Authors: Sir Walter Scott

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Scottish novelist, historian, biographer, poet, and playwright

August 15, 1771

Edinburgh, Scotland

September 21, 1832

Abbotsford, Scotland


In spite of physical handicaps Walter Scott lived a full, varied life and created an impressive body of writings. Stricken with infantile paralysis from polio before he was two years old, and alternating between periods of physical vigor and serious ailments throughout his life, he loved and practiced outdoor sports for most of his sixty-one years. {$I[AN]9810001456} {$I[A]Scott, Sir Walter} {$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Scott, Sir Walter} {$I[tim]1771;Scott, Sir Walter}

Sir Walter Scott

(Library of Congress)

Born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771, he was a product of the eighteenth century as well as of the Romantic nineteenth. As a child he was a voracious reader and avid listener to tales and legends, particularly those of his native Scotland. His copious reading was stored in a retentive memory and used to advantage in his writings, and his interest in folklore led to his collection and publication of Scottish ballads. Although not a brilliant student, he was praised for his ability to enjoy and understand the Latin poets. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1783, but after a year or so at college he suffered one of his severe illnesses. He completed his convalescence with a sympathetic uncle, Captain Robert Scott, who encouraged his literary interests.

He studied law in his father’s office; in spite of a disinclination for the profession, he was admitted to the bar in 1792. He made use of his legal experiences in his novels, especially Redgauntlet, in which his friend William Clerk served as model for Darsie Latimer, and Scott himself for Alan Fairford. When he was about twenty, Scott cast his eye on a lovely fifteen-year-old girl, Williamina Belsches, who was his social superior. After an unsuccessful courtship of five years he lost her to a rival and indulged his sorrow for a time with melancholy self-dramatization out of keeping with his usual behavior.

In 1797, when the fear of a Napoleonic invasion seized Great Britain, Scott was the moving force in forming a volunteer home-guard unit in which he held the position of quartermaster. In spite of his disabled leg he was a bold and expert horseman, and apparently he was disappointed at not engaging Napoleon’s forces. In the late summer of the same year, on a tour of the Lake Country with his brother John and his friend Adam Ferguson, he met Charlotte Carpenter, supposedly the daughter of a French royalist and ward of an English nobleman. This time his courtship was both short and successful, and he married Charlotte on Christmas Eve, 1797. Their first child died in infancy, but four children reached maturity, two sons and two daughters.

In 1799 Scott was appointed sheriff-deputy of Selkirkshire; the position brought him a steady income and not-too-onerous duties. Seven years later he became clerk of the session in Edinburgh, adding to his steady income and increasing his routine labors considerably.

Although he translated for publication Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (1773) and collected and edited (and often revised) ballads in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he won his first recognition as a poet in 1805 with The Lay of the Last Minstrel and became a major literary figure in England with Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. His subsequent long poems added little to his reputation. Shortly after the publication of The Lay of the Last Minstrel he formed a partnership (as a silent partner) with the printer James Ballantyne, an old school friend. During his poetic career Scott also completed two major works of scholarship, an eighteen-volume edition of John Dryden and a nineteen-volume edition of Jonathan Swift, either of which would have made a reputation for a professional scholar.

In 1814, with the anonymous publication of Waverley, Scott began a new literary career and his most illustrious, for he is now considered primarily a historical novelist rather than a poet or scholar. Scott gave reasons for not acknowledging the authorship of his novels, but at least one reason was a childish delight in mystification, a puckish joy in throwing dust into the public eye. Between 1814 and his death in 1832, he completed about thirty novels and novellas, several long poems, a large mass of miscellaneous writings, and the nine-volume The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte.

In 1820 Scott was the first baronet created by George IV. By this time he had bought acres of land and was sinking a fortune in Abbotsford. One friend who helped furnish Abbotsford was Daniel Terry, the actor-manager who produced dramatic versions of several of Scott’s works. Scott’s publishing ventures were in bad circumstances which grew worse; in 1826 Constable and Ballantyne failed. Instead of taking refuge in bankruptcy, Scott undertook to write himself and his colleagues out of debt. Few people have displayed more fortitude under adversity. To cap the material loss, he suffered the death of his beloved wife. His grief was profound, but he continued to write. In 1830, apparently as a result of his Herculean labors under stress, he suffered his first stroke. He recovered and continued work until recurring strokes paralyzed him and practically destroyed his mind. He died September 21, 1832, still in debt. His son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, helped clear the debts with the proceeds of his superb biography of the baronet.

Since Scott's death, his correspondence and diaries have been published, as have several complete volumes of his final manuscripts. Among these were the historical novel The Siege of Malta, reconstructed in the mid-1970s; a tongue-in-cheek Abbotsford guide, Reliquiae Trotcosienses: Or, the Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns, reproduced in full in 2004; and Scott's final, unfinished novella, Bizarro, published in 2008. Written after Scott's strokes, Siege and Bizarro were long dismissed as unintelligible, and some Scott scholars were appalled at their publication, which they felt violated the Scott family's wishes.

