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'Will ye no' come back again?' whatever happened to Sir Walter Scott?

THE golden age of railways recalled earlier nineteenth-century victories at Waterloo or Austerlitz. Scotland's capital chose to honour triumphs of another sort by 'the author of Waverley'. The rail traveller still arrives in Edinburgh at a station called after Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

The traveller emerges from the station depths to see the Gothic pinnacle of the Scott monument on Princes Street. If he is thirsty, he is not far from the Abbotsford, called after Scott's Tweedside mansion, and the Kenilworth, with a gaudily recognisable sign-portrait of the 'Wizard of the North' swinging above the door. And if the traveller knows where to look, or arrives there inadvertently, he will find a homelier pub dedicated to The Heart of Midlothian heroine, Jeanie Deans, at the back door to the main police lock-up.

Scott's aura lingers in Edinburgh, and in the Borders he loved and romanticised. Across the country, on the Firth of Clyde, a Waverley paddle-steamer still survives, last of a long line bearing the names of his books, heroes, and heroines.

So it should be. He set out to introduce 'Scotland's natives in a more favourable light than hitherto', and succeeded beyond his farthest-fetched hopes. He made Scotland fashionable in ways whose potential was developed in the later age of Balmoral, Landseer, sporting estates, and first-class railway travel.

He also profoundly influenced European as well as English cultural tastes and fashions, not only in his direct impact but through such derivatives as Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Among other things, he shaped the historical novel, an art-form often imitated, sometimes debased, but by no means yet extinct. Scott's influence in America was so extensive, particularly on the Southern mind, that Mark Twain cited him as a cause of the war between the states.

He was the most famous Scotsman not just of his time but of the centuries since John Knox. He was phenomenally productive as well as successful (in literary ventures, though not in business ones). No-one in English literature, or perhaps any literature, has ever matched his dual success as poet and novelist.

Yet in many ways Scott is today a prophet with only rather superficial honour in his own country, a tourist-board hero rather than a popular one. Occasionally he is mentioned, if only to be derided by media columnists or modern writers of nationalist inclinations. 'Sir Walter Scott it was who turned us into a joke, and an especially bilious one at that', wrote one during this year's annual Robert Burns festivities. His royalism, romanticism, restraint, and reverence for social order are contrasted unfavourably with the roystering radicalism of Burns.

A far more serious matter may be that Scott remains much honoured in a distant and formal way, but is little read. Sixty years ago his biographer John Buchan was lamenting a falling-off in interest compared to the days when uniform editions of the Waverley Novels filled even cottage bookshelves. The process has gone much farther. The English-speaking world has not only lost the taste for the narrative poems on which Scott first built his reputation -- from The Lay of the Last Minstrel onwards -- but neglects his novels in a way that happily remains untrue for Dickens, Thackeray, or Fielding; and the neglect extends even to Edinburgh. In the city's best-stocked bookshop, a short walk from Scott's house at 39 North Castle Street where most of the Waverley Novels were written, a check on the Classics and Scottish Fiction sections revealed a combined total of nine of his novels and a collection of short stories -- long, long way short of The Collected Works.

Unfortunately there is one plausibly glib, if not ultimately convincing answer to the question 'Why is Scott now so little read?'. It is that he is unreadable -- or at lest unreadable without a readiness on the modern reader's part to make many changes in pace and mood, and extravagant concessions to unfashionable tastes and assumptions.

Such changes are not impossible. If they were, Jane Austen (born only four years after Scott) would neither retain her popularity nor induce readers to accept conventions and contexts even farther removed from most twentieth-century fiction than are those of Scott.

But Scott does make these necessary changes of attitude difficult. Take Waverley, the book that not only set a style and a fashion but gave the name of its rather pompous and very foolish hero to the series of two dozen or so novels. Its languorous opening chapters were (perhaps deservedly) tucked away for years in a drawer. But even to get to those chapters in a conventional edition of Scott's works means hacking a path through considerable undergrowth.

