Books Sir Walter Scott and the politics behind inventing the historical novel
With the historical novel undergoing a revival, Kathryn Sutherland considers the writer who invented the genre in its modern form
LOOKING back over his career as the ‘‘ author of Waverley’’, Walter Scott admitted that ‘‘ in the pen of this nameless romancer, I seemed to possess something like the secret fountain of coined gold and pearls vouchsafed to the traveller of the Eastern Tale’’. In his heyday, he was the Great Unknown and the Wizard of the North; before he was a bestselling novelist he was a stranger entity, a bestselling poet whose verse romance The Lady of the Lake (1810) sold 30,000 copies in a year. By his pen, he built a successful business empire and a huge personal fortune, through time writing himself into great wealth and out of insolvency as the dramatic twists of his life came to resemble the heroic struggles of one of his fictions.
Scott wrote 27 novels at astonishing speed (in some instances, a novel in as little as eight weeks) between 1814 and 1831, while pursuing other literary activities and ‘‘ by-jobs’’. All were issued, in theory, anonymously under elaborate conditions of secrecy until 1827, when the ‘‘ author of Waverley’’ was forced into the open. Waverley, the first of his novels, published in a standard edition of 1000 copies, was a runaway success, with second and third editions totalling 4000 copies in a matter of months.
But the secret was always open: as early as September 1814, in a Hampshire village, the relatively unknown Jane Austen observed to her niece that ‘‘ Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.’’
Scott’s annual novel profits were estimated in 1818 at a colossal £10,000. At the height of his popularity, print runs of 12,000 copies were selling out in weeks, with second impressions called for before the first was clear of the press. Against this, Austen’s fourth novel, Emma, appeared in a healthy first impression of 2000 copies in December 1815, of which 539 were still on her publisher’s hands in 1820.
Scott invented the historical novel in its modern form and he influenced the writing of history, historical fiction and the European and American novel for a century at least. As a child of the Enlightenment, he took the long view, tracing the origins of the present in the distant past and drawing on a range of sources, from legal testament to folklore and ballads.
Scott’s subject is always history, but Scotland’s Stuart or Jacobite past fired his imagination. Stuart history informs a remarkable series of novels that stretches in order of composition from Waverley through The Black Dwarf, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor and finally to Redgauntlet; in order of historical setting, from the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, through the risings of 1715 and 1745, and out of history into fiction with Redgauntlet, whose subject is the imagined event of a third Jacobite rising in 1765.
In novel after novel, the old is pitted against the new: the desire for the past against the inevitable forces of change. Old Mortality, as impressive and persistently relevant as any historical novel written since, is a study of political tyranny pitted against religious extremism, of sectarian war, in which the ‘‘ individual fate’’ of its typically moderate hero, Henry Morton, is ‘‘ bound up in that of a national insurrection and revolution’’.
In novels set as far apart in time as Quentin Durward, The Fortunes of Nigel, The Bride of Lammermoor, Rob Roy and Guy Mannering, wealth amassed in business is measured against the once solid patrimony of land and inherited estates seen now at their most endangered, hedged round by debt. Contrasted regional settings deliberately blur the co-ordinates of space and time; the symbolic topographies of wild highland landscape and domesticated lowlands, of ruined ancestral home and bustling counting-house, of past and present.
Whatever the period, Scott’s subject is the broken allegiance between the old aristocracy and the folk, and the sense of a community adjusting to new commercial relations.
Yet a Scott narrative often resolves the opposition of old and new in seemingly contrary fashion, as estates are restored to lost heirs, old houses are rebuilt and shattered relations are mended, with new money footing the bill. On his Border estate, Scott traded the earnings of novelwriting for the solid representations of lineage. Oral tradition and family tales were the raw materials he transformed into print, exchanged for money and subsequently invested in his feudal fantasy as Laird of Abbotsford.
Scott secured his profits several times over. From 1805, he was co-partner with his schoolfriend James Ballantyne in the firm that would print most of his novels. Between 1816 and 1821, at the height of his popularity, he was sole proprietor, introducing the advanced technology of steam-powered presses and generally modernising the plant.
