Great Scott: the difficulties of reading one of Austen’s favorite authors

Great Scott: the difficulties of reading one of Austen’s favorite authors

Scott memorial
Not Thunderbird 3 but instead the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

I recently started reading Waverley, Sir Walter Scott’s novel that many consider the first historical novel. I am sad to say that it’s a difficult read, despite Jane Austen’s admiration of Scott.

Jane wrote:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it, but fear I must.

And it was something of a mutual admiration society, for Scott wrote:

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!

So I had high hopes for Waverley and the timing was appropriate for I would soon be arriving at Waverley station in Edinburgh, a city that has a rather outsize monument to the man. I figured if not only Austen but a whole city liked him, his stuff must be good.

Unfortunately times and tastes have changed and I’ve found Waverley almost unreadable, and certainly unreadable with any real enjoyment. I am still plugging away at it out of duty, but without any real sense of comprehension of what I’m reading.

The 1814 novel depicts the events of 1745, when Scottish Jacobites hoped to restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne in the person of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They hoped to supplant George II, whose father acceded to the throne because he was the nearest Protestant heir after the death of Queen Anne, who had no surviving children.

Already I can sense your eyes closing. If you’re not already fascinated by English history, some of this stuff gets pretty dense. Anyway, the Highland clans were supporters of Charles Edward Stuart, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was the grandson of James II (or James VII of Scotland and Ireland), who’d been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which had put William III on the English throne). The Highland clans hoped that BPC would be more kindly disposed to their interests than the ruling Hanovers. After all, the Stuarts were ousted partly because of their Catholic faith, which had historically been shared by the Highlanders.

In the novel, the English Captain Edward Waverley, a sheltered, romantic young man, travels to Scotland and visits a family friend, Baron Bradwardine of Tully-Veolan. Scott has some fun with the baron, presenting him as a know-it-all blowhard but with a fundamentally good soul and a pretty daughter (who’s not well provided for in the event of her father’s death). He’s a Jacobite as well, but the baron is content to merely mutter about the current monarch. Unfortunately, Edward is about to visit Fergus Mac-Ivor Vich Ian Vohr, a Highland chieftain who’s going to persuade Edward to take up arms for BPC. It doesn’t hurt that Fergus also has a pretty daughter.

Which is about where I’m stalled out. I know that Edward will be present at many famous battles, including Prestonpans, where he will help a fellow English soldier from being killed; that Edward will be captured; that he will be freed; and that at some point he’ll encounter BPC at Holyrood Palace.

If you made this into a movie (which I don’t think it has been), it would be great stuff. Walter Scott pretty much created our modern-day conception of what it is to be Scottish. When George IV visited Scotland, Scott set the tone of the whole thing and is responsible for much of what it means to be a Highlander in the popular imagination. So it’s easy to imagine how colorful and overwrought such a movie would be. In prose, however, it’s about as palatable as the image of George IV wearing that too short kilt. Here’s a quote from Baron Bradwardine:

The Baron returned at the dinner-hour, and had in a great measure recovered his composure and good-humour. He not only confirmed the stories which Edward had heard from Rose and Bailie Macwheeble, but added many anecdotes from his own experience, concerning the state of the Highlands and their inhabitants. The chiefs he pronounced to be, in general, gentlemen of great honour and high pedigree, whose word was accounted as a law by all those of their own sept, or clan. “It did not indeed,” he said, “become them, as had occurred in late instances, to propone their prosapia, a lineage which rested for the most part on the vain and fond rhymes of their seannachies or bhairds, as aequiponderate with the evidence of ancient charters and royal grants of antiquity, conferred upon distinguished houses in the Low Country by divers Scottish monarchs; nevertheless, such was their outrecuidance and presumption, as to undervalue those who possessed such evidents, as if they held their lands in a sheep’s skin.”

Now it’s not fair to judge the book from any dialog of the baron, because he’s meant to be a figure of fun who’s too fond of flowery language, but honestly, aequiponderate and outrecuidance? It’s almost impossible to read any of the baron’s dialog because you’re constantly looking up words that often defy definition.

It’s very much like the scene in the episode Ink and Incapability of Blackadder the Third, where the good Doctor Johnson matches wits with Edmund Blackadder. Johnson has been boasting that his dictionary “contains every word in our beloved language,” and to prove him wrong, Blackadder replies: “Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribblarities.”