The Everyman edition, for example, follows tradition with Introduction, Dedication to George IV, Advertisement, General Preface, Appendix to General Preface, Second Appendix to General Preface, Third Appendix, Introduction to Waverley, and Preface to the Third Edition -- all before the reader comes on page 63 to Chapter One, itself headed 'Introductory'. This is surely the literary equivalent of the reputed extract from an old-fashioned Scots sermon: 'Seventhly, and lastly in conclusion of the first part...'.

However, if Scott is not just to be honoured but to be read, where can the modern reader begin? The traditional school approach to him starts with Ivanhoe (also the one Scott novel to have stirred much interest in film-makers and TV producers) and The Talisman, though Scots schools sometimes hoped for the best with the broad but gentle humour of The Antiquary, one of the books missing from the bookseller's shelves. But this approach risks condemning Scott to be essentially a children's adventure writer, to be put away with childish things -- however unfair that is both to the author and to aspects of Ivanhoe, for example the sub-plot about the plight of the Jews. Scott was not as unrealistic and undiscriminating about matters medieval as he is sometimes assumed to have been.

There are at least three rather better introductions to Scott for the modern reader.

One is to start not with the novels but with the life of their creator, whether in a relatively modern version such as John Buchan's or in the classic short life by Scott's son-in-law J. G. Lockhart, widely read long after its own time because of its inclusion in the first 100 titles of Everyman's Library.

Lockhart's family piety went with many other virtues and a restraint both of style and emotion, admirably suited to describing the consequences of the financial mess that Scott got himself into through the partnership with the publishing Ballantynes.

Lockhart was not infallible and could not be objective, for example in his account of the financial catastrophe. He also has some odd omissions. For example, his assessment of Scott's religious views fairly sums up the reasons for the novelist's Episcopal inclinations without mentioning the years spent as a Presbyterian elder or his even longer and significant personal ties with the artist-minister of Duddingston under the shadow of Arthur's Seat -- John Thomson, the friend (and informal pupil) of Raeburn as well as of Scott. One of Thomson's favourite themes -- with variations in a number of paintings -- was the 'Old Mortality' whose nickname gave Scott the title for his most controversial novel about Scottish history. The most notable modern historian of art of Scotland, Duncan Macmillan, also links Thomson's work closely to that of Scott: 'In spite of the part that Scott played in the inspiration of Turner's Scottish pictures, in a way it is Thomson's painting that is closest to a pictorial expression of Scott's own interpretation of landscape'. Lockhart notes the Turner connection but ignores the far closer Thomson one. Yet with all his limitations, Lockhart's book is a marvelous introduction not only to Scott as a man but to an appreciation of his fame and standing.

A second introduction to Scott is to start with one of the more modest of the novels, especially one which stands on its own to display Scott's gifts as story-teller and scene-setter without being too heavily sugared with his romanticism. One possibility would be The Pirate, the delayed legacy of the voyage to Shetland and Orkney in 1814 with the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners, when his immediate concern was with Hebridean background for the narrative poem The Lord of the Isles. It is another book missing from the Edinburgh bookseller's shelves. But its setting on the wild coasts of the Northern Isles may not seem either quite so remote or quite so fanciful to anyone who re-read it while the TV news cameras were fixed on last winter's wreck of a supertanker.

A third approach is to tackle Scott almost head-on, and encounter his most influential work more or less as his contemporaries did, with Waverley, subject to one minor amendment. Skip through the preliminaries and start with the drinking-session at Tully-Veolan after which stimulation the story never flags -- and which is a warning against too facile or exaggerated a contrast between the gentility of Scott and the 'unco happy' strain in Burns. In Scott's code of behaviour a gentleman was expected to hold his liquor -- rather more of it in the form of claret and prot than of whisky -- in ways hardly to be learned except from experience.

Waverley also brings the advantage that the reader is exploring the nature of Scott's reputation through the novel which established its author's fame in prose, even when his identity remained a far from open secret.

Jane Austen, thinking of Scott's poetic reputation, greeted his admission of Waverley's authorship with the gentle lament: 'Sir Walter Scott has no business to write novels'. But the modern reader may echo her other comments: 'I did not mean to like Waverley if I can help it. I fear I must'.

