Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, 1814

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What a cool book!

As previously mentioned (I think), I read, enjoyed, but did not review Scott’s most famous novel, Ivanhoe. But something in the Wordsworth Edition’s Introduction to that book piqued my interest — it said that Waverley, Scott’s first novel, was also the first historical novel ever. Not the first novel set in the past, certainly, but the first to be set against historical events, to feature historical figures as characters, and to be conscious of how the past affects the present.

This one book was so popular that every book Scott wrote after it — they were all published anonymously until around 1827 — was published as being “by the author of Waverley“. It, and the books that followed, was a primary influence over the Romantic movement, and writers as diverse as James Fennimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Leo Tolstoy were all heavily influenced by it.

I wasn’t intimidated. Rather, I was afraid I would be underwhelmed. That it would be like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is not a bad book, by the by) whose historical importance and influence are but poorly counter-weighted by the story itself.

Nope.

Edward Waverley was born into a traditionally Jacobite family, but raised in a way that left him largely agnostic over the Hanoverian Succession of 1688. He gets a commission in His Majesty’s army and is posted to Scotland, where he takes time off to visit and become acquainted with a (Jacobite) friend of his uncle’s. He is received with honor and cordiality, becomes acquainted with Scottish customs, and then the Second Jacobite Rebellion breaks loose.

Due to circumstances too well-rendered and complicated for me to ruin here, Waverley both loses and resigns his commission, and joins the doomed rebellion.

After that, stuff just keeps happening, most of it thrilling, all of it cool, and, surprisingly, none of it seeming cliched until you’ve finished reading it and reflect back on the whole thing. The story feels fresh.

Not that the book is perfect. It takes a while to get going (a common flaw in Scott’s novels, it seems), the closing chapters are rather drawn out in wrapping everything up, and Scott has a singular facility for inventing names that distract the reader (Laird Killancureit, Laird Balmawhapple, Lady Nosebag, etc.).

But the flaws are all minor. The good here significantly outweighs the bad. For one, all the major characters, on both sides (excepting just one), are essentially good and honorable. And the one baddie is secondary, and more underhanded than villainous. The Jacobite cause is portrayed as justified but outdated. The Hanoverian succession is implicitly portrayed as illegitimate, but legitimized through the good it had done during its time in power.

All in all, a most satisfactory book.

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Written by [IMH]

14 April 2006 at 10:03 am

Posted in Literature

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