Waverley at 200

“It is, then, sixty years since Edward Waverley, the hero of the following pages, took leave of his family, to join the regiment of dragoons in which he had lately obtained a commission.”

It is, now, two hundred years since Walter Scott opened his first novel with these words, to begin a career which would make him world-famous, transform the novel, and transform Scotland.

I live in Scott’s city of Edinburgh, and move in its literary circles, yet I have met very few people who have read Waverley — very few indeed who are not much older than myself. Yet it has a strong claim to be high on any list of ‘world’s most important novels’. All historical novels, adventure novels and fantasy novels owe a debt to Waverley.

Scott literally leads his hero Waverley out of the drawing room and into a world of politics, adventure, characters and landscapes more varied and romantic than he ever imagined. At first the hero barely copes, and then he is transformed. Whereas most eighteenth-century novels had been set in the reader’s familiar world, Scott transported them. This was what was new — and why the reading public went wild.

Now, I have a job for you.
1. Go to a second-hand bookshop (or your kindle), get Waverley, and read it.
2. If you’re on Twitter, talk about it at #waverley200.
3. Use the comments section under this blog to tell us what you thought of it – or if you have your own blog write an article and link to it here.

Who’s your favourite character? How would you dramatise it for the BBC? What surprised you?

What can the modern reader expect to find in Waverley? Here are three things which I think explain why the novel went out of fashion, and why I don’t think they should bother you:

1. A leisurely journey: Scott’s readers had longer attention spans than the modern paper-back buyer, so depending on your time and patience you can choose either to settle in to, or to skim past, the long explanations and chatty characters.

2. A bit of twee… Scott’s romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands has inspired  every tartan outfit, Landseer-style painting, and harp-music-accompanied-helicopter-filmed sequence since. To us, it can seem a bit hackneyed. But when the first readers followed Waverley to Flora’s hidden loch, they had never been there before.

3. Not a Victorian. This is 1814. Jane Austen is just publishing Mansfield Park. Waterloo hasn’t been fought yet. Queen Victoria hasn’t been born. Victorians were influenced enormously by Scott; but Scott was a man of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh was buzzing with science, history, politics, philosophy, and above all a sense that old mistakes could be amended and men and women throughout the world could work together to create a better, fairer and more beautiful world. Scott buzzed with it as much as anyone. Scott’s authorship was anonymous: many people guessed it had been written by the political reformer, Francis Jeffrey.

The treasures you’ll find are splendid nature writing, fun adventures, and above all brilliant characters. I’ll let you explore all those for yourselves.

On its 200th birthday, we have the opportunity to read Waverley with a fresh eye, and have fresh opinions, as it is almost impossible to do with established classics like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. That’s why I’m excited about hearing what you have to say about it. I’m sure there will be other, far grander, better planned, Waverley projects and celebrations at Abbotsford and in English Literature departments around the world, but I hope that a few of you will be inspired by this one.

Get reading, and then get writing below. I’m going to re-read it myself.

Waverley 200 Events

Do you know of an event, talk exhibition, broadcast etc celebrating Waverley this year? Let me know and I’ll add it:

22 March, Waverley @ 200, Conference at Dundee University: for details contact d.p.cook@dundee.ac.uk
9 June 6pm, Lecture by David Hewitt at the Royal Society of Edinburgh
8-12 July, Tenth International Scott Conference, University of Aberdeen

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