On one plane Waverley may appear as some of the most influential nonsense in history, and any apprentice literary critic could no doubt fault its characterisation and construction. But Miss Austen was right. Once the reader is well started it can be hard to stop. The hero may be the victim of his own follies, but we want to know how things turned out. And, though we know how the Forty-Five rebellion turned out, we are ready to suspend our knowledge of history in the hope or -- if we are Whigs -- in the fear that things may after all have turned out differently. For all his faults, Scott was a great story-teller and one able to create compelling characters even when they were caricatures. He also had a mastery of dialogue in both English and the Scots vernacular which made him, in the most literal sense, a dramatic novelist, comic as well as tragic. Even in books far short of his best, that mastery of the dramatic conversation in print could still be displayed, as in the dialogue of James I and VI with George Heriot in the sometimes tedious Fortunes of Nigel.

But on another plane Waverley is a presentation of Scott's interpretation of history, an area in which the substance of what he said has ever since been partially obscured and often distorted by the style and emotions with which he said it. The generations which rarely read him have inherited and perpetuated some of the misunderstandings of their predecessors. Scott romanticised the Middle Ages but had no thought of returning to their ways of life and thought. He romanticised the Stuarts because there was no risk of having them back. He romanticised the trappings of medieval religion but his own inclinations ran to the Book of Common Prayer, the 'Moderate' strain in the Scots Kirk, and the mixture of traditionalism and reform in the Church of England.

Would we read Scott with more appreciation if we read him with the assumptions that he shared with most of his original public: a belief in progress? For all his romanticism, he echoes many of the assumptions of the Enlightenment -- so influential on the Edinburgh of his youth -- and he foreshadows many of those of the Victorians.

His Toryism was not a reversion to Jacobitism but a defence of the established order against the challenge of the French Revolution. It had cavalier trimmings but its political substance came from the fusion under the Younger Pitt (and later with help from Edmund Burke and the anti-Jacobins) of a Whig inheritance with the Tory tradition. His answer to radicals was to insist how much better things had become than they were 'sixty years since', to quote the sub-title of Waverley, intended to point the moral and not just to adorn the tale. That helps to explain why Lockhart claimed for Scott so vast an influence in 'repressing the revolutionary propensities of the age'.

The modern trouble with Scott, in an age dedicated to self-expression both in art and in life, may partly be that he sought to be a moral, even a moralising, writer well before he wanted to be a romantic one. Where better than in his works, claimed Lockhart, 'shall we be taught better how prosperity may be extended by beneficence and adversity confronted by exertion?'.

That is not what most browsers on the booksellers' shelves are most obviously looking for today, and a rediscovery of Scott may well have to be in spite of these virtues and not because of them. But he is far too significant a figure not to be constantly rediscovered: in the history of the novel, of European culture, of Scotland, and of Scotland's relations with England.

Perhaps his reputation and estimates of his significance in his own country inevitably suffered in the generations after his death because, although he anticipated 'Victorian values', his notions of economic and social progress in a society led by landowners and lawyers were superseded when the balance of power, wealth, and population dramatically changed in his own country. Clydeside emerged as a workshop and the shipyard of the world. Scotland came to be dominated by groups whom Scott had neither cultivated nor gently caricatured, for he had not known them, and then by those in industrial revolt against them. Scott had rediscovered and popularised the history of Scotland, sometimes oversimplifying and even distorting it, just before many of his countrymen decided that history really began with the Industrial Revolution.

But he is too great to be forgotten. And at his best he is too good to be left unread. If (quite rightly) England cherishes Shakespeare despite every change in literary taste and dramatic fashion over centuries; if Spain and France still see what is timeless in Cervantes and Balzac; if Dickens remains enjoyable despite his cloying sentimentality and extravagance of caricature; surely Scott should have his due. He would have it more readily if his own countrymen took the lead.
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Title Annotation:Scottish author
Author:Kernohan, R.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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