Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Scott, Walter (Sir)

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)Literature (poetry/verse)Text editionsEnglishScottish
  • Author:
    Rigney, Ann
  • New VIAF ID:
  • Title:
    Scott, Sir Walter
  • Text:

    Walter Scott (Edinburgh 1771 – Abbotsford nr Melrose 1832), one of the dominant figures in European Romanticism, was active in the field of antiquarianism, poetry, fictional and non-fictional narrative, architecture, and in public life. Perhaps more than any other single individual, he helped historicize cultural practices and everyday life in post-1815 Europe and helped generate the link between identity and the affective involvement in the cultivation of cultural memory that was such a key feature of nationalism. His literary works had an immense impact across Europe, also on material culture, the visual arts, and the theatre. In particular, his works helped generate a widespread fashion for the medieval and a preoccupation with the Middle Ages as the key period in the origin of modern nations.

    Scott first entered the cultural arena through his involvement in the editing and translating of literary works from the recent as well as more distant past. This concern with curating literary remains fitted into a growing interest across Europe in cultural heritage as the cornerstone of present-day identities, and of oral traditions as the locus of genuine tradition. Scott’s key early-career work in this vein was the Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (1802-03), a collection of ballads ostensibly gleaned from local informants and manuscript sources (in fact a significant number were actually modern imitations of traditional models). The Minstrelsy was a Scottish version of earlier collections of English verse such as Percy’s Reliques of ancient English poetry (1765), which also resonated with similar salvage projects on the continent; translated into German, Danish and Swedish soon after its appearance and passing through multiple editions in English, the Minstrelsy proved to be a landmark collection which put Scott on the map and served to bring back into circulation ballads that have since become evergreens.

    Although his main output later shifted to creative writing, Scott continued throughout his life to collect folklore from local informants and to edit earlier texts for recirculation and for publication in bibliophile editions as collectors’ items. He himself was also a collector of historical artefacts and of books and manuscripts. Indeed, the large  library he assembled at his neo-medieval home at Abbotsford counted as one of the largest private collections in the British Isles; its catalogue shows Scott’s enduring interest in assembling source materials relating to Scottish history along with literary works from both home and abroad. Figuring in his collection were many bibliophile editions produced by several philological societies in which Scott was involved (including the Roxburghe Society, founded in 1812, and the Bannatyne Club, founded in 1823) whose main mission was to publish forgotten texts, often medieval ones, from Scottish and (to a lesser extent) English literature.

    The next phase in Scott’s career was dominated by poetry and inaugurated by his extremely popular Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). Inspired both by the vernacular ballad tradition and by an emerging interest in all things medieval and bardic, it infused poetry with a strong sense of narrative and spoke to a wide audience. This pattern was repeated in Scott’s subsequent poetic bestsellers, including most prominently Marmion (1808) and The lady of the lake (1810). The former added a more consistently historical dimension into the narrative mix, by taking the battle of Flodden Field (1531), one of the greatest disasters in Scottish history, as its principal subject; the result was a poem which combined all the fast-pacedness of narrative poetry with an investigation of national history. Although The lady of the lake (1810) was also set at a recognizable historical period in Scottish history, the later poem was more romantic and idealizing in its approach, and offered a modern rhyming version of a medieval romance with a strong love interest as well as heroic warriors. Like many of Scott’s works, the widely succesful Lady of the lake inspired multiple stage versions, including Rossini’s La donna del lago (1819), and inspired numerous visualizations. It also played a role, to be reinforced by Scott’s subsequent work, in stimulating tourism to the picturesque locations described in the poem.

    Following a downturn of interest in subsequent historico-narrative poems, Scott’s career took a radical new turn with the publication in 1814 of Waverley: Or, ’tis sixty years since, often considered the founding work of the genre of the historical novel. Since it was an experiment which risked undermining the very substantial reputation that Scott’s poetry had earned him, Waverley was published anonymously. It integrated the genre of romantic fiction with that of history-writing and did so while concentrating on a relatively recent period in Scottish history: the period around the 1745 Rebellion in favour of the restoration of the ousted and exiled Stuart dynasty. Waverley’s novelty lay not only in its generic mix but in the fact that it presented history very vividly in the form of a series of highly dramatic events (revolving around a central conflict between Highland Scots and the English army) as these were experienced through the eyes of a young, naive and deeply impressionable participant. This experiment in the vivid depiction of recent history and colourful settings was an instant success, and marked the beginning of what would turn out to be a series of 26 “Waverley novels” written in rapid succession over a period of some 15 years by the “author of Waverley” or, as he was known throughout Europe, the “Wizard of the North”.

    A significant number of Scott’s novels were devoted, like Waverley, to themes from Scottish history; many critics consider these so-called “Scottish novels” (which include Guy Mannering, 1815; Rob Roy, 1817; The heart of Mid-Lothian, 1818; and The bride of Lammermoor, 1819) to be Scott’s best work. Despite the highly localized settings and the regular use of dialect, which marked these works as distinctively Scottish, these novels succeeded in appealing to a wider reading public, not only in Scotland but across the English-speaking world. In several later works, Scott also dealt with specifically English themes, most notably in Ivanhoe (1819) and Kenilworth (1821), as well as with European ones, as in Quentin Durward (1823) and his Tales of the Crusaders (1825). Although his later novels show some loss of momentum and were less popular, the Waverley novels taken together constituted an unparalleled publishing phenomenon, in which seriality (the continuous demand for “more of the same”) played a key role. For a time it seemed as if the appetite of the reading public for historical fiction could not be satisfied, not only in the English-speaking world but all across Europe; the National Library of Scotland records more than 2000 translations of works by Scott. The most successful novel in the international arena was undoubtedly Ivanhoe (1819), Scott’s first novel dealing with England. Situated in the 12th-century aftermath of the Norman conquest, it offered a vivid depiction of a colourful medieval world replete with knights in armour and maidens in distress; at the same time it narrativized history in terms of a long-term ethnic conflict between Normans and Saxons, from whence modern England was deemed to emerge. Its particular brand of Medievalism and its ethnicization of social/cultural conflict proved infectious, offering a point of recognition for many other groups across Europe and providing a model for the writing of national history and national-historical novels elsewhere, e.g. France (Thierry, Henri Martin), Flanders (Kervyn de Lettenhove, Conscience) and Poland (Lelewel, Sienkiewicz, Kraszewski).