Jedediah Cleishbotham, one of Scott’s many prose disguises, exposes this writing business in the opening pages of The Heart of Mid-Lothian, composed in 1817-18 during the first major phase of building at Abbotsford, where in his address to the reader he equates the ‘‘ turns of fortune’’ that the narrative delineates with his own upturn in fortune — a second storey to his house and a new coat — having disposed so profitably of this latest fiction. As Scott himself put it at the time, describing his latest land deal to James’s brother John Ballantyne: ‘‘ I have closed with Usher for his beautiful patrimony which makes me a great laird. I am afraid the people will take me up for coining. Indeed these novels while their attractions last are something like it.’’
Scott’s attractions lasted through the 19th century. But now, when good historical fiction is enjoying a revival, he remains the Great Unread. It is not the length of his books that deters but their style. For all their romance, Scott’s heavyduty blend of history and fiction weights his novels towards realism and even abstraction; and Scott’s realism is an anxiously defended position, made up of multiple voices and different modes of discourse that too often frustrate the reader’s absorption in the tale being told. The team of pseudonymous editor-historians doing service first to the ‘‘ author of Waverley’’ and later to his rival identity as author of Tales of My Landlord exists to authenticate the narratives they introduce, to personalise them. But their tendentious scholarship places an invented frame around works that internally bristle with cross-references to authorities and sources. Reality checks slow down stories while their credentials are inspected.
From the start, Scott glossed Scots dialect words for his southern audience, but his English heroes like Edward Waverley and Lovel (in The Antiquary) speak a high novelese that causes the modern reader as much bewilderment.
The challenge, as Scott saw it, is linguistic and intellectual: a vision of history that is fully representative must give voice to disparate kinds and accounts of experience. Scott is impressive when he imagines the great figures of history: the disconnected political suavity of Charles Edward Stuart, the ruthlessness of the fallen angel Graham of Claverhouse.
Language leaps into life in the eloquence of his commoners and folk: the Gypsy Meg Merrilies denouncing the Laird of Ellangowan in Guy Mannering; the speech patterns (from psychotic to self-sacrificing and self-serving) of the militant Covenanters of Old Mortality. The cadences of ballad and Bible are in their mouths. Scott, too, is a fine storyteller: abandoning the
The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels By Sir Walter Scott Edited by David Hewitt Edinburgh University Press, 30 volumes, 14,972pp, $3720 (HB)
temporising and contextualising mode of the historian for the local and disruptive voice, in Wandering Willie’s Tale and The Two Drovers he discovers a tighter fictional design.
But what is missing is a now familiar expectation that a fictional character will embody a set of mental and emotional processes: specifically, the sense that his moderate heroes will register internally the conflicts they witness; that they will have an inner life.
Scott’s instincts and training were historical, even antiquarian; he favoured annotation and information. As a young man he raided the remote region of Liddesdale for traditional border ballads, edited with essays and notes in 1802-03 as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; and he ended his career by editing his own novels, correcting their texts and explicating them with new introductions and appendices. This was the collected edition of the Waverley novels, the ‘‘ grande opus’’ or ‘‘ Magnum Opus’’ as he called it, and a model for later novelists to reshape their work in collected form: the Charles Dickens Edition and the Wessex Edition of the works of Thomas Hardy.
Scott worked at the Magnum between 1828 and 1831, using specially prepared interleaved copies of earlier editions. It was issued serially in 48 volumes, one a month, between 1829 and 1833. But Scott had died, worn out by his punishing writing schedule, in September 1832, the month that saw the publication of Volume 40, the second part of Woodstock.
The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels is, after the Magnum, the most extensive textual reconsideration of Scott’s novels and the first fully critical edition. It has taken more than 20
HE TOOK THE LONG VIEW, TRACING THE ORIGINS OF THE PRESENT IN THE DISTANT PAST
years to complete and is contained in 30 volumes: 27 novels with a volume each, a volume of short stories, and the introductions and notes from the Magnum collected in two final volumes. On publication, the Magnum became the standard version of the novels, the version in which Scott’s Victorian and Edwardian readership enjoyed him.
The EEWN has stripped away the interventions of the elderly and ailing self-editor, the proto-Victorian Scott of the Magnum, offering in their place a text based on a reconsideration of the first printed editions as better serving the author’s original conception. It reproduces for a new readership something like the version of each novel that captivated its first readers.
An early form of the general introduction to the EEWN by editor-in-chief David Hewitt argued boldly that the edition represents a ‘‘ return to authentic Scott’’, the ‘‘ creative power which took Britain, Europe and America by storm’’ before being ‘‘ cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d by its Magnum context’’. Later volumes print a revised statement, worded more cautiously, but they do not renege on the commitment to create an ‘‘ ideal first edition’’, whose base is the first printed edition with restored readings from the earlier manuscript stage and a systematic scrutiny of the production process intervening between manuscript and first edition.
