The main homework for our August meeting was to read a book – any book – by Sir Walter Scott. We all gave it our best shot, though only one of us scored an A+. The rest of us deserve commendation for effort because we all did do a decent amount of homework; we just, um, didn’t quite finish our books!
The books we read (or, attempted to read):
- The Antiquary (1816) (1), because it was, she believed, the shortest.
- Ivanhoe (1820) (1), because it was accessible.
- Waverley (1814) (4), because it was Scott’s first novel, it was the one Austen refers to in her letters, it is seen at the first work of historical fiction.
Some initial thoughts about the books …
Our member, as did we all to various degrees, found the Scottish dialect hard. She also thought that while the plot was “quite good”, it felt “shoddily” put together, relying too much on coincidence, and she felt the romance was not very romantic.
Researching the novel, she found that many of its events are based on things that happened to Scott, and also that the novel was written in quite a hurry, in just three months.
She liked the illustrations, that she also found during her research, and wished they were included in the edition she read!
Our member reading this had mixed feelings. Sometimes she felt like saying “just get on with it” but then it would become exciting again. She enjoyed the time setting – early 1200s – and liked recognising characters like Robin Hood (Robin of Locksley) and Bad King John from her childhood television days. (Not having studied this historical period at school, she didn’t know them from history. Others of us understood.)
It has been suggested, she said, that Ivanhoe represents Scott’s view of history, that is, as constituting tension between the conquered and the conquerers. The novel includes two Jewish characters, and is interesting for its sympathetic presentation of them. Overall though, she, like most us, found the characterisation flat: women are good and beautiful, baddies are bad, and goodies are good.
Our member was amused that Ivanhoe is injured for a large proportion of the book. However, she also said that for all its flaws – length, flat characterisation, and long descriptions – she could imagine its being a good read-aloud story.
Two members – neither of whom read Ivanhoe for the meeting – commented on how much they’d loved reading it in their youth.
Of the four of us who chose Waverley, only one finished it, though she did find it a challenge, needing to set herself goals to keep picking it up. Two of us who, admittedly, didn’t finish it – it gets worse, we were assured – found quite a bit to like!
The negatives included the increasingly difficult dialect as the novel progresses, the “huge slabs of description”, and the flat characterisation.
Waverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction, and the history it represents is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Our English-born member argued that Scott skates over what happened at Derby and that his representation of Bonnie Prince Charlie is too favourable (though our member with Scottish ancestry suggested that was an English perspective!) We commented that one reason Austen liked it may have been her support of the Stuarts!
The two members who most liked it, liked it for the humour and satire (including the names like Lawyer Clippurse), though one member rejoined that the satire was mocking. Our supporter soldiered on, however, suggesting that Scott reminded her of Austen’s Juvenilia. However, we agreed, if that were so, Austen “outgrew” Scott.
Scott uses more direct authorial comment than Austen, and indeed, Waverley, is written in the first person. Another member who “read” Waverley argued that it was his first novel and seems to be very much the work of a writer learning the trade. Scott was already an established poet, she said, but this was his first venture into fiction, and so his writing feels naive. Austen, on the other hand, had been writing fiction for a long time and so was more polished before her first novel was published. Interestingly, one member noted that Scott had actually started the novel in 1805, but had mislaid the manuscript only finding it many years later.
We did enjoy some of the realism, such as the description of the cattle thieves and the difficult lives of the peasants. We also liked the broad range of characters, even if many weren’t well-drawn. Interestingly, in the three books we read, the strongest characters tended to be older ones (such as, in Waverley, Everard and the Baron.)
Most of us also agreed that the novel starts strongly, with Scott, the first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character, Waverley’s, name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”) and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – such as Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:
By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.
One member’s research reminded us that to Scott’s readers, this novel was set in a reasonably familiar recent past, like, say, World War 2 would be to us.
One member commented also that she liked Scott’s Austen-like observations on human nature, such as:
Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure … (Ch. 4)
Austen and Scott
Of course, we had all read the comments Scott wrote about Austen, and vice versa:
Scott on Austen, Journal 14 March 1826:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!
… and Journal 18 September 1827:
… and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable.
And Austen on Scott, from a letter to Anna Austen, 28 September 1814:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must…
We spent some time discussing the state of the novel at the time, and the role played by Austen and Scott in its development. One member suggested that Scott fills the gap between 18th century writers like Richardson and Sterne and 19th century ones like Dickens. Austen, we felt, was sitting on the sidelines waiting!
Indeed, one member argued that the reason Austen’s star was slow to rise was because her writing was so new and different. Scott eclipsed her for most of the 19th century, but towards the end his star waned as hers rose, suggesting, this member said, that his style became old-fashioned and hers more acceptable or understood. (As, proposed this member further, frequently happens with the new in all the arts – literature, music, visual arts.)
The meeting ended with our usual quiz (a lovely easier one on Jane Austen, the novelist), our secret quotes, and discussing
Future meeting ideas
- 19th century critics on Jane Austen
- The role of death in Austen’s novels
- Hypochondriacs in Austen’s novels