Reading Waverley, you’d swear Scott is making up words willy-nilly. Admittedly many of these words are Scottish or Gaelic and so they’re naturally foreign to me, but even in the narration, Scott uses words and phrase that have me scratching my head. Add to that all the Latin and a higher percentage of songs and laments than even The Lord of the Rings, and it’s tough going. On top of that, so far the hero of our story, Edward Waverley has hardly said a word. The character is a bit of cipher, although I hope he might have more room to expound once he’s left the baron’s home. However, I’ll bet Fergus Mac-Ivor will suck all the air out of any scene he’s in. And that’s the other problem so far: these primary characters expound, declaim and orate rather than talk.

I mentioned to my local JASNA group my difficulties reading Waverley, which led to a comparison of how readable Austen is. Austen introduces occasional words and concepts foreign to modern readers, but they don’t get in the way of enjoying the narrative. Her prose and especially her dialog, comes across as very modern.

This naturally led to several people relating that heartbreak so many Janeites have experienced, when we’ve suggested to someone we like and respect that they read Austen. You know what it’s like: your friend complains that nothing really happened in the book, that the language was too complex or that no one really cares what happens to women whose only goal in life is to get married.

You start explaining the importance of a good marriage, how a woman’s identity disappeared once she was married, about primogeniture and entailments, about voting and dowries and pin money. You really get worked up about it. And then you suggest that maybe they should watch one of the adaptations first and dangle the wet shirt or maybe you say an audio book is a better introduction or that they should read Jane Austen fan fiction first.

I have come to realize that reading and enjoying Austen requires a lot of groundwork. I watched all the adaptations before first reading the novels, and I think that greatly helped me get through some of those difficult bits of Austen.

It’s just that Waverley seems to be nothing but difficult bits and so it requires a lot more groundwork. I’m reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World and have just come to the section about the 1745 Jacobite uprising. It actually makes some of the details of Waverley understandable, like the invention of blackmail by the Highland chieftains, the Disarming Act that left Baron Bradwardine defenseless against the cattle raiding Mac-Ivor, or the draconian punishments inflicted on the Highland clans, such as the persecution of the MacGregors. I also have a better understanding of what might have influenced Scott’s writing style and his need to flaunt his education and his command of the English language, in comparison’s to Austen’s “exquisite touch.”

So I will continue reading Waverley, feeling a little sympathy for it, for all the times others have complained about my writing—“nothing really happens in it” and “that kind of complicated sentence structure makes it hard to read.”

As a side note, I wonder what others have done to help friends who have expressed difficulty reading Austen. I think it might be a good idea to create a “How to read Austen” talk to present at libraries and book stores. I hate to think of all those people who gave up on Austen and who might have enjoyed her had the proper groundwork been done first.

PS There is a one-hour adaptation of Waverley narrated by David Tennant that I plan to listen to (scroll down to 2013). Maybe I can rouse some enthusiasm listening to that.

18 Responses to Great Scott: the difficulties of reading one of Austen’s favorite authors

  1. I like Scott. My mom loved Ivanhoe, so I grew up familar with his style. However, I felt exactly the way you do about Waverley when I read the collected works of Charlotte Lennox. It was only looking for what Austen saw in her that kept me plugging away. Udolpho was even worse. One of the only books I’ve abandoned without finishing it. I had better luck with some of Radcliffe’s shorter novels. Good luck finishing Waverley. Perhaps it will grow in you.

  2. Well, I guess I am the brave one. When I was in 7th grade (way-back in 1962), I read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe (as well as the more recently written historical Desiree). I believe that when I was in the 4th or 5th grade I was tested at a college level reading comprehension, so I was never intimidated by the titles or the names of the authors. BTW, I do prefer Austen to any of the Bronte sisters; however, I think I know why it was ultimately impossible in the end for Charlotte and for Emily to give happy endings. (I also prefer the music from much earlier in the century as well. There is just something about the late Romantic that I do not like.) I believe that my favourite novel from the second half of the nineteenth century is Moby Dick.

  3. I am currently narrating 3 of Jane Austen’s novels for Dreamscape Audio…..I have a LOT of thoughts about what has been written above!and my own experiences having just completed Sense and Sensibility !! I will say it’s not easy to read aloud without a good deal of preparation ,because our spoken language has changed enormously since the 1800s..and does not naturally ease itself into the cadences and flow of an 1800s sentence and syntax!

    • Wow, that’s an amazing job. I imagine your notes include TAKE DEEP BREATH before starting some of those longer sentences. I’ve tried to speak some of those sentences aloud, and I kind of lose my way half through.

