Waverley by Walter Scott

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Waverley has been on my ‘ought to read’ list for longer than I care to remember, so when Shiny New Books asked me to read a new edition from Oxford Worlds Classics I was happy to accept the offer and finally make the effort.

Scott seems to be a sadly under read author these days, which is a shame because when he’s good I find him very good indeed. Waverley is so good they named a train station after it, and though by all accounts some of his later works are patchy they have also fallen mostly out of print so are easily avoided. Waverley however deserves a far wider audience than the ‘I can’t get on with Scott’ comments that invariably followed enquiries about what I was reading suggests he gets.

Waverley, or ‘Tis Sixty Years Since essentially seems to have been the beginning of historical fiction. Completed and published in 1814, it’s set against a background of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland, raised an army of around 6000, and got as far south as Derby before turning back North and meeting eventual, comprehensive, defeat at Culloden.

Events are related from the point of view of young Edward Waverley, the presumptive heir to his uncle Sir Everard of Waverley Honour. Sir Everard, if he didn’t actually turn out for the earlier attempt to reinstate the Stuart kings on the throne in 1715, was certainly extremely sympathetic to the cause. Edward has been bought up in prosperous seclusion on his uncle’s estate, his imagination fed by poetry and tales of brave cavaliers, so when his father tells him he’s secured him a captaincy in the army he’s happy enough to take up the commission for King George.

Posted to Scotland and bored by unaccustomed discipline Edward applies for leave and goes to visit an old friend of his uncle’s. This man was out in 1715, and is still committed to the Stuart cause. From then on, and partly due to a series of unfortunate accidents Edward is drawn into the rebel cause, the enormity of what he’s committed himself to only finally clear to him when it’s to late to draw back. A cursory knowledge of Scottish history is enough to let the reader know it’s not going to end well for everyone and that Waverley has chosen the wrong side.

There are all sorts of good reasons to read Waverley; it’s important, influential, deals with issues of identity and political loyalty which are most certainly still relevant, is interesting to read against the current political situation in Scotland too, but much more than that it’s also enjoyable.

Honestly, Scott does require me to make a bit of an effort. It took two weeks to work my way through Waverley (but then I wasn’t in a hurry). Most of the first volume was slow going and it would have been easy to abandon it at that point. Even later in the book when events are gathering pace Scott will slow them down, quite deliberately, with a wordy detour into nothing in-particular. If you don’t let it frustrate you, it’s funny; and delightfully Scott makes it clear that he’s teasing the reader with these passages. He has a way of suddenly drawing a scene with cinematic brilliance – the way he describes a gathering of the clans at a stag hunt is masterly – and then at the critical moment dispels the romance with something mundane which allows the reader to be far more clear sighted about events than young Waverley. Edward isn’t a very heroic hero; he’s swept along by events rather than shaping them, which makes him very easy to empathise with at least. It’s often a funny book, and that in turn makes the moments of high drama or pathos more affecting, and Scott himself is a presence throughout which I found very companionable.

In the end all I can say is give Scott a chance. Set aside a bit of time to get to know him, be patient when it feels like slow going, be a little bit disciplined about reading (if need be) and see how you feel by the end. The result for me has been an almost evangelical enthusiasm for Waverley in particular and Scott generally. I think it’s a great book with a lot to offer, and one that should be picked up for idle entertainment, and not just because a syllabus demands it.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader where she would dearly love to find more Scott enthusiasts.

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (Oxford World’s Classics: Oxford, 2015). 978-0198716594, 488pp., paperback.

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