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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book Review: 'Waverley' by Walter Scott

I chose Waverley after rolling an eighteen – ‘a book I never finished’ – in my D20 reading challenge, and it is perhaps telling that there has been such a significant gap between this post and my last.

I first attempted Waverley during my second year at university, as part of a module on the Romantics, and it was this novel which caused me to break my vow to finish reading all of the required course material. This book begins a generation before the protagonist has even been born, then proceeds to explain his childhood and education in great depth, and in a style which even Scott himself admits is ‘what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus’. This sustained barrage of exposition was too much for me; I surrendered, and opted to simply write my assignments about a different text.

Returning to it six years later, the long trudge through the first volume still failed to enthral me, and it is not until the twenty-fourth chapter that the main thrust of the narrative begins. After this point, I quite enjoyed the novel, but there was part of me which begrudged the amount of time it took to get to there.  Part of my impatience with the earlier half of the novel stems from a sort of conscientious discomfort around the way that the aristocratic protagonist seems to see no problem with taking off on a months-long jolly around Scotland within weeks of beginning his military career.

Sense of entitlement aside, Edward Waverley makes a fairly likeable hero, in the Romantic bildungsroman tradition. He has a strong sense of honour, but is naïve, and has allowed Romantic novels and tales of chivalrous derring-do to shape his understanding of how the world works. Despite this, the character sometimes seems a little flat – particularly in comparison to others in the novel who are much more memorable. In particular, Scott draws warm, believable comic characters in much the same way that Dickens would a few decades later.

One useful aspect of Waverley’s ‘flatness’ is that he becomes a sort of blank space for the reader to project themselves upon, and it is through his English eyes that we are first introduced to exotic world of Jacobite-era Scotland. This journey takes place in stages, from the comfortable, pastoral England of his uncle’s estate, to the military encampment in Edinburgh, then on to the almost feudal Barony of Bradwardine, and ultimately into a highlands inhabited by outlaws and by tribal chiefs. This gradual march into the unknown has some sense of thematic importance, but unfortunately lacks a real sense of purpose until its final stage.

As a modern reader, it is tempting to see Waverley as a story of radicalisation, and the charismatic Fergus Mac-Ivor could be interpreted as a manipulator, guiding the inexperienced Edward Waverley into rebellion. However, we should be careful in drawing parallels with the radicalisation of young men into extremist causes in today’s society. Scott is ambiguous in his portrayal of the Jacobite rebellions, and while he is sure to show that his protagonist is, to some extent, tricked into pledging himself to the highlanders’ cause, he is also careful to include honourable and dishonourable characters on both sides.

Although some of Scott’s best writing comes in his description of the Battle of Prestonpans, his depiction of Waverley’s rebellion is strangely toothless. Despite volunteering with the Jacobites, Waverley seems to spend the majority of his time on the battlefield trying to prevent government soldiers from being killed. This is understandable, as contemporary readers may have found it difficult to sympathise with a hero who commits fully fledged acts of treachery, but it does soften the impact of the protagonist’s eventual disavowal of the Jacobite cause. Similarly, while Scott does offer some brief comments on the effects of war on the landscape, his most emotionally charged description is saved for Tully-Veolan, the great house of the Baron of Bradwardine. Scott is pre-occupied with ideas about inheritance and property, and on some level the novel can be seen as tracing Waverley’s growth into a suitable lord, complete with a suitable wife.

It is not just the rebellion which is toothless: the government’s response seems unbelievably lenient. While Mac-Ivor and his foster brother are put on trial and executed for their crimes (another of Scott’s finest scenes), Waverley and the Baron of Bradwardine receive convenient pardons with very little trouble, and the last chapter seems particularly contrived.

Despite its flaws though, I found Waverley to be an interesting read. While the first-volume is dry and overly-long, Scott does make good use of seemingly incidental details later in the novel. Scott’s self-aware authorial interjections seem to pre-empt Forster’s ‘One may as well start with the letters’ – one of my all-time favourite opening sentences – and serve as a reminder that novels have been experimenting with narrative voice since the very beginning. There are things about the novel’s structure which work very well, and it can be enjoyed as an early example of a historical novel, or as a straightforward adventure story, even if it fails to fully address the moral complexities of civil war.

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