      • Thank you …..It IS a wonderful job! I have realised that teaching her work to teens is a ridiculous proposition however,UNLESS teachers order the curriculum around other subjects to enhance it….learning about the wider world of the period etc..what wars were being fought, how the development of romance in England at the time had brought words such as Sensibility to mean something very particular ! See if you can find Lucy Worsley on Youtube …her 3 part series this year on Romance was absolutely fascinating !!! and very instructive ! Especially Part 1 which deals with PAMELA, and Austen’s writing ,and why it had become necessary in a way!!!! Lovely blog ,by the way ! Very much enjoying it!!!

  4. I think Waverly for a long time was my personal record for a novel I had come the closest to finishing (40 pages or so) and then hadn’t. I did finally go back and finish it. It’s not Scott’s most accessible work. I’ve read a lot of Scott since, and The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermor are both easier to get into. But the post about Richardson above is exactly right: not only did Austen love Richardson (which isn’t strange–Clarissa is fantastic, despite its incredible length), her favorite Richardson novel was Sir Charles Grandison, which most readers now find about as exciting as watching paint dry. Trust me, Waverly is like an action movie compared to Grandison.

  5. Thanks everyone for sort of confirming or validating my entry into Austen’s literature. I’ve found that seeing an adaptation and then listening to the audio book of great literature makes it much easier to absorb the plot, then I can read the book at my leisure. I realize that most people can’t dedicate that much time to comprehending one book, however. What’s really frustrating is when someone has done all that groundwork and they still don’t like Austen.

    I’m also a little unnerved that Austen can have such a fondness for an author I’m finding so challenging. I’m feeling quite intellectually challenged, kind of the way I feel about others when they confess they can’t read Austen.

    • Remember that Austen grew up reading 17th and 18th century works. She was bred up on the King James Version of the English Bible and Shakespeare. She liked Richardson . There are many who can’t stand Richardson’s works and Fielding really hated his Pamela . Austen was more attuned to Scott’s language because she had been reading things written in such a manner for years. Look into 100 women authors before Austen — Dale Spender and read some of those books.Look into Charlotte Smith and Fanny Burney.. Once you look into the other works you will see why it was easier for Austen to read and enjoy Scott’s works. He was one of the most popular authors of the day, read by everyone.

  6. I think the first time I tried to read P&P (in high school?) I gave up due to the complex sentence structure. But then, about 6-7 years ago, I saw the 1995 BBC version on PBS and really enjoyed it, bought the movie, bought the book, then bought the rest of Austen’s books and then started on JAFF. Then just recently, a co-worker’s wife from Brazil mentioned that she wanted to read P&P. Although her english was good it is not her first language, and I suggested that she watch the 1995 BBC version first to get a feel for the story, THEN go read the book. I have not checked in to find out what happened, but I am hoping there is another “convert” out there. 🙂

    I’m not sure I could read Scott’s stuff. Even going through your blog article made my eyes twirl…

  7. I tried Scott also, an audio version of The Talisman (one of the crusader novels), and couldn’t get through more than a chapter or two. The dialogue was excruciating. I still have hopes of reading Waverley, and I do like Scottish history, and I do like audio books, but I feel your pain!

  8. Well for Austen, I first saw the PBS movies way, way, back when. Then I found a collection at a used book store because I thought it would be fun to fill in the obviously missing scenes. Then I listened to them on audio books while driving. Lots of options to get someone interested in Austen, not to mention JAFF.

  9. My daughter read all my regencies as a teen except for Heyer and Austen. The language and pace of those authors’ books were too slow for her. She now reads many other genres but has never been drawn to Austen or Georgette Heyer. I once had a woman explain to me that Austen and Heyer were too intellectual for her and that she preferred something less taxing on the brain. I didn’t tell her that Austen’s books were once considered books suitable for young teens. Others were quite open about the fact that they avoided Austen and Heyer because the books didn’t show the couple having sex. When asked these women often said that their main reading was People and US and their main television viewing various soap operas.
    My sister will read Regencies and loves Regencies with paranormal elements ( which I don’t) but never has cared for Austen or Heyer. Each to his own taste.
    I was the regional coordinator for the Atlanta chapter of JASNA for 14 years and took around reading material to visitors and patients in a hospital for about that long so have had opportunities for these conversations.
    I also find Waverley and the whole of 1745 difficult to follow. I like Scott’s poems but find his novels difficult . I rather liked Ivanhoe . That has been made into a movie. I haven’t read any of Scott’s prose in many decades. I do tend to stay away from anything containing dialect or foreign languages I don’t know.

Your thoughts are precious!