Who Reads Scott Anymore? (A Reprise)

There’s an interesting piece at Standpoint on Scott and historical fiction, by Allan Massie:

I still meet people who read and appreciate Scott, and the splendid new Edinburgh edition of his works has led to a reawakening of academic interest. Yet Woolf was probably justified in saying that he had “entirely ceased to influence” other writers, even 80 or 90 years ago. Certainly, it is likely that none of the authors on the Man Booker list owed him anything, consciously or unconsciously. It was different in the 19th century. Dumas and Hugo in France, Manzoni in Italy, Fontane in Germany, Tolstoy in Russia, and Thackeray — in Henry Esmond certainly and Vanity Fair probably — were all in his debt, as were Stevenson and Buchan in their historical novels. Hugh Walpole, in his Herries chronicles, was one of the last novelists to regard himself as a disciple of Scott. But though he was Woolf’s friend, he knew, to his dismay, that she didn’t think much of his books. (read the rest here; HT 3QD)

He doesn’t mention George Eliot, who famously  wrote that she couldn’t bear to hear a disparaging word about Scott, and whose novels are infused with the same interest in people as embodiments of complex historical conditions. I don’t know if it makes sense to say that contemporary writers don’t owe Scott anything even unconsciously: the genre they work in was surely shaped and formed by him, even if (as does seem likely) they aren’t aware of it.Reading this piece, I was reminded of an earlier post I wrote calling attention to a wonderful essay by Brian Nellist at The Reader Online. Here’s the old post, and then the follow-up with links to the wonderful response at Wuthering Expectations, one of my favourite literary blogs.


I recently came across this article in “The Reader Online” by Brian Nellist, a long-time member of the English faculty at the University of Liverpool (and, among many other things, co-editor of the edition of Margaret Oliphant’s Hester that I recently used in my graduate seminar on Victorian Women Writers). Titled “People Don’t Read Scott Anymore,” the article pushes off from the scene of Mr. Ramsey reading Scott in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which “Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page.” “The answer to Tansley’s taunt,” Nellist proposes,

is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading.

He follows this up with a fascinating and detailed account of the experience of reading Scott, particularly The Antiquary, the novel Mr. Ramsey is reading in To the Lighthouse. Some samples:

Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. . . .Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. . . . Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

And now here’s the question: Is it true that people don’t read Scott anymore? I admit I haven’t read The Antiquary, but I’ve read a modest number of Scott’s novels and until this year have persisted in including Waverley on the syllabus every time I teach the early 19th-century novel course here. My special affection for this smart, funny, poignant, satirical, self-conscious novel was begun and fostered by my studies with Harry Shaw at Cornell, and repeated re-readings and, especially, re-teachings have only enhanced the pleasure I take in it (though, sadly, I can’t be as confident about the pleasure my students have taken in it, though I have found that you can predict someone’s overall success in the course pretty well from whether they ‘get’ the humour in Waverley). My favourite exam “sight passage” (future students take note) is from the end of Chapter 16:

[Waverley] had now time to give himself up to the full romance of his situation. Here he sate on the banks of an unknown lake; under the guidance of a wild native, whose language was unknown to him, on a visit to the den of some renowned outlaw, a second Robin Hood perhaps, or Adam o’ Gordon, and that at deep midnight, through scenes of difficulty and toil, separated from his attendant, left by his guide. — What a variety of incidents for the exercise of a romantic imagination, and all enhanced by the solemn feeling of uncertainty, at least, if not of danger? The only circumstance which assorted ill with the rest, was the cause of his journey — the Baron’s milk-cows! This degrading incident he kept in the background.