As Hewitt and individual volume editors admit, this is a daunting task. There are two challenges facing the editor of a Scott novel: too much material, in the form of lifetime states of the text; and too many legitimate interventions into the text, the result of the secrecy under which most of the novels were turned into print.
The first volumes ( The Black Dwarf, The Tale of Old Mortality and Kenilworth) appeared in 1993, the final volumes in 2012; the project has its underpinning in Hewitt’s article of 1988, ‘‘ Scott and Textual Multiplepoinding’’, and the extensive Guide for Editors compiled by the editorial board under Hewitt’s direction and published in 1996. Multiplepoinding, a term from Scots law, provides a strategy rather than a fixed policy determining editorial decisions. A multiplepoinding is an action raised by the holder of a fund or property to which there are several claimants, who are thereby required to come together to settle their claims in court.
The term is apposite: Scott was a Scottish lawyer; his novels are peppered with the rhetoric of Scots law; it is a metaphor that explicates the imaginative and commercial apparatus that brought the novels to market and hid Scott’s identity. His 18th-century reluctance to accede totally to the illusion of fiction meant that he wrote into his novels a sociable model of production, delegating to surrogate editors and storytellers the various parts of his own unique imaginative labour.
In reality, he also participated in a set of elaborate processes designed to screen his authorship and distribute significant authority among ‘‘ intermediaries’’ (a collective term used by the EEWN for amanuenses, house readers, compositors and the printer and editorial adviser James Ballantyne) who worked with considerable licence to turn manuscript into print.
Some claims on the Scott text are easier to dismiss than others: misreadings, misunderstandings and, on occasion, Ballantyne’s conscientious if pedestrian interventions at proof stage. He it was who famously persuaded Scott during the original writing to bring Athelstane back from the dead in the closing pages of Ivanhoe — a piece of daftness so integral to the text that it must be kept. But what Peter Garside describes in the EEWN Guy Mannering as the ‘‘ rougher feel’’, the sense of ‘‘ immediacy and linguistic range’’ of an edition that draws readings from the first creative manuscript phase can also aptly describe the permitted input of the intermediaries. If the general effect of print was to flatten Scott’s heavily be-dashed, rhetorical manuscript punctuation, the visible trace of a ‘‘ creating mind [that] seems to have been oral’’ (GAM Wood and Hewitt’s description of the manuscript of Redgauntlet), print was also expected to enliven dialect by substituting Scots orthographic forms for those rendered as standard English in Scott’s hand.
The representation of Scots speech is a vexed issue, with authority shifting between author and intermediaries, and some passages benefiting from print interpretation. While generally observing the first-edition punctuation of the intermediaries, EEWN editors feel free to restore manuscript dashes to highlight emotional or broken speech patterns, and more than 600 archaisms are reinserted from the manuscript into the medieval tale of Ivanhoe, Scott’s first novel with an English setting.
Here is the problem: how to sift the evidence and adjudicate between claimants; how to weigh authorial against authorially delegated interventions into the text. Crucially, with the major exceptions of Waverley, A Legend of Montrose and Ivanhoe, Scott’s holograph manuscripts survive in abundance; he is among the first British novelists for whom we have rich manuscript deposits. In some instances they show thousands of verbal and structural differences from the first editions, seeming to throw doubt on the circumstances of post-authorial production, and to pit the individual imagination against the social contract.
Against this stands the evidence that, for Scott, the creative phase of authorship continued into and fused with the stages of print production. Before 1827, no manuscript in Scott’s own hand was used in the printing house to set copy; up to this point his identity as novelist was concealed behind a system of transcription. In almost all cases these transcripts have not survived, while the holographs, sealed off from further development, have. When we turn to the manuscripts we find coherence of form but not text: Scott used proofs (surviving patchily and only for later novels) to rework passages, sometimes substantially. Further, Scott seems not to have referred to his manuscript when checking proofs. As the EEWN editors’ scrupulous exposure of the conditions of production for each novel confirms, Scott’s manuscripts were a point of departure rather than return, and each novel was fully developed or ‘‘ textualised’’ only in the course of transformation into print.
