Those dusty, dull-bound,
heavy books lie like pre-Cambrian bedrock on the lower shelves of pubs and
hotels. Such is the fate of the former best-seller, the man who popularised
tartan shortbread tins, the man who speckled the suburbs of Birmingham with
houses called Loch Lomond in streets called Waverley Crescent and Lammermoor
Close, where the daughters were once named Rowena, the sons Nigel.
Scott is the most
under-rated writer in the canon of British literature, second only to Dickens
among our great nineteenth-century novelists, readable, fertile, vivid,
profound, a master. Like every great novelist, he has huge faults. His English
prose style is clumsy and slipshod; he “sows from the sack, not from the hand”
and the impact of his best work, essentially poetic, is hard to represent from
quotations. His output is vast and many of his novels fail. He inaugurated, if
he did not cause, the curious Victorian literary convention that sexual
feelings don’t really exist; his scenery and weather are often perfunctory, his
heroes and heroines are for the most part as stiff as bookmarks. He was also a
Tory and a Unionist, which meets with little favour here. But his massive
humanity, comedy and invention are triumphs: once discovered, he is never
abandoned. So here goes: 25 novels in six pages, a lifetime of reading.
THE SCOTTISH PERIOD (1814-1820)
Although these are his earliest novels, they are not
beginner’s work. When he published Waverley
anonymously he was already 40, a celebrated man of letters thanks to his
sensationally popular narrative poems. The novels of this period include his
greatest achievements. Some of the later novels are deeply immersed in
(lowland) Scottish culture too, but here it’s a continuous presence, the
lifeblood of the books.
Seminal, and deeply pondered over many years, this is the
first historical novel worthy of the name in world literature. Perhaps his
masterpiece, although subtler achievements were to follow. Here are all his
great themes: the process of change in society, adolescence, humour, outcasts,
ideals, compromises, progress and extinctions. Every adventure, every western
movie, every sci-fi fantasy adventure you’ve ever read is indebted to this
brilliantly innovative book; not to mention Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot... A
great place to start.10 out of 10.
2. Guy Mannering (1815)
Scott with a head of steam up, this is frankly an
improvisation. Despite its many wonderful scenes and characters, it’s
carelessly executed and doesn’t run very deep. The Victorians loved it, but in
our severer times: 7 out of 10.
3. The Antiquary (1816)
On the surface this is even more chaotic and heterogeneous
than Guy Mannering; but this time it all works out. This is Scott’s supreme
book about conversation, conviviality and human company: a little-known
delight. 9 out of 10.
his sister understood these looks of ire (rescued from drowning, and no food in
the house). “Ou dear! Monkbarns, what’s the use of making a wark?”
“I make no wark, as ye call it, woman.”
“But what’s the use o’ looking sae glum and
glunch about a pickle bains? – an ye will hae the truth, ye maun ken the
minister came in, worthy man – sair distressed he was, nae doubt, about your
precaurious situation, as he ca’d it, (for ye ken how weel he’s gifted wi’
words,) and here he wad bide till he could hear wi’ certainty how the matter
was likely to gang wi’ ye a’. He said fine things on the duty of resignation to
will, worthy man! that did he.” (The Antiquary, Ch 9)
4. The Black Dwarf and 5. Old Mortality (1816)
Old Mortality is his most exciting and perhaps
greatest book, one of the best-imagined stories in English. A profound
meditation on violence, fanaticism and repression; pick it up at Chapter 2 (as
the Calders advise) and watch how Scott’s insidiously slack-limbed narration
sucks you in. 10 out of 10.
The Black Dwarf
, a short novel published with it, has
some fine pages but never gets far off the ground. 5 out of 10. (Longer Note.
6. Rob Roy
A brief, fiery and penetrating book lies hidden inside a
baggier, more uneven one. In no book does Scott come closer to a critique of
the conventional ruling class that he approved, in no book is the fact
of the Highlands
more challengingly posed. But we have to wade through a lot of idling and Gothic plotting in Northumberland to
get to the serious heart of this, so all in all - 7 out of 10.
7. The Heart of
In the early years of this century, this won an undeserved
reputation as Scott’s only real masterpiece. For the first 200 pages, indeed,
he is at his highest pitch (but hardly his uniquely highest pitch): this Edinburgh is like Balzac’s Paris with all the gaps filled out. It should
have been his best book. But it goes disastrously out of its way in the third
volume thanks to Scott’s always excessive fascination with royalty, and never
completely recovers. Badly flawed though it is, 9.5 out of 10.
