Scott Publishes

Waverley was the first of a long series of novels that made Sir Walter Scott one of the most widely read authors in the world. It is often considered the first historical novel, a genre in which real historical events and figures are portrayed from the point of view of a fictional, minor participant in those events.

Summary of Event

Walter Scott began writing Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since in 1805 and first published it anonymously in 1814. At first, he did not want to acknowledge writing the novel, because he did not want to jeopardize his high standing as a popular Romantic poet. Scott’s poetic powers were waning, however, and he faced increasing competition from others, especially Lord Byron. He therefore decided on a prose form that would reflect his deep reading in history, his readers’ love of exotic locales, and their nostalgia for the heroic world of the past. Waverley (Scott)
Scott, Sir Walter
[p]Scott, Sir Walter[Scott, Walter];Waverley
[kw]Scott Publishes Waverley (1814)
[kw]Publishes Waverley, Scott (1814)
[kw]Waverley, Scott Publishes (1814)
Waverley (Scott)
Scott, Sir Walter
[p]Scott, Sir Walter[Scott, Walter];Waverley
[g]Great Britain;1814: Scott Publishes Waverley[0670]
[c]Literature;1814: Scott Publishes Waverley[0670]
Scott, Sir Walter

Waverley takes place, as its subtitle indicates, sixty years before Scott began work on it, in 1745. It therefore also takes place roughly sixty years after the Stuart king James II was deposed as a result of his adherence to Roman Catholicism and his belief in the divine right of kings. James’s deposition in the Glorious Revolution (1688) Glorious Revolution (1688) was decried by many Scots, and those who remained loyal to James and to the Stuart Dynasty were called Jacobites. Jacobinism;in fiction[Fiction] Scott set his novel during the Jacobite Jacobinism;origin of Rebellion of 1745 Jacobite Rebellion (1745) , which sought to return the Stuarts to the British throne. Waverley proved to be such a success that Scott went on to publish a series of novels based on the history of Scotland and of Europe during the Middle Ages and other periods of interest to the Romantics.

Through the first four decades of the eighteenth century, the two parliamentary parties, the Whigs Whig Party (British);and Stuart dynasty[Stuart dynasty] and the Tories, continued to quarrel over the rights of the Stuarts. Certain Tories conspired to restore the Stuarts, while the Whigs—aiming to enhance the power of Parliament—favored a Protestant succession to the throne of England, even if it meant securing a sovereign from Germany who was related to the British royal family. In 1714, the Whigs triumphed, installing the Protestant king George I, the elector of Hanover Hanover , on the British throne. A Hanoverian monarchy seemed more likely to preserve the power of Parliament, which the Stuarts had threatened by continuing to claim that the sovereign had absolute power. The Tories and their supporters continued to agitate for a Stuart return, placing their hopes on Prince Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie), who lived in exile in France.

Sir Walter Scott.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Often considered the first historical novel, Waverley was the first of a long series of historical novels that made Sir Walter Scott one of the most widely read authors in the world. Before Scott, novels had certainly dealt with the past, but in the English novel, historical periods were merely an aspect of setting and theme—as in gothic fiction. The past was mysterious, a curiosity, or even an exotic costume drama, but it was not valued in its own right.

Scott’s historical novels reflect the transition from the Age of Reason to the age of Romanticism. In the former, humanity’s increasing rationalism—its ability to think for itself and to contest the dogmas of the past—meant that history was significant insofar as it led to the present or had been displaced by human progress. In the latter, the past became part of the quest of people to know themselves. The past became an object of nostalgia as well, since progress had its costs, which included the breakdown of the traditional ways of living that had produced stable communities.

While Scott endorsed the Hanoverian Hanover;succession succession, his novels appealed to his readers’ feeling that something had been lost as well as gained in the course of history. A pastoral way of life, an absolute devotion to the monarchy, and the survival of a hardy individualism all seemed threatened in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as England gathered itself to encounter an age of reform and the Industrial Revolution. Scott’s heroes find themselves poised at this transition from the age of chivalry—depicted glowingly in Ivanhoe
Ivanhoe (Scott) (1819) and Quentin Durward (1823), for example—to one that calls for prudent adjustments to the realities of modern life. In this sense, Scott’s novels are also criticisms of the very Romanticism he had conjured in his popular books of poetry, such as Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808).

The protagonist of Waverley, Edward Waverley, the prototype of Scott’s callow heroes, visits the estate of Baron Bradwardine. He is enchanted with his surroundings, which give him ample room to indulge his Romantic imagination. At the same time, however, the novel’s narrator presents a more realistic picture of Scottish Highland life—the slovenliness of the villages and a provincialism that does nothing to enrich Waverley’s education or to sober his rather wild yearning for adventure. Scott’s hero is a Romantic idealist, and the idea of the “lost cause”—the plot to restore the Stuart ruler, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the throne—appeals to him. The Highlanders are a rugged people who seem to Waverley to represent a kind of authenticity and austerity lacking in his comfortable and complacent upbringing.

