penguin Popular Classics (pictured), 1994

25 thoughts on “Waverley, Walter Scott

  1. I enjoyed reading about your discovery and the reason for enduring the squint. This is one of the first classics I bought second-hand for my shelves when I got my own apartment as a young woman, having heard of its importance. It was also one of the first books I put into a donation box more than a decade later, when I’d tried unsuccessfully to read it so many times that the shelf space had to give way. Now, I suspect I’d have more patience with the style. Then again, reading your post might do me just fine. 🙂


    • I’m sorry, I have been answering comments in a very random order (my excuse is that I’ve returned to work and so have been reading and responding in the brief snatches of time available to me). My eyes got used to the print and I stopped noticing it. I never throw books out and the addition of my father’s means I now have multiple copies of Austen and Scott in particular. I just keep adding more shelves and let the problem move on down a generation. Though I suspect my kids will just add shelves too.

      I am setting myself the task of understanding the milestones in the history of Eng.Lit, but that does not mean that I think that everyone should. I think reviews are an essential way of keeping up with those areas where you don’t have time to read. Though I think I have pretty well lost track of modern literature outside of Australia.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds a lot better than Walpole:)
    This business about the plotting to restore the Catholics reminds me of an exhibition in the NGV. Up in that little niche above the Great Hall, there is glassware from this period… apparently among initiates, you could tell what side your host was on by a symbol on his glassware. And the way to show your support was to smash it down hard after the ‘loyal’ toast. (Which is why there aren’t many of these wine glasses left).


    • I thought that was only a custom at the other end of Europe. From what Scott writes everyone knew who was whose side by 1745, not surprising after nearly 100 years of parliament vs the crown warfare and strife. Interestingly, it seems the Catholics regarded, in Scotland at least, the Anglicans as their allies against the Protestants. (Was watching a British crime drama on dvd with Milly last night. I nearly choked on my wine when the Anglican vicar, calling himself ‘priest’, went to celebrate ‘mass’. The Unforgotten?)


  3. I’m trudging through (v. near the end) of Adalbert Stifter’s historical novel, Witiko. I’m sure it must have been written in opposition to the sort of Romantic historical novel written by Scott, as all passion and Romanticism has been removed. I’m now intrigued to see what I’d think of a Scott novel – I haven’t read one before and never even seriously considered reading one.


    • I don’t know Stifter except what you wrote about him recently, but it looks like Tom (below) has given a much better answer than I could. My interest in Scott is that he was so influential in Australia, both the ballads, and naturalistic romances which preceded Bush realism at the turn of the century.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If you can handle Stifter, Scott is a light spring breeze.

    One does not need to read Scott to see this, but he is the reason almost every major European writer of the 19th century has a historical novel in the bibliography somewhere. It was a phenomenon.

    If you want a Scott protagonist who is not wishy-washy, who is pure backbone, try The Heart of Midlothian. The strongest Strong Female Character of 19th century English literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Up till now the only Scott character who stood out for me was Rebecca in Ivanhoe. I was/remain astonished, in a good way, at the positive portrayal of a Jewish woman, who is basically Ivanhoe’s romantic lead.

      But re-reading Waverley it is clear that Scott is a ‘liberal’ as we use the term now. Edward Waverley is in many ways an anti hero, brave enough on the battlefield, though I think it is Flora who comments disparagingly about “men’s bravery”, but astonished to find himself fighting at all, let alone against his own countrymen.

      I had been intending to review Ivanhoe next, but you may have persuaded me to check out Midlothian.


  5. Thanks for the link Bill. Great to see your review here, and your discussion of Scott and Austen.

    And thanks Tom for that added info. I hadn’t quite realised that impact on 19th century writers. And I’ll note the recommendation though whether it will climb its way to the top of my TBR list over other books, vying for attention.


    • Come on, you’re halfway through Waverley, you can knock it off. Or do you mean Midlothian. Do you think it’s better we read the same books and can therefore discuss them, or should we read different books and compare them? I thought Jonathon would be way ahead of us, but he must be too busy with his complicated Europeans, which I can only envy. Good thing Tom pitched in.


  6. I don’t have the political background to really follow the tensions between the groups in this novel, and I hate that my lack of political history holds me back from some books. For instance, I have Crime and Punishment sitting on my shelf to be read, but I worry that Russians huge and complicated history will throw the whole experience off. I was just telling another blogger that before she gets into Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, she needs to read about how court cases worked that the time. It’s what drives much of the novel, leading to family feuds, the downfall of main characters, and explains the passivity of one gentleman.


    • I take the reverse view: That reading historical fiction like this, which occurred in the immediate past of the author, is a valid and interesting way of learning stuff you wouldn’t otherwise have any reason to know. And given that I’ve read War and Peace and Waverley in the past couple of months, I’ve learned an awful lot of new history. But I think I can say that appreciation of the personal stories in both cases was not dependent on me knowing the history or politics of Russian and the UK.

      I’m finding that as the situations especially in English Hist.Fic. overlap I’m learning a lot about the history of both Parliament and the succession of monarchs. So Georgette Heyer’s The Great Roxythe for instance is about the negotiations that led to the Stuarts losing the Crown, which Prince Charles in Waverley is attempting to recover.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m always worried I learn the wrong history, as authors like to take license with things. Also, the culture and norms of the time set expectations. I definitely see what you mean, though, and I’m hoping to get on with reading Crime & Punishment very soon.


      • I’m conscious that Hist.Fic authors might be taking liberties with history, with the tone rather than the facts quite often, but on the other hand Scott and Tolstoy grew up in the atmosphere of the years following- as I did in the aftermath of WWII – so they’re well placed as far as we’re concerned. And I find that light or romantic Hist.Fic often still gives you some idea of what was happening.


  7. Thank you Bill – as always, I enjoy your thoughtful commentary.

    And yes to the experience of tiny font, tiny format, and prayer-book paper – are we spoilt now with our large format paperbacks with loads of white space?!


      • I think I prefer a bit of white space. I got a copy of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose from the library this year and the paper was so thin and the text so dense that it was virtually unreadable – I pointed it out to the librarian when I returned it and she agreed that at 500+ pages, it would be hard going! (I have since bought my own copy – the text is dense but the paper not so thin).

        Liked by 1 person

  8. […] 1603 Elizabeth Tudor dies and the English Crown goes to James VI of Scotland 1605 Gunpowder plot (Guy Fawkes). Failed attempt by Catholics to kill James 1607– English colonies on the east coast of North America 1625 James dies, his son Charles becomes King. Espouses ‘Divine Right of Kings’ 1642-1651 Civil War, Parliament vs King 1649 Charles I executed 1651 Charles II deposed, replaced by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell 1660 Restoration. Charles II King again, then his brother James, a Catholic 1665-66 Great Plague. Bubonic plague carried by rats 1666 Great Fire of London destroys the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants (and St Paul’s Cathedral) 1688 James II deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (see Waverley). […]


  9. […] Part of our discussion around Moll was that although Defoe ostensibly set her in the C17th, the background to her adventures is clearly Defoe’s own lifetime 50 or 100 years later. There is not a lot of historical background in Tom Jones, especially early on, but Fielding makes clear that the story is contemporary. The Hanovers are on the English throne (George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60)) and by the time Tom is 20 the rebels (Jacobites) are marching south from Scotland (1745) to meet up with the French Army (which is rumoured, incorrectly as it happens, during the course of the novel to have landed) – the same march which forms the latter part of Scott’s Waverley. […]


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