Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

Waverley was definitely one of the books that I wanted to feature in my occasional series on works Austen or her characters might have read, and this seemed an apropos time, as it’s one of the works I mentioned in the forward of my restored and annotated ebook edition of Pride and Prejudice (Amazon, Nook, Kobo).

Original manuscript and first edition of Waverley, from the National Library of Scotland.

And as I wrote in my forward, it’s Waverley that really makes Jane Austen’s accomplishments hit home, for me. This was Sir Walter Scott’s first prose novel, and also perhaps the first novel that could be considered historical fiction. Set during the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, an attempt to put the Stuart “Bonnie Prince Charlie” on the throne and depose the Hanoverians, it is the story of a young man, Edward Waverley, who finds himself somewhat unwittingly caught up in all of this.

Waverley was published anonymously, which was a trend at the time; while some ladies, like Austen, sought to hide their identities, both men and women were doing this. It was, however, a little-kept secret, for Austen certainly knew who the author was. Perhaps this was because they shared the same publisher, but a reviewer wrote, “Why a poet of established fame, should dwindle into a scribbler of novels, we cannot tell.” So perhaps it was hardly a secret at all. Austen in a lovely example of that dry wit of hers, wrote to her niece Anna Austen that Scott ought to stay in his lane, to use a modern phrase:

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.

Austen was certainly familiar with Scott’s verse. She references Scott’s poetry numerous times in her novels; young ladies as varied as Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot read it. And Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra that Pride and Prejudice was “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with … something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté.”

I have to hope this was self-deprecation, but in truth Waverley sold very well. After an initial printing of 1,000 copies (Emma, published shortly thereafter, was at 2,000, but these did not all sell quickly), it sold more than 8,000 copies in the next few years, which easily eclipses Austen’s sales. Scott went on to write 28 books, ‘the Waverley novels,’ so this was the beginning of something very popular at the time, and Scott’s popularity endures today: Edinburgh’s train station is named Waverley, for example.

And yet, it completely boggles my mind that it was published contemporary to Austen’s work. Waverley does not read like a modern novel, while Austen’s “light, and bright, and sparkling” works do.

There are things to like about Waverley, certainly. Scott maintains a healthy tension simply in the hero’s status—through a series of misunderstandings and what might even be called sabotage, he is named a deserter from the army, and the entire time I read wondering whether he would ever be allowed to return to his home, or whether he’d end up being tried for treason. Scott sets the scene well (sometimes too well…there are portions that feel overly described), this old world of the Scottish highlands and the fiercely, romantically loyal men and women living there. There’s a love triangle, one I found in some ways similar to Mansfield Park (although M.P. is more of a quadrangle), although the difference in points of view and perhaps my early seeing of the similarity meant that I knew pretty early on how it was going to end up, and I was right.

But oh, it’s so bloated. Those aspects of the novel that raise the suspense also make the scenes that seem to contribute little to the plot drag on in the reader’s eagerness to get to some resolution, and to a modern reader it feels somewhat amateurish in the way that the importance of these scenes is eventually explained, in a heavyhanded manner at the end. Austen famously described having “lopt & cropt” Pride and Prejudice, and this tells, I think, in the difference between reading the two novels today. We think, always, of Austen’s skill as a writer, as a describer of society, of her wit, but I think she does not get enough credit as an editor. To take Pride and Prejudice, and pare it down to the essentials, and nothing more, took true skill, and an ability for her to not hold any portion of her own work too dear. I wonder what might have happened if Austen had been allowed to edit a novel like Waverley.

Have a look at this passage from Waverley:

Some such thoughts crossed Waverley’s mind as he paced his horse slowly through the rugged and flinty street of Tully-Veolan, interrupted only in his meditations by the occasional caprioles which his charger exhibited at the reiterated assaults of those canine Cossacks, the collies before mentioned. The village was more than half a mile long, the cottages being irregularly divided from each other by gardens, or yards, as the inhabitants called them, of different sizes, where (for it is Sixty Years Since) the now universal potato was unknown, but which were stored with gigantic plants of kale or colewort, encircled with groves of nettles, and exhibited here and there a huge hemlock, or the national thistle, overshadowing a quarter of the petty inclosure. The broken ground on which the village was built had never been levelled; so that these inclosures presented declivities of every degree, here rising like terraces, there sinking like tan-pits. The dry-stone walls which fenced, or seemed to fence (for they were sorely breached), these hanging gardens of Tully-Veolan were intersected by a narrow lane leading to the common field, where the joint labour of the villagers cultivated alternate ridges and patches of rye, oats, barley, and pease, each of such minute extent that at a little distance the unprofitable variety of the surface resembled a tailor’s book of patterns. In a few favoured instances, there appeared behind the cottages a miserable wigwam, compiled of earth, loose stones, and turf, where the wealthy might perhaps shelter a starved cow or sorely galled horse. But almost every hut was fenced in front by a huge black stack of turf on one side of the door, while on the other the family dunghill ascended in noble emulation.

If Austen had been writing about the village of Tully-Veolan, I suspect it would not have merited much more than a sentence. Consider how she tells us about Meryton:

The village of Longbourn was only one mile from Meryton; a most convenient distance for the young ladies, who were usually tempted thither three or four times a week, to pay their duty to their aunt and to a milliner’s shop just over the way. The two youngest of the family, Catherine and Lydia, were particularly frequent in these attentions; their minds were more vacant than their sisters’, and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening; and however bare of news the country in general might be, they always contrived to learn some from their aunt.

