[There is a story behind this post. It goes something like this: I started writing the second half one evening, about two weeks ago, in a flurry of exhaustion after a day at work. I then, promptly, misplaced it...and wrote a second, not-so-inspired version...but then I found version one. So you're actually getting two posts in one today...I apologise for any overlap but I haven't the panache to create a synthesis. :-)]
About two years ago I read Walter Scott’s mediaeval Romance Ivanhoe as part of a class in ‘Medievalism’ and I enjoyed it, a lot. (So much so in fact that it inspired me to write one of my first-ever book reviews and post it on Amazon. Oh dear…) Since then I’ve been meaning to embark on one or other of his earlier novels but what with the interminable TBR pile and the number of tantalising recommendations that come my way, have never gotten around to it. Until, that is, I took my bibliophilia in hand and chose his first novel, Waverley, as my ‘core reading’ for October.
(Aside: I’ve decided to set myself a ‘core’ text for each month, along with my set Bible quota, the choices being ‘classics’, ancient to modern, that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. My logic is that: a) I like lists, and b) I like to have set tasks with deadlines, facts which might combine to force me to control the direction of my reading a little. November’s book should be Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.)
Published anonymously in 1814 (and probably the first determinedly ‘historical novel’ ever printed), Waverley is subtitled ‘‘Tis Sixty Years Since’ and is set (mostly) in the Scottish Highlands during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It takes as its hero the unlikely and eponymous Edward Waverley, an idealistic Englishman much affected by Romanticism and moved by ‘mediaeval’ ideals of chivalry, duty and love. A half-hearted officer in the King George I’s dragoons at the beginning of the novel, his loyalties are quickly thrown into disarray when his regiment is sent to monitor unrest in the Highlands and he becomes acquainted with an old-guard of the Jacobite movement: the Baron of Bradwardine. A verbose and impenetrable Latinist Bradwardine, in turn, introduces Waverley to charismatic Highland chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor and his ardently political sister Flora, with whom Edward falls in love. Very quickly he allies himself with their cause – the reinstatement of the Stuart monarchy – and swears loyalty to the doomed Charles Edward, the ‘bonnie’ Prince whose ‘army’ of Scots, Irish and French supporters challenged the Hanoverians (almost seriously) in the summer of 1745. As the cause slows in momentum, however, and lives are lost in bloody confrontations with the Crown’s bulldog, the Duke of Cumberland, Waverley realises that his ardour for Flora and the Prince are less than they seemed and far more damaging and dangerous than he thought.
As in Ivanhoe Scott approaches his quite melodramatic narrative with both dignity and deprecation, dealing fairly and deeply with his characters even as he nods and winks to the reader. Aware of his own verbosity, for example, (e.g. ‘After having satisfied his curiosity by gazing around him for a few minutes, Waverley applied himself to the massive knocker of the hall door, the architrave of which bore the date 1594…’), he jests:
“Shall this be a long or a short chapter? – This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences…it lies within my arbitrary powers to extend my material as I think proper…”
Perhaps he is also making fun of himself in the form of the Baron, a man who prefers to use 20 words instead of 2 (and if those words are in Latin or Italian or Swahili, so much the better). Still, the heart of the narrative remains the same, in all sincerity – it is concerned with Edward Waverley’s development, a bildungsroman that charts the overthrow of his adolescent enthusiasms and the onset of adulthood. It is silly at times - Edward is often 'daft as a brush', as my mum would say - but it isn’t meant to be a comedy or, worse, a farce. Our 'hero' is misguided and blinded by his ideals; he is fickle, careless and often unthinking, but he isn’t deluded. Scott caveats one of his first descriptions of him with a comparison with Don Quixote:
“…the reader may perhaps anticipate in the following tale, an imitation of the romance of Cervantes. But he will do my prudence injustice in the supposition. My intention is not to follow the footsteps of that inimitable author, in describing such total perversion of intellect as to misconstrue the objects actually presented to the senses, but that more common aberration from sound judgement, which apprehends occurrences in their reality, but communicates to them a tincture of its own romantic tone and colouring…”
Still, and admittedly, Waverley is a little dim; kindly, well-meaning and super-literate but hardly in possession of a full quotient of logic, he barely knows what he wants or needs, even as the novel closes. What he learns by the last page, if anything, is the ‘trick’ of Romance – that it isn’t as fulfilling as real life and that he, himself, isn’t meant for heroics. It is one of the novels most ‘Romantic’ figures, Flora Mac-Ivor, herself transfigured by the excitement of the rebellion, who first articulates this truth about Edward:
‘ “For mere fighting,” answered Flora, “I believe all men are pretty much alike; there is generally more courage required to run away. They have besides, when confronted with each other, a certain instinct for strife, as we see in other male animals, such as dogs, bulls, and so forth. But high and perilous enterprise is not Waverley’s forte. He would never have been his celebrated ancestor Sir Nigel [a famous Royalist], but only Sir Nigel’s eulogist and poet. I will tell you where he will be at home…and in his place – the quiet circle of domestic happiness, lettered indolence and elegant enjoyment of Waverley-Honour [Waverley’s ancestral seat]. And he will refit the old library in the most exquisite Gothic taste, and garnish its shelves with the rarest and most valuable volumes; and he will draw plans and landscapes, and write verses, and rear temples, and dig grottoes; - and he will stand on a clear summer night in the colonnade before the hall, and gaze on the deer as they stray in the moonlight, or lie shadowed by the boughs of huge old fantastic oaks; - and he will repeat verses to his beautiful wife, who will hang upon his arm; - and he will be a happy man.”’