Waverley’s nascent politics become intertwined with his personal feelings when he abandons his love for the sedate Rose Bradwardine and becomes enamored of the fiery Flora MacIvor, whom he encounters while visiting Glennaquoich, the Highland hideaway of the rogue Donald Bean Lean. The susceptible Edward becomes involved in the treasonable Jacobite plot, although like all of Scott’s protagonists, he is no fanatic but rather an earnest young man carried away by his emotions and looking for excitement. What the impressionable Waverley finds so attractive about these Highland Jacobites is their fervor and dedication to a cause. Their convictions are a welcome antidote to his tepid English upbringing. The Highlander Jacobites are loyal to their chieftains and to the Stuart family, even when the odds are against them. Their moral clarity and courage contrast with the rather insipid character of the civilized life that has formed Waverley.

Scott, however, emphasized Edward’s youth and ignorance. The young Waverley has not yet come to grips with an adult world that requires not only bravery but also compromise—and a recognition of when to abandon lost causes. Scott’s readers in 1814 knew that Waverley was, in fact, embracing a doomed way of looking at the world that had since been relegated to Great Britain’s past. They might have empathized with Waverley (a great many Englishmen felt nostalgic about the Stuarts but did not want them to return to the throne), but they realized his Romantic feelings were a kind of self-indulgence that could not prevail in a world far more complex than the Jacobite Highlanders were willing to acknowledge.

Edward’s involvement with the Jacobites leads to the loss of his commission in the British army and to his imprisonment for treason against the Hanoverian government. Rose Bradwardine rescues him from prison, and he rejoins the Jacobite forces. Fortunately for Waverley, at the Battle of Prestonpans (1745; a Jacobite victory), he rescues a Colonel Talbot, who in gratitude secures a pardon for Waverley and the Bradwardines after the decisive Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden (1746).

The pardon provides Waverley with the opportunity to rehabilitate himself—especially after Flora MacIvor, grieving over her brother’s execution for treason, rejects Waverley and enters a convent, freeing him to marry the more sensible Rose, whose temperament suits the chastened protagonist. Waverley and Rose then retire to her father’s estate, where Waverley busies himself in the work of restoring it.


Although Waverley appeared decades after the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, British readers remained fascinated with the lost cause and admired the vitality of the doomed Highlanders. The world portrayed by Scott was a simpler world of pure moral conviction that made for exciting reading, especially since Scott provided extraordinary descriptions of Highland landscapes, villages, and characters.

To European and American readers, Scott offered a new form of the novel: He combined the Bildungsroman
Literature;Bildungsroman (literally, “education novel,” a story focusing on a character’s psychological growth) with a depiction and interpretation of history. The hallmark of this new form, the historical novel, was that it portrayed real events in the past through the eyes of a fictional hero—a hero of lesser rank and lesser importance than the famous historical figures whom he observed.

Waverley and his later works made Scott not only a best-selling novelist in Europe and America but also a commanding cultural figure. His historical novels provided a rationale for change while honoring the past. Edward Waverley, for example, must move beyond his Jacobite sentimentality, but that sentimentality is given full value. In other words, Scott’s readers could revel in the past while simultaneously recognizing the need to abandon it. It is significant that Waverley relinquishes his Jacobite politics but restores Baron Bradwardine’s estate. Respect for the past is here fused with the need for renewal. Progress depends on revering yet redeeming the past.

To call Scott’s novels historical, however, does not quite do justice to their significance. Novels like Waverley were also superb examples of travel writing and sociology. Scott showed how cultural habits and manners evolved over time. His precise descriptions brought to the novel an ability to document the past that inspired such other novelists as James Fenimore Cooper and Honoré de Balzac Balzac, Honoré de .

Further Reading

  • Hayden, John O., ed. Scott: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970. Includes the most important reviews of Scott’s work, presented in chronological order.
  • Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970. Hailed as the definitive biography of Scott, this two-volume study is a meticulous study of the writer’s life and work; it remains an important guide that has influenced several generations of critics.
  • Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1937. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Still one of the most important studies of Scott’s historical novels. Lukács’s work is largely responsible for inventing the historical novel as a distinct and significant literary genre in the eyes of critics.
  • Millgate, Jane. Walter Scott: The Making of a Novelist. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984. The best study of Scott’s development as a novelist.
  • Shaw, Harry E., ed. Critical Essays on Sir Walter Scott. New York: Twayne, 1996. An important collection of criticism on Scott.
  • Sutherland, John. Walter Scott: A Critical Biography. London: Basil Blackwell, 1995. This volume’s strength is the author’s ability to relate Scott’s life to his work.

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Scott, Sir Walter
[p]Scott, Sir Walter[Scott, Walter];Waverley