8. The Bride of
Rumoured to have been dictated in delirium and subsequently
unremembered by its author (whose life was a catalogue of sicknesses), this is
the most un-Scott-like of his masterpieces: a brilliant, bleak, secretive
tragedy that operates with intense restraint. Beautifully structured, it shows
(along with Old Mortality, Kenilworth etc) that Scott was the
most naturally gifted designer of a novel in our tradition. (The French
equivalent, in this respect, is Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire.) 9 out of 10.
9. A Legend of
This is Scott’s book about war, and the mercenary
Rittmeister is one of the most morally troubling (and entertaining) characters
he created. Elsewhere, though, it’s thinnish and looks hurried. 7 out of 10.
THE COSTUME DRAMAS (1820-1826)
It’s commonly supposed that the unprecedented success of Ivanhoe
his first book set outside Scotland, turned Scott’s head, and led him away from
the true sources of his inspiration (with the anomalous exception of Redgauntlet
The reality is more complicated. Scott’s books always occupied the borderland
with romance anyway, and the best books of this period (e.g. The Abbot
) are as good as all but the very best
of his earlier novels – and arguably stranger.
Anyone who wants to understand the Victorian imagination
needs to start with this. England
went Ivanhoe-mad; this is the public-school boy’s book par excellence. And
today? Well, it’s a rich and humane adventure with a few deeper chords
(Rebecca, the greenwood...). But when all’s said, only half of Scott’s
greatness is on view here. 6 out of 10. (Longer Note.
11. The Monastery (1820)
This was considered a failure even at the time of its first
publication, so is now never read. The November weather, the Tweed
and the reformation period suit Scott well, and though the story doesn’t quite
add up he’s in easy spirits throughout. 6 out of 10.
river was not in flood, but it was above its ordinary level – a heavy water, as
it is called in that country, through which the monk had no particular
inclination to ride, if he could manage the matter better.
“Peter, my good friend,” cried the sacristan,
raising his voice; “my very excellent friend Peter, be so kind as to lower the
drawbridge. Peter, I say, dost not hear? – it is thy gossip, Father Philip, who
Peter heard him perfectly well, and saw him
into the bargain; but, as he had considered the sacristan as peculiarly his
enemy in his dispute with the convent, he went quietly to bed, after
reconnoitring the monk through his loop-hole, observing to his wife that
“riding the water in a moonlight night would do the sacristan no harm, and
would teach him the value of a brig the neist time, on whilk a man might pass
high and dry, winter and summer, flood and ebb.” (The Monastery, Ch 5)
12. The Abbot
Characteristically, Scott’s response to his first avowed
failure was to write a sequel to it.
Roland and Catherine are Scott’s most lively young couple, and the
tension of the theme (Protestantism outlawing Catholism) make this a romance
with an edge. 8 out of 10.
“You talk riddles, my lord,” said Mary; “I
will hope the explanation carries nothing insulting with it.”
“You shall judge, madam,” answered Lindesay.
“With this good sword was Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, girded on the
memorable day when he acquired the name of Bell-the-Cat, for dragging from the
presence of your great-grandfather, the third James of the race, a crew of
minions, flatterers, and favourites, whom he hanged over the bridge of Lauder,
as a warning to such reptiles how they approach a Scottish throne. With this
same weapon, the same inflexible champion of Scottish honour and nobility slew
at one blow Spens of Kilspindie, a courtier of your grandfather, James the
Fourth, who had dared to speak lightly of him in the royal presence. They
fought near the brook of Fala; and Bell-the-Cat, with this blade, sheared
through the thigh of his opponent, and lopped the limb as easily as a
shepherd’s boy slices a twig from a sapling.” (The Abbot, Ch 21)
Perhaps his most under-rated book, this tragedy of
ostentation and gorgeous surfaces is a not unworthy companion to The Bride
, the extended description of the revels at Kenilworth
unmatched in moral and dramatic intensity. Scott’s sixteenth-century England
is utterly unlike what we expect, a nightmare of fortune-hunters and trapdoors
that unfolds with a dreadful logic and expires like a thunderclap on the last
page. 8 out of 10.
14. The Pirate
Scott had loved visiting the Shetlands, but he couldn’t
raise a good novel out of it. The things that had moved him were
untranslateable into any fiction even he could imagine. Dreary, tame and
unconvincing. 3 out of 10.
15. The Fortunes
of Nigel (1822)
Like all the other books he set in the seventeenth century,
novel suffers from the inevitable comparison with his own Old Mortality,
and in a different way with the Jacobean city comedies from which he plundered
so much material. Nigel is colourful but inadequately felt, and dead
from the waist down. 4 out of 10.