    Running parallel to this prolific literary output, Scott also made a number of significant public interventions. Most notably from the perspective of cultural nationalism was the role he played in finding and restoring the Regalia of Scotland (the crown jewels of the Scottish monarchs, missing since the 17th century); this exploit earned Scott his baronetcy and the title “Sir” in 1818. Even more far-reaching in its consequences was his orchestration of the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. This was the first visit of a British monarch to Scotland since the disputed union between the two countries in 1707, Scottish resistance against which had culminated in the above-mentioned 1745 Rebellion thematized in Waverley. Scott used the occasion for a spectacular display of all things Scottish as a public reminder to the monarch that Scotland could be “different” yet loyal. A key element in the whole proceeding was the widespread use of tartan and of kilts – items of dress which had in fact been been outlawed in the late 18th century because of their association with the 1745 Highland rebels, but which were now put on display; thanks to Scott their meaning was transformed into a sign of the resilience of Scottish traditions, which were no less potent for being largely invented or contrived. It is to the historical episode in 1822 that the subsequent “branding” of Scotland by tartans and kilts can be attributed.

    The historical significance of tartan is illustrative of the way the influence of Scott’s work permeated into many aspects of everyday life.  His Medievalist stories, coupled with the neo-gothic house he himself had designed at Abbotsford, served to intensify the growing interest in Medievalism at this period both in Britain and across Europe. His poetry and especially his novels inspired multiple remediations in the form of visualizations (engravings, paintings) and dramatizations, especially operatic ones (and, later, cinema). An estimated 70 operas have been based on Scott’s work, including most famously, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).

    Scott’s meteoric rise to European fame was followed some 10 years after his death by the erection of major monuments to his honour in Glasgow (1837) and in Edinburgh (1840-46). His posthumous glory waned, however, and by the time the centenary of his birth was commemorated in 1871, he had already lost much of his stature at the forefront of cultural production; as literary taste and fashions changed, his work fell out of favour and re-directed increasingly at a juvenile readership (a process affecting the genre of the historical novel generally). However, his legacy survives, not only in many streets and places in the English-speaking world named after him or his works, but more importantly in the enduring popularity of historical films as a cultural medium: colourful and dramatic narratives dealing with national history now transposed to the big screen.

    An important factor in Scott’s influence was the fact that his work broke down the barrier between high-prestige but impopular history-writing and the relatively low-prestige genre of the novel, thus reaching wide audiences, female as well as male, and that he offered his readers access to the past by way of the narrative imagination. Indeed contemporary historians expressed their envy at Scott’s power as a novelist to evoke the past more vividly in his Romantic narrative than was possible in the disquisition proper to traditional history-writing. Romantic historiography, and even the cult of 19th-century historicism in general, is to a significant extent driven by the emulation of Scott’s narrative power to “bring the past back to life”.

    The very range of Scott’s interests meant that he spoke to the public through multiple channels: through his literary works and their remediations he influenced the taste and interests of general readers; through his philological and archeological pursuits, and his extensive network of correspondents both in Britain and abroad, he contributed to more specialist philological and archeological research. He was intensely committed to the history and heritage of Scotland, and his name has often been invoked as a Scottish icon (on Scottish banknotes, for example). His nationalism was above all cultural rather than political, however: he sought to highlight Scottish culture in multiple arenas, not as a grounds for political separatism, but as a marker of Scotland’s distinctiveness within the framework of the political union with England that had come into effect in 1707. Nor did Scott’s nationalism prevent him from also showing a profound interest in English history, especially in his later fiction. As a result of these multiple allegiances and the fact that his work was read easily throughout the multi-national English-speaking world, Scott was construed by his contemporaries and later admirers alternately as a distinctly Scottish author and as a spokesman for a specifically British (that is, combined Scottish and English) identity.

    Word Count: 2002

  • Notes:

    A visualization of Walter Scott’s correspondence network is online at ERNiE under the “Letters” tab; or click here.

    Word Count: 19

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  • Duncan, Ian (1992). Modern romance and transformations of the novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (Cambridge: Cambridge UP)

    Ferris, Ina (1991). The achievement of literary authority: Gender, history, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP)

    Grierson, H.J.C. (ed.) (1932-37). The letters of Sir Walter Scott (12 vols.; London: Constable)

    Johnson, Edgar (1970). Sir Walter Scott: The great unknown (2 vols.; London: Hamilton)

    Maxwell, Richard (2009). The historical novel in Europe, 1650-1950 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP)

    Millgate, Jane. “Millgate union catalogue of Walter Scott correspondence”, National Library of Scotland, http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/resources/scott/index.cfm (28 Apr 2014)

    Pittock, Murray (ed.) (2007). The reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (London: Continuum)

    Rigney, Ann (2012). The afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the move (Oxford: Oxford UP)

    Robertson, Fiona (ed.) (2012). The Edinburgh companion to Sir Walter Scott (n.pl.: Edinburgh UP)

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Rigney, Ann, 2021. "Scott, Walter (Sir)", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 10-06-2021, consulted 23-09-2021.