It is to Flora’s credit that she realises that she can never be this ‘beautiful wife’; she is too other-worldly. Unlike Waverley, she and her brother are the ‘real deal’ and in the hands of any other novelist would have been centralised, would have been ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’. Their passions, their gestures and their fates are the stuff Gothic and chivalric Romances are made of: beautiful, imperious, doomed they know their parts and fit them perfectly. Edward, nominally our front-man, is the imperfect fit: he dreams of being a hero, but is essentially an English country squire with a penchant for the poetic. He seems more apt to reading novels than to being in them.
It seems to me that this reveals something essential about what kind of novel Waverley is. In his introduction to my Penguin Classic edition Andrew Hook notes that Scott was once embraced as the pre-eminent prose artist of early nineteenth century Romanticism, but that this hardly concords with his actual narratives. Waverley has the subject of a Romance, reads like a Romance and ends, in part, like a Romance, and yet the overarching thrust of the novel is not towards Romantic sublimity but away from it. Edward Waverley gets his taste of Romance but, instead of hurling himself in the maelstrom, pulls back and chooses a mundane life in reality. He falls in love with the epitome of a Romantic female but comes to realise that she is nothing but a mirage and chooses his homely domestic life. Waverley is not a Romance but a rejection of Romance, a cautionary tale about the difference between fiction and reality, between having a role and playing a part.
I’m also set to thinking of Walter Scott as a historical novelist, and about Waverley as a historical novel. With it’s alternate title it makes no bones about what it is – a narrative of what is past/passed – but what was Scott *doing*? In his own Introduction he sets himself the task of tracing ‘evanescent manners’ and of memorialising the “traditional” culture of a Scotland, which has, from the his post-Enlightenmant vantage point (the Scottish Enlightenment is particularly interesting as far as 'enlightenments' go) “undergone so complete a change.” Thus Scott is at pains to ‘paint’ his Highlanders and Lowlanders, their customs and hierarchies with a detailed brush. But it seems to me that there was more than this at work: Waverley is not about being passive in the face of the passage of time but about taking active stock of history, culture, memory and the passage of time. It is about asking: what is our relation to our past? How has it made us what we are, or changed us from what we were?
When the narrative opens Waverley, heir-presumptive to two substantial estates and romantically educated, is entirely unaware of the way his actions, and the actions of others, change the world. At first he is under the misapprehension that history is a ‘narrative’, like a story, filled with extraordinary individuals and events, and that his purpose in life is to slip into this story-stream by playing a ‘narrative’ part. The parts he takes upon himself – first that of a dreamy and disaffected youth, then, a uniformed officer in loyal service and finally, a rebel and unrequited lover – are modified, albeit slowly, by the realities of ‘real’ time that break in on his personal romance. He learns that order, the law, plain duty and a good woman (!) are essential to his well-being; it dawns on him that his life isn’t a story…it is… well, a life. He learns to reconcile his desire for what is imaginary, striking and sublime with the imperatives of the real and the actual.
It strikes me that this is akin to the process of reading, and understanding, historical fiction itself: at first we’re inclined to envision the grand narrative. We’re seduced by the pomp and circumstance, by the mist and gold; in this case, by the highlanders tossing aside their plaids and dashing down hill toward battle; by Flora’s dauntlessness at being wounded; by Fergus’s glorious, cinematic end; all mingled with the sublime Scottish landscape which Scott loves so. We’re as ready to throw ourselves into the heady romance of the 1745 uprising as Edward is; we can see all the honour and nobility in it. We are wont to get wistful and sigh at how bland time and modernity has made our lives: ‘oh, to live in the sublime past.’
But Scott won’t let us become too attached to our passion for historical causes. The characters that give themselves up to idealistic fervour in Waverley hardly come out of it well; they’re doomed to death or life-in-death. It is only those individuals, like our ‘hero’, who move beyond the fire and negotiate their inner dramas, who survive to live the quiet, fulfilled lives that Scott seems to cherish. In such a light, he has a much earthier vision of what historical narrative can teach us, about cause and effect, and the impact of our personal actions. Methinks Waverley was well worth the effort expended in reading it.
And, if you fancy a break from your book, go here, listen to the samples available under Music Player (wait especially patiently for 'Oh, the Endless Fog') and then, when you've been converted to the genius of Veda Hille, buy Return of the Kildeer. My copy arrived on Wednesday and I haven't stopped listening to it since; my best find in...well...a while. Also, rejoice, Loreena Mckennitt's new album, An Ancient Muse, is released on Monday! What do you mean you haven't bought it yet? Off you go.