The historical novel is a literary genre that links strong dramatic plot lines and credible human psychology, within a setting characterized by specific historical details. The founder of this genre, which had a great impact on Romantic Europe, was Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), whose novels, starting with Waverley (1814), created a passion for the historical novel among readers and writers that remains strong up to this day. Scott’s main achievement was to get people to realize that history was not just a list of political and religious events, but the product of human decisions. He took the past of Scotland as his main subject and mixed it with imaginative adventures. He blended highly figurative language with dialect to portray real and living characters, who belong both to the aristocracy and the low, humble classes. He introduced a new concept of history, based on the lives of the ordinary people, rather than on those of kings and noblemen. His interpretation of English history offered him various examples of compromise between two extreme situations: the fight between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, which had given rise to a mixed people, the English and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which had marked the end of the struggles between the King and Parliament. He was interested in the moments when an important historical crisis, especially in Scottish history, caused personal problems in individuals or in groups:
Ivanhoe (1820) and Waverley (1814), his most important works, respectively describe these conflicts. Most of his novels follow a pattern which has been called the ‘journey’: a traveler, that is, Ivanhoe or Waverley, moves from a safe situation inside an ethnic group, comes into contact with another ethnic group and shares their life for a time. In the end he will return from where he came with a different experience of life which will enable him to mediate between two rival groups.
Scott and Manzoni
Walter Scott greatly influenced the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) whose long narrative The Betrothed [I promessi Sposi] was published in 1827. Both Scott and Manzoni mingled historical truths and fiction; they set their novels in historical contexts that point out the political, cultural conflicts between, respectively, Scotland and England, and Lombardy and Spain. However they used different linguistic means: Scott made an extensive use of Scottish dialect since he wanted to celebrate the glorious past of his country and its independence from England; while Manzoni removed any regional inflections from the language employed in the definitive edition of The Betrothed (1840) because he aimed at creating a national consciousness.
Here are the most important features of the historical novel:
• historical context;
• detailed description of manners, buildings and institutions;
• both fictional and real characters;
• use of the third-person omniscient narrator;
• the techniques of flashbacks and time shifts
• the writer’s aim is to show the closeness of the past
to the present.
The story Waverley is set in the period of Jacobite uprisings: it starts in the late summer of 1744 and ends many months after the battle of Culloden (1746) when the Jacobites were defeated and their cause was virtually destroyed. When Scott wrote this novel, Jacobitism had ceased to be a political force, but he pointed out in the ‘Postscript’ to Waverley that: ‘There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone such a complete change as this kingdom of Scotland’. By 1814 in both the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland patterns of life had been changed, both by measures of Government and by the gradual infiltration of ideas and wealth from the south. In his novel Scott aimed at recreating the past ways of life, both of Highland chief and Lowland landowner, showing them as they put up a last struggle against the forces of Hanoverian Britain. Waverley starts with the account of the education of ayoung man from an English Jacobite aristocratic family, Edward Waverley. He is a reader and dreamer of romantic love and war. In the house of Sir Everard Waverley, Edward’s uncle, politics are a matter of a long-standing conviction, but not much examined. Waverley’s father has decided to move with the times in favour of advancement in the Hanoverian Government and he obtains his son a commission in the Hanoverian army of King George II (1727–1760); so Waverley is sent to Scotland to join his regiment. In Scotland he visits a Jacobite family friend, whose daughter, Rose, falls in love with him. However, Edward’s attention is attracted by the charming Flora. Flora’s brother is the Jacobite chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor, but Edward’s visits to Fergus are wholly unwise and it is not long before Edward is arrested. Fortunately he is rescued by Flora, and joins the Jacobite side. During a battle he saves an English officer from certain death, and for this act of bravery he is pardoned for his
involvement in the Jacobite cause. His friends are not so lucky: Fergus is executed and Flora takes refuge in a convent. Edward goes back to Rose and the two are happily married.