When you’re finishing a PhD, doctors start to tell you the two things that got them through: usually involving sugar or caffeine. If I make it to my doctorate it’s going to be thanks to 1. spinach (I was short on iron), and 2. Walter Scott.
Walter Scott was a member of my church and lived within two miles of me. In the nineteenth century, he was the best selling author on the planet, by several orders of magnitude. He pushed his successful contemporary Jane Austen completely off the radar. In my generation, he is almost totally unread.
I’d never thought of reading Scott. I love classics, but Scott was somehow buried under layers of horrid Victorian dust of the worst sort. I thought I’d better read a few because I was writing a history of the church.
I discovered a novelist more enlightened than Jane Austen, funnier than Trollope, more observant than Dickens, more emotive than Bronte – a novelist who starts gently but gets more unputdownable with every page, who makes me laugh out loud and cry, who when I get to the end of one makes me rush to a second-hand bookshop for one of the gazillion pocket editions mouldering there to start another.
In dear old Austen, you know you’ll get ‘three or four families in a country village’, centered on a hero who is richer than the heroine, and a heroine who has no particular plans other than matrimony. You’ll always know everyone’s exact rank and financial worth; men and women have their places, and the common people are invisible and silent. It’s very funny, it’s sweet, yes I want to be Elizabeth Bennet — but it’s not actually very enlightened, is it? It’s a patriarchal hierarchy: effective anti-French revolution propaganda. I can enjoy it, but it’s a foreign worldview to me.
In Scott, you might get anything. You might get an inspirational cottage girl (Jeanie Deans, Heart of Midlothian), or a villainous lawyer (Glossin, Guy Mannering), or an adorable farmer (Dandie Dinmont, Guy Mannering). You often get wrongheaded but loveable characters who are enlightened as the book progresses (Oldbuck, The Antiquary; Darsie Latimer, Redgauntlet). You get brainy, sporty, fabulous women whose aims in life are anything but matrimony: they are spies or politicians (Di Vernon, Rob Roy) or doctors (Rebecca, Ivanhoe). You get half-mad, autistic, or beggarly-poor characters who are just as three-dimensional and heroic as the rich and clever ones (Edie Ochiltree, The Antiquary; Dominie Sampson, Guy Mannering; Norna, The Pirate) It’s a rich celebration of all the shades and variations of human life from queens to beggars, geniuses to idiots, rebels to reconcilers, villains to role models: and Scott loves them all indiscriminately. He’s an egalitarian writer. I could live by his values.
The love-stories are sometimes good, but they are far from the only or the best relationships: the most interesting are often father-daughter ones.
You also get the most fabulous, cinematic descriptions of place and action. These things are just yearning to be turned into huge, spectacular, hilarious screenplays.
If you enjoy classic literature at all you’ll love Scott. He does have a few quirks which make him a bit of a challenge to the uninitiated but if you know what they are they are minor concerns:
1. He has a reputation for being anti-feminist, nationalist and other unenlightened bad things. This is nonsense. He was shaped by Edinburgh when it was the most enlightened city in the world,* and it shows. He was Edinburgh’s contribution to the early romantic movement, which was also the height of the Enlightenment. Look carefully at the values which are ultimately commended or criticised in the novels and decide for yourselves. They’re more or less the values I try to live my life by.
2. There is often a strange character who belongs to the first chapter to explain how the story came to be discovered: Scott plays with the novel genre, wrapping his narrative in several layers of fictional author and editor. It’s part of the fun: just go with the flow. A plot will start eventually. Once you’ve read a few you’ll realise these early chapters are some of the most delightful bits, where he toys with your sense of reality.
3. The best novels, which are set in Scotland, have quite a lot of Scots dialogue. Keep going: you’ll get used to it. He was writing for a British audience, so he made sure it was comprehensible. And he explains all difficult words in footnotes.
4. They are quite long. And they sometimes start slowly. But you know classic novels do that — and once you’re hooked, reading them is the easiest thing in the world. Someone said to me when they had M.E. the only thing they could do was read Scott’s novels, which I can well imagine. As I say, they’re getting me though my PhD.
Scott was a variable novelist (he wrote 27, for money, increasingly frantically at the end of his life). So start with some good ones. Here are a few. Take your pick:
Guy Mannering: Set in Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh in the 1770s. Lawyers (Scott was a lawyer so they come up a lot!) and gypsies, smuggling, two rather second-rate heroines, but the best characters are the farmer Dandie Dinmont, and the extraordinary Dominie Sampson. Sheer delight: I would prescribe it to anyone who is depressed.
Rob Roy: Gallivanting Highland adventure set in the er.. 1770s?, with by far the best romance starring a tremendous heroine who can translate ancient Greek and ride with hounds, and a superb anti-heroine (Helen Roy) which shows you what happens when all that female strength and talent goes bad. A visit to Glasgow for all fans of the Weege. Don’t hold your breath for Rob Roy, though: he doesn’t appear till waaaay through the book. Just enjoy the mystery!
The Antiquary: Set on the east coast of Scotland in the 1790s, a gentle comedy involving a lot of eccentric male historians, and a girl and a beggar who are far better historians than any of them. Hurrah! Will the French invade?? Or will the ladies in the post office open something scandalous?!
Heart of Midlothian: Rightly famous. Set in Edinburgh in the err… 1730s? The heroic Jeanie Deans will melt your heart — but there’s a lot of action in the wynds and closes before she comes on scene.
Redgauntlet: This is all about Jacobites in Lancashire in the 1750s. Ideal for fans of Morecambe Bay, mist, spies, and mysterious women in green. It has some very funny bits. They all have some very funny bits.
Old Mortality: I’m not sure you should read this first: I got stuck and put it down the first time. The second time I loved it so much I think it might be my favourite. It’s set in 17thC Scotland with two gorgeous heroes, Morton and Evendale (both in love with the same girl: it has tragic bits…), and two tremendous anti-heroes (Burley the Covenanter and Claverhouse the Jacobite), and these four dance a psychological dance across muir and bog, in and out of castles and battles.
I haven’t read all the others, but I’ve read some supposedly ‘second-rate’ ones and enjoyed every one. The three I wouldn’t start with — although do read them later — are:
Waverley and Ivanhoe: These two books totally transformed Scottish and English culture. Waverley created the romantic Highlands, and Ivanhoe created Merry England. But they were SO influential that they now read as parodies of themselves: they’re like Horrible Histories. When you do come to read them, as an experienced Scott addict, bear in mind he was the first person to write this stuff. And notice the man of the enlightenment is still there (Rebecca in Ivanhoe is one of his most enlightened characters). Also in Ivanhoe he makes a bold and not wholly successful attempt to write in a Mediaeval idiom. No-one had ever done that before either, and he keeps it up admirably, but there’s something about ‘prithee gentle swain’ that the modern reader just can’t take seriously.
Bride of Lammermoor: For some reason this is the one all English Literature people read, maybe because, being a tragedy, Eng Lit people think it’s his only proper, serious novel. And it’s difficult. The female characters happen to be the particularly flawed ones in this book, so people assume he’s anti-women. Also, there are more really hilarious laugh-out-loud passages in Bride than any other Scott I’ve read, and it makes the denoument heart-rending — but if you’re expecting it to be all deeply serious, like Donizetti’s opera version, it’s a bit peculiar.
You have spent far long reading this blog. Go and read Scott (my friend Fraser has a very smart complete set for sale if you are really confident!) And if you can bear to put it down for a moment, please come back and thank me — because you will!
* I am not just bigging up my own city. It enjoyed this status for about 10 years and then got smug and went off badly!