One of Scott’s contemporary admirers called him a combination of William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. Those who think of him only as a cloak-and-sword romancer overlook his remarkable gift of creating comic characters and his broad view of human nature in all walks of life. He was greatly admired by Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas, and wise critics from Goethe to the present have been impressed with his humane wisdom.

Author Works Long Fiction: Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since, 1814 Guy Mannering, 1815 The Antiquary, 1816 The Black Dwarf, 1816 The Tale of Old Mortality, 1816 Rob Roy, 1817 The Heart of Midlothian, 1818 The Bride of Lammermoor, 1819 A Legend of Montrose, 1819 Ivanhoe, 1819 The Monastery, 1820 The Abbot, 1820 Kenilworth, 1821 The Pirate, 1821 The Fortunes of Nigel, 1822 Peveril of the Peak, 1823 Quentin Durward, 1823 St. Ronan’s Well, 1823 Redgauntlet, 1824 The Betrothed, 1825 The Talisman, 1825 Woodstock, 1826 The Highland Widow, 1827 The Two Drovers, 1827 The Surgeon’s Daughter, 1827 The Fair Maid of Perth, 1828 Anne of Geierstein, 1829 Count Robert of Paris, 1831 Castle Dangerous, 1831 The Siege of Malta, 1976 The Siege of Malta, and, Bizarro, 2008 (J. H. Alexander, Graham Tulloch, and Judy King, editors) Drama: Halidon Hill, pb. 1822 Macduff ’s Cross, pb. 1823 The House of Aspen, pb. 1829 The Doom of Devorgoil, pb. 1830 Auchindrane: Or, The Ayrshire Tragedy, pr., pb. 1830 Poetry: An Apology for Tales of Terror, 1799 The Eve of Saint John: A Border Ballad, 1800 The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1805 Ballads and Lyrical Pieces, 1806 Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, 1808 The Lady of the Lake, 1810 The Vision of Don Roderick, 1811 Rokeby, 1813 The Bridal of Triermain: Or, The Vale of St. John, in Three Cantos, 1813 The Lord of the Isles, 1815 The Field of Waterloo, 1815 The Ettrick Garland: Being Two Excellent New Songs, 1815 (with James Hogg) Harold the Dauntless, 1817 Nonfiction: The Life and Works of John Dryden, 1808 The Life of Jonathan Swift, 1814 Paul's Letters to His Kinsfolk, 1816 Memorials of the Haliburtons, 1824 Lives of the Novelists, 1825 Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, 1826 Provincial Antiquities of Scotland, 1826 The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: Emperor of the French, with a Preliminary View of the French Revolution, 1827–28 Religious Discourses by a Layman, 1828 The History of Scotland, 1829-1830 Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830 Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from Scottish History. Humbly Inscribed to Hugh Littlejohn, Esq. in Three Vols., 1828–30 Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from the History of France. Inscribed to Master John Hugh Lockhart. in Three Vols., 1831 The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1890 The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 1932–37 (Herbert Grierson, editor) Reliquiae Trotcosienses: Or, the Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns, 2004 (Gerard Carruthers and Alison Lumsden, editors) Translations: “The Chase” and “William and Helen”: Two Ballads from the German of Gottfried Augustus Bürger, 1796 Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand, 1799 (of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) Edited Texts: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1802-1803 (3 volumes) A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, 1809-1815 (13 volumes) Chronological Notes of Scottish Affairs from the Diary of Lord Fountainhall, 1822 Short Fiction: Chronicles of the Canongate, 1827 The Shorter Fiction, 2009 (Graham Tulloch and Judy King, editors) Bibliography Allen, Emily. “Re-marking Territory: Redgauntlet and the Restoration of Sir Walter Scott.” Studies in Romanticism 37 (Summer, 1998): 163-182. A discussion of the generic politics of the Romantic literary marketplace and how the laws of genre become established; argues that Redgauntlet encodes an elaborate allegory of its generic history and of its forecasted reception. Bold, Alan, ed. Sir Walter Scott: The Long-Forgotten Melody. London: Vision Press, 1983. Nine essays cover such subjects in Scott’s works as the image of Scotland, politics, and folk tradition and draw upon Scott’s poetry for illustration. The essay by Iain Crichton Smith, “Poetry in Scott’s Narrative Verse,” shows appreciation for the art of the poetry. Includes endnotes and an index. Chandler, Alice. “Origins of Medievalism: Scott.” In A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. Examines the role of Scott’s poems in the popularity of medievalism in the writing of the era. His poetry derived from his scholarly research in medieval literature, and his novels would derive from his success as a poet. Supplemented by footnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London: Collins, 1969. This interesting book combines a biographical sketch and a discussion of Scott’s most famous and highly regarded novels— Waverley, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, and Redgauntlet. Crawford, Thomas. Scott. Rev. ed. