Walter Scott was born at Edinburgh in 1771. Both his father and his mother cafe of old Border families, fascinated by the historical and legendary past of their country.
As a child, he was stricken by polio, which left him lame. He could not attend school regularly, so he was left much to himself in his choice of reading; he read a lot of history and legends of Scotland, listened to tales from humble people, accumulating an extraordinary miscellaneous knowledge. He was the most personally lovable of all the great Romantics. He was not a revolutionary and had no hatred for the world.
He began his literary activity as a poet, translating from German ballads, collecting and revising old Scottish novels and writing Romantic verse dramas. His poetry was filled with idyllic nostalgia for Medieval Scotland and the wild and melodramatic action of Gothic novels; it contained also brilliant and colorful descriptions, but was often carelessly constructed, flowing into monotonous passages. In 1813 he was offered the Poet laureateship but he declined it in favour of Southey.
- The Lay of the Last Minstrel;
- The Lady of the Lake.
They are all set in Scotland, showing the struggles between different Scottish clans.
When Byron obtained his sudden fame with Child Harold, Scott decided to to start a new literary career as a novelist, beginning with the anonymous publication of Waverly. This novel is the first of a trilogy, made up of about 30 novels written between 1814 and 1832. He didn’t produce any novel since he was in his forties, unlike the romantic novelist Jane Austen, which only produced six novels, but more accurate and formally perfect.
His best-known novels are:
- Waverly, set in the reign of George II of England during the bloody days of 1745. It is the story of the English family of Waverly, known for its Jacobite sympathies;
- Rob Roy, the story of a sort of Scottish Robin Hood;
- The Bride of Lammermoor;
- Ivanhoe, a romance of adventure set in the Middle Ages, a century after the Norman Conquest, describing the enmity between Saxons and Normans.
About 1810 he set up a publishing house, “John Ballantyne & Co.” and in the same period he spent a fortune building the castle of Abbotsford, in the countryside, where he lived in great splendor, like a feudal lord, realizing his dreams of brilliant hospitality. Unfortunately the Ballantyne Company went bankrupt and the failure put the novelist in debt. He declined all offers of assistance, toiled for the rest of his life to pay off all his debts. The terrific labor proved too much for his health; after several strokes his mental power failed, and he died at Abbotsford in 1832.
The novels may be grouped according to the setting of the novels. The first and the best group is set in Scotland. This group is very well written, with accurate setting and histories. At first because Scott loved his country, he didn’t go far in the past and he knew Scottish history very well.
Of this group Rob Roy is the richest in character creation. This story of family feuding and Jacobite plots introduces the reader to a continuous series of melodramatic episodes which should satisfy any adventurous mind.
The Bride of Lammermoor is Scott’s best love story, laid in the time of William and Mary - 1700. Lucy is forced by her parents to marry an arrogant lord while her true love is away. The atmosphere is sombre and tragic and Lucy eventually kills her husband and becomes insane.
The second group is set in England, it is less accurate because of the distance in the past (he goes back as far as the Middle Ages) but it contains his best work Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe, published in 1820, the most popular novel, is set at the end of the 12th century, during the reign of Richard I, Lionhearted. It deals with the customs and castle life of the English medieval period. The story and the protagonists are invented, unlike the historical background, and some historical characters like Richard I, John Lackland, the Templars, and the situation of the Jewish people in England through two jewish characters. The third group is set in different countries.
He made history romantic and exciting, he combined history and romance in a lovely and believable way. This is the main characteristic of the historical novel, created by Scott at the beginning of the XIX century. Fiction dealing with past events had already appeared, but this novels were more connected with historical events and lacked the specific feature of the historical novel: the description of the strict connection between man’s behaviour and actions and the historical conditions of the time in which he lives.
The reason why the historical novel appeared at the beginning of the XIX century is discussed in depth by the critic Lukacs in his work Der historische Roman. Among other causes, he lists the Napoleonic Wars, that brought together men from different nations, languages and customs. This awakened national feelings and the search for national identity even among peoples, like the Italian and Germans, who were still divided in small local states.
Scotland constituted an important and aching anomaly in the unified monarchy of Britain. Scott felt emotionally a deep regret for the heroic times of Scottish history, her political and cultural indipendence, but rationally he believed that only collaboration with England could help his country out of decline and poverty.
He was, therefore, against all fanaticism and thought that there must be a solution half-way between the extremes even for this problem. His interpretation of English history, in fact, offered him numerous examples in which a convenient compromise had been found between two extreme situations:
- the struggle between Anglo-Saxons and Normans had given rise to a mixed people, the English;
- The War of the roses had come to an end through a dynastic compromise, a marriage;
In his works, the compromise is often represented by the protagonist who sums up in himself the qualities of men and becomes a living symbol of the solution. In Ivanhoe, for example, Scott illustrates the struggle between Anglo-Saxons and Normans. Halfway between the two groups there is Ivanhoe, a Saxon who has chosen to collaborate with the moderate Normans to improve the life of his people. He represents the average man who will secure the peaceful evolution of this country.
Scott’s formula for the historical novel was a great innovation:
- The combination of historical and fictional elements.
He made history romantic and exciting, he combined history and romance in a lovely and believable way. Fiction dealing with past events had already appeared, but this novels were more connected with historical events and lacked the specific feature of the historical novel: the description of the strict connection between man’s behaviour and actions and the historical conditions of the time in which he lives.