16. Peveril of the
Much derided, this long book is good for about half its
length before finally coming apart at the seams. The prelude is excellent, and
Peveril’s journey across England
beautifully poised, but Scott abandons his most arresting characters and the ending
becomes a wearisome game of chess. 4 out of 10.
Often considered the best of the costume dramas, this
architectural, expansive adventure is finely conceived but often feebly
written, and the European setting too often recalls Balzac, a fatal comparison
when Scott is short of his best. 5 out of 10.
18. St Ronan’s
I haven’t read it! Rumoured (but not reliably) to be a
masterpiece, described by others as a
bitter satire, by others as a flop; the latter is perhaps least unlikely, but
you never know. The only Scott novel set in his own time, though “The
Antiquary” comes close. 6 out of 10, at a guess.
For many, his greatest book. Beneath its casual surface is a
profoundly poetic meditation on romance itself, intuitive, mature and
brilliantly imagined. Its innovative structure incorporates, along with much
else, that supreme short story, “Wandering Willie’s Tale”. The closing chapters
alas, fall a bit short. 9 out of 10.
20. The Betrothed and 21.
The Talisman (1825)
The first of the “Tales of the Crusaders” is indisputably
minor, a book that can be read (like The Pirate) only for the pleasure
of hearing its author’s voice. The second has been over-rated, and creaks with
stage-management under the sun of Palestine.
Both 3 out of 10.
RUIN AND DECLINE (1826-1832)
In 1826, the fragile financial system of the printing and
publishing trade collapsed. Scott, who was a secret partner in his own printing
house, was brought down with it. Rather than plead bankruptcy, he offered to
pay his creditors off with the proceeds of future writing. It was a decision
that saved his honour and his home, at the cost of literally writing himself to
death. (Apart from the novels, these last years produced such daunting
monuments as his gigantic Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, now never seen or
read: also, his private Journal, a grievous and brilliant book.)
This intricately rotating microcosm in the unsettled
backwash of the English civil war was half-completed when financial ruin,
bereavement and illness dropped on its author in quick succession. But in the
finished novel it doesn’t show; Scott was a stoic at noon and midnight; the
full but sombre palette is there from the start. 6 out of 10.
23. The Fair Maid
The best novel of his last period, this warm and wintry
adventure, full of incident and humour, shows that Scott had lost none of his
inner wisdom and imagination, if only circumstances would allow him to deploy
them. 7 out of 10.
24. Anne of
Haven’t read it. The drudgery of writing it drove Scott to
distraction, but this tale of medieval Switzerland is reputed to be no
worse than run-of-the-mill. A presumed 4 out of 10.
25. Count Robert
of Paris and 26. Castle Dangerous (1832)
Haven’t read them. Embarrassments, these, the former set in
, the latter in
Described, by those few who have ventured in, as the worst novels he wrote.
Presumably 1 or 2 out of 10.
Desperately ill, Scott went on a recuperative trip to the Mediterranean
, collapsing during his return and dying in
his own bed. While abroad, he wrote this book and also a novella called Bizarro
. Lockhart decided they were not
publishable and when they eventually appeared (in 2008) you could see why. No
amount of tidying up broken sentences can disguise the calamitous decay of the
author’s faculties. These spasms of compulsive writing are fascinating from a
medical point of view. The imagination goes first, and the second half of The Siege of Malta
is a bare-bones
retelling of history with no fictional characters at all.
(The Walter Scott Digital Archive,
produced by Edinburgh University Library, will give you graphics of Lambert
& Butler “Waverley” Straight Cut Cigarettes, engravings of Catherine
Seyton, links to all sorts of interesting material that you won’t know about –
for example, the aging Mark Twain’s extraordinary letters about the Waverley
novels – and a more comprehensive guide to all Scott’s works. Also, a link to
Carlyle’s review-essay on Lockhart’s biography: I must admit, I don’t find it
an easy matter to read Carlyle on any subject. But it’s well worth persisting,
if only for the salutary effect of a view that resolutely declines to idealize
its subject. Carlyle is unenthusiastic; he argues that what we call “greatness”
in Scott is something less than what he thinks greatness in the absolute sense
(Goethe is his touchstone). It must be admitted that nearly all writing about
Scott is characterized – I will not say vitiated – by a vein of reverent
idealization, from which my own notes are by no means exempt. Carlyle was also
prescient in anticipating that Scott’s phenomenal popularity would be temporary.
As it happens his own work is now in even deeper eclipse, and that of his hero
Goethe too, at any rate in the English-speaking world.)
Labels: Sir Walter Scott