We learn a few things about Meryton, certainly, that it is one mile from Longbourn, and that there is a milliner’s shop, but that’s about it. Austen remains staunchly focused on her characters: it matters more that Catherine and Lydia have more vacant minds than their sisters, and go there to learn the latest gossip from their aunt. We do lose something, certainly, in the setting of the stage, in the romance of the location, but personally I have never missed it. Austen leaves readers to develop scene in their own imaginations.

It seems almost as though Scott is contrasting his own work with Austen’s, in his review of Emma, prompted by Austen’s publisher, John Murray, and published in The Quarterly Review in October, 1815:

Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

The review continues to say:

We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character.

Scott remained an Austen fan, writing in his journal in 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.

And thus I do feel a little bad for picking on him. And perhaps as this is is first novel, it’s fairer to compare it to Northanger Abbey, which had what I would call the least mature edit of any of Austen’s novels. I initially read Waverley because I needed a book that would have been new at the time I had set Mistress, and it fit the bill as the hot new novel of the time:

 “Where do you wish to go today? Out toward Oakham Mount, perhaps?” Darcy asked. Yesterday she had asked him if he would drive her into Meryton in a tone of some embarrassment, as she was of the hope that a book she had ordered had come in.

“Oh, Oakham Mount sounds very nice,” Elizabeth said.

Darcy set his horses trotting down the lane thither, then asked, “And how do you find Waverley, so far?”

Elizabeth’s embarrassment, he had learned, was in exposing herself as a novel reader, but it had been alleviated by his assuring her that he very much enjoyed novels as well, and while he had not yet read Waverley, he intended to, and would be interested to learn her opinion.

“I have not progressed very far, but I am enjoying it. It is much easier to be stuck indoors when one is absorbed in a good book.”

“I entirely agree, and it should not be too much longer now, before Boyce may be arrested.”

“I hope so – even with my books, I hardly know what I should have done if not for our drives. I believe I would have gone crazy, trapped inside that house. I cannot thank you enough for giving me so much of your time.”

There was something peculiar in her tone, when she spoke of being trapped inside that house, and Darcy glanced over at her sharply. He could not make out anything more of her meaning by her countenance, however, and when he spoke, he endeavoured to do so lightly. “It is nothing. You may repay me by loaning me Waverley when you are done.”

“If I can loan you a book, I shall consider that quite an accomplishment.”

So perhaps I need to embark on some of Scott’s later novels. Any recommendations?

If you’re interested in reading more about Scott and Austen, check out Collins Hemingway’s post here, “Austen and the Big Bow-Wow;” Regina Jeffers’ blog posts, “Sir Walter Scott, the Historical Romance, and the Creation of a National Identity,” (Part 1 and Part 2); and this JASNA article on Scott’s review of Emma.

And if you’re interested in learning more about my restored edition of Pride and Prejudice, please check out the blog tour!

July 27, My Vices and Weaknesses: Guest Post & Giveaway

July 28, Austenesque Reviews: Book Excerpt & Giveaway

July 29, My Love for Jane Austen: Guest Post & Giveaway

August 3, Just Jane 1813: Book Review & Giveaway

August 4, My Jane Austen Book Club: Guest Post & Giveaway

September 4, Diary of an Eccentric: Guest Post & Giveaway

September 5, Laughing with Lizzie: Book Excerpt

September 6, Savvy Verse & Wit: Book Review & Giveaway

September 12, Margie’s Must Reads: Book Review & Giveaway

September 14, More Agreeably Engaged: Guest Post & Giveaway

September 15, Babblings of a Bookworm: Book Excerpt & Giveaway

Pride and Prejudice restored to 1813. Read it again, in Jane Austen's true voice.

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6 Responses to Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

  1. Sophie and Regina, your blogs on Scott are most welcome, detailed, and insightful. He is rightfully recognized as a great critic–more so today than as a poet or novelist–and his early support of Austen was critical. We must wonder how important it was that Scott and Austen were now part of the same publishing house, John Murray II. Scott must have felt some obligation to a fellow Murray author, while also wanting to frame his review of Austen to set up his own novels. Even when I first read “Ivanhoe” (decades ago) I found Scott tedious, and have never been able to read his poetry. Sophie is right that he needed to edit his descriptions. The history tends to take over his stories, as well. Too much background, not enough plot. And his plots are hardly less fantastic than the “ladies novels” that he criticizes. In contrast, Austen’s early novels have little in the way of description; she slowly finds her way until her descriptions in MP and Emma are as good as any ever done. Side note: Hard for us to believe 200 years later, but Murray’s best-selling author was neither Scott nor Austen but Byron–poetry was the thing, especially poetry written by a bad boy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Collins! I think what you describe may be part of the reason Austen seems to grow on Scott over time. She was doing something different from everyone else, and I think that’s what made people of the time slow to appreciate her on a wider basis, but ultimately led to her enduring popularity. It was, if I recall correctly, the Victorian railway novel printings of her work that made it pick up again in popularity.

  2. The only Scott novel I have read was Ivanhoe way back in the early 1960s. I was between 7th and 8th grades as I recall. WOW. 60 years. It had everything a little girl could love: knights in shining armor, minstrels, Saxons vs Normans, Robin Hood, etc. What was there not to like? 😉

  3. Hi Sophie – What a great post. I didn’t know any of that about the ‘relationship’ between Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. I’ve never tried to read Waverley, I have to admit. You made me want to. Also, thank you for the reminder about your restored and annotated ebook edition of Pride and Prejudice. I got my copy. Thank you so much for doing that.

    • Thanks, Summer! I don’t think I would have attempted it without having used it in Mistress BUT I think it is worth a read, if just to appreciate Austen’s work much more.

      And you’re welcome! 🙂

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