- The union of tradition and romance.
This feature is typical for the novels set in the 18th century. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Scotland’s recent past and the customs of Scottish life, so the setting resulted very accurate. When his background is England or France, on the other hand, and the time chosen is the 15th or 16th century, or the Middle Ages, the romance elements increase, and customs are less faithful to reality.
- The events of history and the setting are quite accurate.
Scott was a chronicler, not a prophet, he gives no message to the world, but is capable of describing customs as an integral part of the novel. His novels are considered great even if they contain inaccuracies, as in Ivanhoe, and particularly when he’s not dealing with Scottish history.
- The vitality of the past
In his novels and in Ivanhoe in particular, Scott captured the spirit of the age, he imitated the speech, the rude humour, the customs and reconstructed a past age until it became a living present. He makes us feel the glamour of scenery and places, and fills the past with living women and men, although he’s at his best when dealing with humble, eccentric people. He didn’t go deeply into the causes of the events or into spirituality, but described in vivid detail and told exciting stories.
- The characters
He united historical elements with imaginary heroes. In Ivanhoe, for example, the hero isn’t Richard I, but an imaginary Saxon nobleman. In fact, Scott always showed sympathy towards common people.
However, he didn’t create only fictional characters, he also used real historical personalities, who are generally minor characters in the story but who are important because they are interpreters of the life, problems and needs of their people.
- The narrator
The narrator in Scott’s novels is a third-person narrator:
- he uses flashbacks and time shifts to follow the adventure connected with different sets of characters;
- He makes ample use of descriprion of settings and characters, summarizes periods of time as he knows all the events and arranges them according to the needs of the narration;
- He uses authorial intrusion standing outside the novel to comment it;
- He pretends to possess documents providing the truthfulness of his narrative;
- The plot
Most of his novels follow a pattern called the Journey. A traveler - e.g. Ivanhoe -, comes in contact with another ethnic group and shares his 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 the two rival groups.
Scott wrote such an enormous quantity of novels, since he needed to write very quickly to pay off his debts, that he could not create order in the confusion of his works. He is excellent at portraying humble folk, peasant, criminals, but less convincing in his heroes and heroines. In spite of such drawbacks, Scott’s literary influence was enormous, not only in England, but also in Russia, France, Germany (Fontane) and Italy (Manzoni).
In Italy, Manzoni himself admitted his debt to Scott: in his Promessi Sposi, in fact, the hero and the heroine are unknown people and not the great protagonists of historical events. Manzoni also made research into papers and documents of the past. But he was more faithful to reality and possessed a deep psychological insight unknown to Scott, as well as a great morality, justice and faith, higher that Scott’s more down-to-earth ideals.
Scott was often accused of historical anachronism because he attributed contemporary feelings language and attitude to the protagonists of the past. Scott himself said that his attitude prevented his writing to be confined within the limits of the period. It is necessary, for exciting interest, that the subject should be translated, as well as the language, into the manners of the age we live in.
In this novel Scott shows how the relationship between the Normans and the defeated Anglo-Saxons was still very tense, though about a century had passed since the Normans had conquered England. The two races were still divided by different language and customs; power was in the hands of the Norman nobility, while the Saxon noblemen had been disinherited. The Anglo-Saxons worked and the Normans enjoyed. The Norman was the language of the great Norman nobility and of the castles, while Anglo-Saxon was the language of peasants and servants. As time went on, necessary contacts occasioned the formation of a dialect which originated the structure of the English language. However, Scott is representing the situation of England during the reign of Richard I, when the hostility between the two races was still very strong. Scott provides some historical events to create a believable setting for his story. In Ivanhoe these events are: the presence of historical characters, like Richard I, who took part in the third crusade; the situation of the jewish people, presented through two jewish characters; the situation of the Templars.
- the description of the setting, in Yorkshire
- The description of the two people Wamba and Gurth, both Saxons and serfs of Cedric of Rotherwood. The two characters look different because of their different social conditions: Gurth’s life is certainly harder and more difficult than Wamba’s, so Gurth feels his conditions to be more crashing. Moreover, he seems to be of a sturner disposition and more intolerant of any type of dependence.
Gurth is a swine minder, Wamba is a jester, living in the castle, so he is happier than Gurth, but not certainly happy, because Saxons are exploited in any case.
Gurth’s collar was made of brass and his jacket was the tanned skin of some animal. Wamba is younger, wears the same dress but of different materials. A jacket of silk and a silver collar, cap with bells Scott then describes their attitude:
Gurth shows apathy, dejection, he’s sad and seems to feel a sense of opposition and a disposition to resistance.
Wamba had a sense of self-satisfaction respecting his own position and a vacant curiosity.
- The dialogue
The dialogue is carried on in Anglo-Saxon, universally spoken by the inferior classes. They talk about the change that take place in the names of some animals. This change takes place when the animals, after being tended to by the Saxon’s serfs are butchered and carried to the castle hole to be eaten by the Norman nobles.
At last Gurth reflects upon their conditions as servants and explains how the Saxons are being exploited by Normans , as they work, fight and die for them. This is the tense situation still existing between the two races.
The passage contains old and new features:
- Old features (18th century);
- Humor; realism; long descriptions; different registers; precise details;
- New features (romantic);
- Romance; sense of history; exoticism; concern with humble people; use of nature;