Finally, until 1826 and the financial crash engulfing them all, Scott’s relationship with publisher and printer was highly unusual: he was virtually in control of the process of printing; what happened at the press was under his authority, placing him in a unique position to see his wishes respected.
Why, then, lay emphasis, as the EEWN editors do, on restored manuscript readings? And why, in the construction of an ideal or composite text, discourage readings from later printings in which Scott addressed the occasional faults he found post-publication? Briefly, the EEWN emphasis is on the text in creation as distinct from the text in revision or repair.
Scott’s normal procedure was to send off portions of manuscript to the press in batches as they were finished, often not waiting for the structural pauses in composition of chapter or volume divisions. Inevitably, this way of working put pressure on the proof stage as a further creative effort. Equally, the appearance in print of the early portions of a work might influence subsequent manuscript development. In the manuscript of The Antiquary the name of the fisher family appears as Mucklebackit 17 times to Meiklebackit 18 times, with the first usage being Meiklebackit and 11 uses of Mucklebackit grouped in the third volume, by which time print had standardised Mucklebackit, and Scott’s writing hand followed suit.
Hewitt’s decision consistently to unpick what print standardised and Scott accepted is especially zealous and not altogether satisfactory. Emending in every instance to Meiklebackit, Hewitt raises the notion of an ideal manuscript state and eclipses Scott’s pragmatism as a writer.
For all its emphasis on the history of production, the EEWN regularly relegates the intention to print in favour of a narrower notion of Scott as autonomous author. A statement in the Guide for Editors asserts, against its own painstakingly constructed evidence, that: ‘‘ The manuscripts provide the only fully authoritative state of the texts of the novels, for they alone proceed wholly from the author.’’ The invitation, accepted more readily by some of the volume editors, is to view the manuscripts less as drafts or pre-texts (as working manuscripts are often called) than as the novels’ only authentic state.
What does this mean for the novels we read in this new edition? It means the restoration of thousands of manuscript readings. There are single-word improvements: the precise ‘‘ caboose’’ for ‘‘ cabin’’, ‘‘ suspirations’’ for ‘‘ aspirations’’, ‘‘ blood-cruelty’’ for ‘‘ blood and cruelty’’ in The Pirate; the mending of numerous copying errors or word jumblings and sentences lost through hasty transcription from Kenilworth.
In Guy Mannering, substantial sections of manuscript text are recovered and incorporated into print for the first time. Among them, four manuscript pages, in which Mannering indulges in the kind of literary tourism that would have been familiar to Scott’s early readers from Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, provide observations on leading figures of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, including the eccentric Lord Monboddo.
Titles are adjusted. Old Mortality becomes the more logical The Tale of Old Mortality (the manuscript twice calls the novel ‘‘ The Tale of’’), rectifying what the editor Douglas S. Mack calls a ‘‘ mishap in the production process’’; A Legend of Montrose becomes Scott’s preferred form, A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. Freed from the pressures of balancing the length of the text in the original multi-volume format in which the first editions appeared, editors can restore original manuscript divisions to the material, significantly reapportioning structural emphasis in The Tale of Old Mortality, The Heart of MidLothian and The Bride of Lammermoor. The return to a first-edition text for The Bride also restores the immediate political context of the action to shortly before the 1707 Union of Scotland and England. In revisions in 1830 for the Magnum, Scott inserted several passages establishing a new post-Union setting, but the original pre-1707 context, a period of political vacillation and no clear leadership, throws a different emphasis on relations between the novel’s major players. In many instances, the known circumstances of haste under which production continued justify manuscript restoration; in others, editors are compelled rather by a sense of the richness of what has been lost.
The EEWN is a passionately argued edition that refuses to shy away from the critical work that defines editing at its best. Corporately and individually, the editors have set and achieved demanding standards. Their minute scrutiny of textual states does not lie inert in synoptic apparatus, but is woven into cogent expositions of Scott’s remarkable feats of composition. Shining steady light on the organic imagination at work within those mechanical relations, the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley novels vigorously rebuts Thomas Carlyle’s verdict on the man who was a ‘‘ Novel-manufactory’’. Scott emerges once again as a writer of heroic stature.
From far left, Emma Matthews in a West Australian Opera production of Lucia di
Lammermoor, which is based on Walter Scott’s
Bride of Lammermoor; a portrait of the author by Henry Raeburn; Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe; Liam Neeson in Rob Roy