This particular post first appeared on Austen Authors from Jennifer Petkus in November 2015. I thought it worthy to share with others.
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.
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 (Jane Austen Society of North America) 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.
You might also enjoy Collins Hemingway’s post on Austen and the Great Bow-Wow, also found on Austen Authors.
MEET JENNIFER PETKUS: Jennifer Petkus divides her time creating websites for the dead, writing Jane Austen-themed mysteries, woodworking, aikido and building model starships. She has few credentials, having failed to graduate from the University of Texas with a journalism degree, but did manage to find employment at the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper as a cop reporter, copy editor and night city editor before the paper died in 1986. She lives in fear of getting a phone call from her dead Japanese mother. Her husband is the night editor at The Denver Post. Her best friend is a cop. She watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon live.