This month [August] marks 250 years since the birth of the writer who did the most to invent the literary form known as the historical novel.
Sir Walter Scott was born in the Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 15, 1771. He was the youngest of nine children and one of only three siblings who did not die in infancy. Although he survived infancy, he became very sick from polio at the age of two and while he survived the illness he was never able to walk properly.
The polio severely affected his health and led to his being sent out of the city to live in the countryside with relatives. These relatives educated him in literature, history and folklore and he later studied law at Edinburgh University.
In addition to law and public administration, Scott became one of the most significant writers of the early 19th century. He began by publishing translations of German Romantic poems, and then produced more poetry of his own. His work came in the form of long narrative poems which would fill many pages of a book.
These poetry books became best-sellers. However, he made the biggest impact on the writing of historical novels. His first novel, “Waverley,” was published in 1814 and was set in the mid-18th century at the time of the Jacobite rising of 1745; a military campaign which originated in the Scottish Highlands and which came close to overthrowing the British government in London, but which was eventually defeated.
Scott established many of the rules of the historical novel genre. He conducted active research, interviewing some people who remembered the time of the conflict. Scott also collected and used reference books in order to make sure that he was accurate in his use of facts such as landscapes, sequences of events and people who were present around various historical events. The writer ensured that everything was as correct as possible, in order to both head off criticism and also help guide his narrative. “Waverley” became a best-seller and has been translated into many languages. It had a widespread influence on wider European literature as well as on popular history.
Scott’s novels carry a number of core messages. They describe the common conflicts within people as to what they should do and how they should act as well as the contrasts and strains within societies which are undergoing major changes. They contrast the “natural,” “wild,” rural life with the “unnatural” urban life. However, the most fundamental theme is that people are essentially the same regardless of language, culture or creed, whether they come from the smallest village or the largest city, and whether they are rich or poor.
Another key element of Scott’s works was the fact that he used the plots and characters of the historical novels to analyze and discuss contemporary subjects. For example, “Waverley” examines issues of the relationship between the UK and France, the strains of major technological and industrial change, and relations between various social classes. He also had a political message, a desire to bridge the gap between the rural Highlands and the urban Lowlands of Scotland, which had supported different sides in the 1745 conflict and which still spoke different languages. The people of Glasgow and Edinburgh regarded the Highlanders as primitive and uneducated, while Highlanders considered the Lowlanders as materialistic and unprincipled.
The French author Victor Hugo, was strongly influenced by Scott and “Waverley,” especially in his own historical novel “Les Misérables,” a text that in turn strongly influenced the Russian write Leo Tolstoy, who would produce probably the greatest historical novel of all: “War and Peace.” Tolstoy’s characters are far more realistic and complex than Scott’s, especially his female characters, but Tolstoy researched the background to the events of “War and Peace” in the same thorough way as Scott had.
Historical novels have since become a staple of modern literature. In the 20th century, the novel “The Egyptian” by Finnish writer Mika Waltari – set in the era of the Pharaohs – became an international best-seller and was adapted into a film. Just like Scott, Waltari used the historical novel to discuss contemporary themes, such as corruption in government, international diplomacy and the supplanting of national tongues by big international languages (Babylonian in Ancient Egypt and English in 1940s Europe). And in the 20th century, the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman produced his era’s equivalent to “War and Peace”; “Life and Fate”, set in World War II and which looks at how humanity has an essential kernel of goodness which cannot be crushed even by the horrors of that conflict.
In addition to writing poetry and novels, Scott was also an expert in public relations and in events management. He was asked to make the arrangements for the visit of the new British monarch King George IV. In just three hectic weeks Scott arranged a dazzling pageant of King and subjects in tartan kilts with music and dance. The event established a tradition of the royal family wearing tartan kilts when in Scotland. Scott’s PR skills also helped save the major Scottish banks’ right to print banknotes.
Today, the main railway station in central Edinburgh is named after Scott’s first novel and the Scott Monument, a huge tower in honor of the writer dominates the main street in the city center. Scott’s name still resonates in his own city and country.
Written by Murdo MacLeod
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