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982. A revision and elaboration of Crawford’s widely acclaimed study of Scott. Examines Scott’s work as a poet, balladist, and novelist. Cusac, Marian H. Narrative Structure in the Novels of Sir Walter Scott. The Hague: Mouton, 1969. The focus of this book is on structure, separating Scott’s fiction into three classifications: romances, chronicles, and the mediocre hero history. Also contains helpful appendices, including classifications of novels and significant recurring elements. Includes a bibliography. DeGategno, Paul J. Ivanhoe: The Mask of Chivalry. New York: Twayne, 1994. This volume of the Twayne Masterwork Series follows the series format, placing the novel in literary and historical context before it is given a particular reading. DeGategno’s reading emphasizes the novel’s pertinence to its own time and its importance as a reflection of Scott’s society. But then, interestingly, deGategno concludes his book with a selection of his students’ responses to Ivanhoe. This book provides a good general introduction to one of Scott’s most compelling and long-lived works. Dennis, Ian. Nationalism and Desire in Early Historical Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Discusses Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Jane Porter, and Lady Sydney Morgan. Ferns, Chris. “Look Who’s Talking: Walter Scott, Thomas Raddall, and the Voices of the Colonized.” Ariel 26 (October, 1995): 49-67. Argues that although both Scott and Raddall are concerned with portraying the interaction between conflicting political and social forces within an essentially similar historical context, the manner in which they do so is very different; whereas Scott allows an unusually free interplay of voices, Raddall subordinates the dialogic interplay of voices to the monologic discourse of the narrator. Flood, Alison. "'Indecipherable' Walter Scott Stories to Be Published." The Guardian, 18 Aug. 2008, Accessed 14 Sept. 2017. Discusses the controversy surrounding Edinburgh University Press's decision to publish The Siege of Malta and Bizarro. Goslee, Nancy Moore. Scott the Rhymer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Aiming to restore Scott as a poet, this book analyzes in detail his major poems. A discussion of The Lay of the Last Minstrel is followed by examinations of the long poems from Marmion to Harold the Dauntless. These poems are affirmations of romance within self-reflexive frames of irony. Contains ample notes and an index. Humphrey, Richard. Waverley. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This short volume also provides a useful introduction to a seminal Scott novel. Humphrey divides his analysis of the novel into four parts: “Scott’s changing world and the making of Waverley,” “Waverley as story,” “Waverley as history,” and “Waverley as initiator”—by which he means that the novel provided a model not only for subsequent Scott works, but also for novels written by many other writers. An interesting appendix contains contemporary accounts of the Battle of Prestonpans. Lauber, John. Sir Walter Scott. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A good starting point for a study of Scott. The first three chapters provide an overview of Scott’s career; the rest provide discussions of the novels; and the final chapter discusses the Waverley novels and their literary reputation. Includes a chronology and a select bibliography. Lee, Yoon Sun. “A Divided Inheritance: Scott’s Antiquarian Novel and the British Nation.” ELH 64 (Summer, 1997): 537-567. Argues that the antiquarian mode of thought determines the historical novel’s political ambivalence and provides the most effective means of understanding how this genre’s popularity sprang from its literary nature. Lincoln, Andrew. Walter Scott and Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2007. Fourteen of Scott’s novels and poems are examined here to give readers an understanding of his conservative politics and their impact on his writing. Mitchell, Jerome. Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott’s Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Describes the influences of Geoffrey Chaucer and medieval romances at work in Scott’s narrative poetry, early novels, middle novels written during his financial collapse, and novels of the darkly declining years. The style and structure of the novels are analyzed before a conclusion is drawn. Augmented by preface, notes, and an index. Scott, Sir Walter. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. Edited by W. E. K. Anderson. Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate, 1998. Scott’s journals offer invaluable biographical insights into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index. Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. A provocative critique of nineteenth century British realist fiction. Shaw challenges the denigration of realism in critical writing of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Sutherland, John. The Life of Walter Scott. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1995. A narrative account that penetrates into the darker areas of Scott’s life. The value of Scott’s writing today as much as in his heyday is justified by Sutherland’s account. Todd, William B., and Ann Bowden. Sir Walter Scott: A Bibliographical History, 1796-1832. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1998. Lists variant editions of the verse as well as the fiction, and casts light on Scott’s occupations as advocate, sheriff, antiquarian, biographer, editor, historian, and reviewer. Tulloch, Graham. The Language of Walter Scott: A Study of His Scottish and Period Language. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980. In eight chapters and two appendices, Tulloch examines Scott’s use of Scotch-English in his poetry and fiction. The special features of the language are analyzed in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. Scott’s reading is also examined as a source of his language materials. Includes a bibliography and an index. Zimmerman, Everett. “Extreme Events: Scott’s Novels and Traumatic History.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10 (October, 1997): 63-78. Discussion of extreme events in history and fiction; argues that such descriptions of extreme events are a rhetorical device to assert a perspective that remains unanalyzed, implying that analysis would erode the clear boundaries that divide humanity from the inhumane.

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