The other day I finished reading Stuart Kelly’s “Scott-Land”, an excellent study of Sir Walter Scott and his influence on the national identity of his native country. The influence of Scott not just on Scottish or British or even European literature, but on literature around the world, cannot be overestimated. At the time, every literate person would have read him, and to call him the first literary superstar would only trivialise his achievement. As Kelly makes clear, the cultural centrality of the novel in the last 200 years is all down to Scott’s influence and success.
These days though, especially in Scotland, where Scott’s cultural influence is seen as an embarrassment (easy to pin the blame on him for the tourist image so many Scots still seem keen to revel in – all tartanry, whisky and shortbread), the man and his work seems an anomaly. A High Tory unionist, a peddler of watered-down Romanticism, a slapdash writer whose best books even his fans will admit have their turgid moments, Scott is pretty much ignored where he’s not actively denigrated. As Kelly writes, the “Great Unknown” (Scott wrote his books anonymously, although the identity of the author was the worst kept secret in the literary world) is now the “Great Unread”.
Previously, the only book of Scott’s I’d read was “Old Mortality”, his novel about the Covenanters and the “Killing Times” of the late 17th century. I was writing a dissertation about the memorialisation of civil conflict for a postgrad archaeology degree (taught by the great Dr Tony Pollard), and thought the book would add some colour. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first 50 pages of any Scott novel are near-interminable, and I fully expected to put it down half-read, if that. But as the introduction made clear, in an age of revolution, war, and incredibly heavy drinking, people found Scott’s books irresistible. There must be something in them worthwhile.
In the end, I tore through “Old Mortality”. It had its many weak moments, the characters were ciphers at worst and caricatures at best, but the narrative took no prisoners once it got going. Controlled melodrama can be a powerful thing; characters in Scott are never angry, but in “an ecstacy of wrath”, and wear their doomed nobility not lightly. I was reminded of the charms of his work when I started reading “Waverley”, shortly after finishing Kelly’s book, and I’m ploughing through it at about the same speed with which I dispatched “Old Mortality” a few years ago.
Scott wrote a lot, and without a great deal of discrimination, but I think his best work is untouchable. There’s something uniquely seductive about Romanticism, and I think Scott represents its best and its worst characteristics. If you want a balanced and well-written reappraisal of the man and his work, you should read Kelly’s book at once. And then read “Waverley” – skipping the first five chapters if you must.
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