‘Tis 268 Years Since: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Tis some weeks since I read Sir Walter Scott’s anonymously published Waverley, and I fear my hindsight isn’t as accurate as Scott’s own research. Historical accuracy is his greatest aim in this tale of a young Englishman led astray during the second Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. It shows in his language, overwritten to the point of being a maître d’ caricature were it not for his imminent self-awareness. It shows in the supplements, where sources confirm – down to exactly where the mortal blow was landed on an English officer whose body was practically eviscerated – the veracity of the real where it crosses paths with the imaginary. Waverley has the distinction of being the first proper historical novel, and Scott drones on about the effort involved in collecting the necessary facts, approaching the material as neutrally as possible, even redacting surnames lest he offend the descendants of Scottish families who came out of the rebellion pulling at their collars. However much it may be a slog today, it still deserves a place in history for so compassionately planting a sympathetic hero into the camp of a declared enemy of the author’s nation, and highlighting the humanity of a misunderstood people.

Scott’s fascination with Scottish Highland culture is front and center, to the extent that he infiltrates it with the most faceless and nameless of English witnesses, Edward Waverley, whose name was “assumed” as it was “uncontaminated” by any presuppositions Scott could imagine English readers affixing to it. Waverley is Scott’s cypher, a comfortable English guide into the Highlands who harbors no bigotry, and instead a generous romantic outlook that colors his observations of the tribal-like life with admiration, envy, and awe. Intended or not, Waverley’s name embodies all that happens to him, as he’s manipulated into joining the insurrection and thrust into conflict that threatens his family honor, his newfound friends, and the women he believes he loves.

Scott breaks the fourth wall one too many times, as is customary for writers of the time, reminding us that, yes, we are reading a book, and yes, he has full sway over its contents. The novel may be a pretty new vehicle at Scott’s time, and it must be understood that he feel some insecurity when touching on a sensitive subject, but his frequent intrusions only pad out the narrative and break our suspension of disbelief. Otherwise he is extremely diligent in his writing, sentences always perfectly constructed, his scenery and exposition tedious to a fault, so much so that his figures of speech single themselves out for commendation, and no passages really cling in my memory or remain quotable later on.

Most powerful to me were the fierce Flora Mac-Ivor’s rebuffs of an infatuated Waverley. Rendered in Scott’s lawyerly prose, it’s excruciating to see Waverly shut down with the clean depiction of a clerk’s notes in a divorce proceeding, and humiliating to see this young man, who’s had the most privileged and indulgent of childhoods, try to match wits with a woman who has only known hardship her whole life. The dispassionate telling chills Waverley’s dreaminess, introducing him to a battle no man can win through merit without reciprocation.

The story also suffers from a lack of context. The second Jacobite Rebellion saw the exiled Charles Edward Stuart enlisting the aid of Highland clans to reclaim the throne of Scotland, against a galaxy of other political machinations. It’s a story elaborating on throughout the novel and across dozens of footnotes. Still, it takes some additional reading from outside sources to entirely understand Waverley’s place, and it isn’t helped by Scott’s snatch-and-grab references to all sorts of contemporaneous pop culture and celebrities (for lack of a better word) who mean as little to us today as Jersey Shore will mean to kids in two years. Yes, Scott also has a habit of invoking predecessors like Cervantes to boost his storytelling, too.

All in all, Waverley is now a story to appreciate and, unless you have any interest in its setting, not really one to enjoy. It’s very well plotted, but Scott’s calculated demeanor, meant to counteract his character’s romanticism, chokes the life out of it one too many times.

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