In 1805, Walter Scott sat down to write the opening chapters of Waverley, a book that was to usher in an entirely new type of literary genre, the historical novel.
In the same year Scott had published his narrative poem, The Lay of the Minstrel, which was received enthusiastically, but when he submitted the first few chapters of Waverley to a critic the response was not anywhere near as warm.
I can understand this. Waverley has 72 chapters and I nearly gave up at Chapter 12 after wading through two chapters devoted to the pedantic Baron Bradwardine and his convoluted conversations that were interspersed with Latin, French and obsolete Scots.
Scott put the chapters aside and forgot all about them until 1814 when he came upon them in a drawer while looking for something else and took up the story again.
Thankfully, I didn’t give up at Chapter 12 and was rewarded for my efforts shortly afterwards when the pace picked up and the story swept me along.
Waverley begins just prior to the 1745 Jacobite uprising which saw Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) arrive in Scotland from France to set out to win the throne that his father failed to in 1715 during the first Jacobite uprising.
Scott’s hero, a young Englishman, Edward Waverley, finds himself through a series of circumstances, joined to a Highlander party fighting on the side of the Chevalier against the Hanoverian Dynasty.
His journeys take him into the Highlands of Scotland, through Edinburgh and down to Derby in the English midlands, where the Chevalier was compelled to retreat. It was at this point that Waverley became separated from the Highlanders and had to hide himself from the English dragoons.
Meanwhile Charles and his men successfully defeated the pursuing English at Falkirk and continued on to Inverness where they were mercilessly defeated by the Duke of Cumberland and his forces at Culloden.
Edward Waverley starts out as a romantic and idealistic young man. Scott had quite a bit to say about the young man’s education and considered it was somewhat desultory and undisciplined.
He lived with his old and indulgent uncle, Sir Everard, and was permitted, ‘in a great measure, to learn as he pleased, what he pleased, and when he pleased.’
He had a disposition ‘which can only be stirred by some strong motive of gratification, and which renounces study as soon as curiosity is gratified, the pleasure of conquering the first difficulties exhausted, and the novelty of pursuit at an end.
To our young hero, who was permitted to seek his instruction only according to the bent of his own mind, and who, of consequence, only sought it so long as it afforded him amusement, the indulgence of his tutors was attended with evil consequences, which long continued to influence his character, happiness, and utility.
Alas! while he was thus permitted to read only for the gratification of his amusement, he foresaw not that he was losing for ever the opportunity of acquiring habits of firm and assiduous application, of gaining the art of controlling, directing, and concentrating the powers of his mind for earnest investigation.
With a desire of amusement, therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder. Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading, especially under such opportunities of gratifying it…
like the epicure who only deigned to take a single morsel from the sunny side of a peach, read no volume a moment after it ceased to excite his curiosity or interest; and it necessarily happened, that the habit of seeking only this sort of gratification rendered it daily more difficult of attainment, till the passion for reading, like other strong appetites, produced by indulgence a sort of satiety.’
As I said, there was A LOT of reflection on the young man’s education and its effect on his character. While his formation in certain areas was neglected, Waverley’s experiences in the school of life made up for his deficiencies in others.
‘…it was in many a winter walk by the shores of Ullswater that he acquired a more complete mastery of a spirit tamed by adversity than his former experience had given him; and that he felt himself entitled to say firmly, though perhaps with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced. He was soon called upon to justify his pretensions by reason and philosophy.’
Besides his obvious literary talents and historical knowledge, Walter Scott also had a good sense of humour.
He described a woman being ‘dressed as if her clothes had been flung on with a pitchfork,’ and recounted the fate of Balmawhapple, a man whom nobody was going to miss, who:
‘…mounted on a horse as headstrong and stiff-necked as his rider, pursued the flight of the dragoons above four miles from the field of battle, when some dozen of the fugitives took heart of grace, turned round, and cleaving his skull with their broadswords, satisfied the world that the unfortunate gentleman had actually brains, the end of his life thus giving proof of a fact greatly doubted during its progress.’
In spite its slow start, Waverley is an exciting read that gives an account of the second Jacobite uprising without overwhelming the reader with too much military detail. It also follows the course of a young man’s growth in character as he experiences love and loss, victory and defeat.
For those interested in education, it has much to say about that, too, which is something I enjoyed and appreciated.