Sir Walter Scott as a novelist
Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771 and died at Abbotsford, his country home near the River Tweed, in 1832. Through his father and grandfather, Scott was connected to an intellectual movement now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Scott began his own literary career as a collector of traditional Scottish ballads and an editor; he later became a successful poet in his own right. He seems to have begun experimenting with fiction as early as 1805. After numerous fits and starts, his first novel, Waverley, was published in 1814.
Waverley sent Scott down an entirely new path. Between its publication and his death in 1832, he published more than 20 works of fiction, including Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819). He was made a baronet in 1820—hence the “Sir”—and he died after suffering a series of strokes, at the age of 61.
Scott did not invent the form of the historical novel, as he was quick to admit, but he can be viewed as its greatest practitioner. Starting with Waverley, Scott uses his fiction to preserve the manners and customs of vanishing societies. He pays careful attention to dialects, costumes, and other details, supplementing his stories with historical notes on a variety of topics. The result is a highly realistic re-creation of the past, one that engages the reader both intellectually and emotionally.
Because of his evident seriousness of purpose, Scott helped to elevate the status of the novel in England. Despite the achievements of earlier novelists, the novel form was still regarded as disreputable and dangerous. By focusing on the adventures of young men, and by placing his heroes in the midst of momentous political events, Scott suggested that the novel form might have enormous appeal for male readers.
Through the early decades of the 19th century, though other sorts of fiction would also become popular, the historical novel remained the most prestigious. As the Victorian Age unfolded, almost every major English novelist would try his or her hand at the historical novel. Scott’s influence was felt across the world, inspiring the historical fiction of James Fenimore Cooper in the United States, Victor Hugo in France, and Leo Tolstoy in Russia.
In considering Scott’s contributions to the development of the English tradition, we must recognize the power of his writing and the depth of his historical reflections. Scott is drawn to societies in transition, focusing most often on conflicts between traditional ways of life and new social orders. Through his depictions of past conflicts, Scott raises many of the most pressing questions of his day. How do societies grow and change? Is change always positive? What is lost and what is gained as a result of such changes? What are our obligations to the past, and what are our duties to the future? These questions had special significance for readers living through the convulsions of the Industrial Revolution. For these readers, the costs and benefits of industrialization and modernization remained unclear. Such readers would find in Scott both a way of honoring the past and a means of reconciling themselves to the future.