Monday, January 24, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

For my first official historical novel review of the new year (official because the book was begun and completed in 2011) to be used for the Historical Fiction Challenge, I’ve chosen Waverley by Sir Walter Scott.

Waverley is not only Scott’s first novel (before that he was a well-regarded poet and translator) but it is also regarded as the first historical novel. This is an interesting piece of information in itself, and gets to the heart of the question "What is a historical novel?" But I’m not going to wade into that minefield here. Scott’s intent, aside from making money, was to use fiction to preserve a way of life that was disappearing, to keep alive the memory of historical events and people who were a generation away from being forgotten. The book and its successors were wildly successful. However, he is not much of a favorite today. Out of the more than 20 novels he wrote, most people can come up with Ivanhoe, but would be hard pressed to name another. (Myself included. I read The Heart of Midlothian several years ago, in order to review it for The Historical Novels Review. But other than that, I knew nothing of Scott’s work. I hadn’t even read Ivanhoe.)

Published in 1814, Waverley relates the story of young Edward Waverley’s involvement in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. This was an attempt to put Bonnie Prince Charlie (a Stuart) on the throne of England. Waverley was an English gentleman, whose family had some repressed Jacobite sympathies. However, his family purchased him a commission and off he went to Scotland as an English soldier. While there, he takes an extended leave to visit a family friend. In a roundabout way, he is introduced to Fergus MacIvor, a chieftain with connections to Prince Charles. And he also meets Fergus’s beautiful sister Flora. Waverley gets swept up in the rebellion, almost without volition, and certainly without conviction. The rebellion plays out around him and he sees it through to its end.

The book is worth reading for a variety of reasons, but be forewarned it is tough going. The pace is slow, particularly at the beginning. Some of the dialect is almost indecipherable. And the protagonist is the least heroic hero I’ve ever come across in an adventure. This is intentional. Waverley’s character is clearly spelled out from the beginning. He’s not a bad person or a cowardly one. He is just shallow and self-centered. But that’s apparently OK, since everything works out to reward him in the end.

So far, my review doesn’t sound very tempting. Where is the "worth-reading" part? Aside from the very satisfying feeling you get from turning that last page of a lengthy classic, a historically significant piece of literature, and thinking "hurray, I did it" – was the book itself interesting? Well, yes it was. Scott does a beautiful job creating the characters. I may not have been overly fond of Waverley as a person, but I could certainly recognize him. There was something real and timeless about "a Waverley." He acted consistently true to form as he vacillated from one set of beliefs to another and from one love interest to another. The bombastic old general, the stuffy polite English commanders, the valiant, politically motivated and quick-to-take-offense, and yet steadfast Fergus, they were all remarkably real even if they were "types." This was an odd book because even though I didn’t particularly "care about" the characters, I was interested in what would happen to them. I was interested in how the plot would play out and what roles the major players would have as it all unfolded.

Moreover, the language of the book is gorgeous. Yes, it’s a bit overstuffed. Yes, it lapses into different languages and dialects and eventually I gave up flipping to the notes at the back because I figured I didn’t have to get every little reference to enjoy the book. It has delicious vocabulary. The people speak to each other with intelligence and wit. And although there are slow points to the book, there are also points of adventure and tension. Finally, the book is full of high and low humor.

Sir Walter Scott is not going to become one of my favorite authors. I don’t feel compelled to run out and read the whole series of Waverley novels. However, one of these days, I am determined to tackle Ivanhoe.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Susan! I love your blog, and The Queen's Daughter is on my TBR! Would love for you to stop by my blog if you get a chance! I'm your newest follower!
    Have a great night!