Waverley and the excesses and errors of his “romantic imagination” obviously provide much of the comedy, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the novel (along with the Boring Baron of Bradwardine)–I always recommend to my students that they count the number of times “our hero” trips, falls down, or is carried injured or unconscious away from some potentially heroic situation. But the best scene for grasping what I take Nellist to be talking about, in terms of Scott’s engagement with the past, is Fergus’s trial, including Evan Dhu’s heart-stoppingly sincere offer of his life in exchange for his feudal master’s:

Evan Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court, and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The Judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed. ‘I was only ganging to say, my lord,’ said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, ‘that if your excellent honour and the honourable Court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and no to trouble King George’s government again, that ony six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye mysell, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.’

Notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a sort of laugh was heard in the court at the extraordinary nature of the proposal. The Judge checked this indecency, and Evan, looking sternly around, when the murmur abated, ‘If the Saxon gentlemen are laughing,’ he said, ‘because a poor man, such as me, thinks my life, or the life of six of my degree, is worth that of Vich Ian Vohr, it’s like enough they may be very right; but if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.’

There was no farther inclination to laugh among the audience, and a dead silence ensued.

(Haven’t read it? You really should! Here’s an etext, though you’ll probably want an edition with lots of notes.)

Let’s see: I’ve also read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, The Talisman, Kenilworth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, and Redgauntlet (on which I actually published an article once). That’s not really very many, considering the man’s vast output, but I’d consider it a good sampling. I am also the owner of a battered copy of Quentin Durward inscribed to my grandfather as a Christmas gift in 1910, from the boys’ school he attended. (I’m guessing that he was more excited about Quentin Durward than he was the volume of Mrs. Hemans’s poems they gave him in 1912 “for good conduct”!)

So, what about it, dear readers (to use a very Victorian address)? Do people read Scott anymore? What Scott have you read, what are your favourites, and what would you say is special about the experience he offers us as readers?


My previous post inspired Amateur Reader to reflect on the joys and challenges of Scott, with engaging posts on The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Redgauntlet so far:

The word that Scott can’t escape is “slack”. Rarely is he in a hurry to get anywhere, so he requires patience, perhaps too much at times. The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency.

But AR acknowledges the charms of Scott’s inefficiencies, giving due attention, for instance, to Madge Wildfire in Heart of Midlothian and Wandering Willie’s Tale in Redgauntlet. I think we agree that there’s more to life than “push[ing] the story forward.” (In a comment at AR‘s place, I tried to imagine Dickens being efficient. Sometimes perhaps writers should do things just because they can–Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Great Expectations, or the head of Charles I in David Copperfield. Constrain that imagination and maybe you don’t get Krook’s spontaneous combustion, or Miss Havisham and her wedding cake….)

Another interesting comment: “Honor and loyalty – Scott returns to this theme repeatedly. Perhaps one reason we do not read Scott so much now is that our ideas about honor have changed too much since Scott’s time.” Scott isn’t afraid to showcase virtue, either: I’m thinking of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian, almost certainly too steadfast to be the heroine of a novel by any other 19th-century novelist.

Still, the evidence of my very small sample (including those commenting at WutheringExpectations) is not overwhelming in Scott’s favour. No question, he’s not a crowd-pleaser, but I’m reminded of the annoying ads for local brewery Alexander Keith’s: “Those who like it, like it a lot!”


Do pitch in with your own thoughts on or experiences with reading Scott–and take note that, as part of the ‘Scottish Literature Reading Challenge’ that Wuthering Expectations is hosting, I’ve committed to reading The Antiquary this summer, because, after all, Viriginia Woolf considers it one of Scott’s best. I’ve also been thinking about The Heart of Midlothian as a candidate for this year’s Summer Reading Project at The Valve (following up on Adam Bede, in 2008, and Villette, last year). It does rather seem to be the Year of Historical Fiction.

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3 Responses to Who Reads Scott Anymore? (A Reprise)

  1. I’ve got The Antiquary on hand. So I’m ready to go, at least once I get out from under Karamazov and Ford Ford and Thomas Carlyle. I may be overdoing it with the difficult novels right now.

  2. I read Waverley and Woodstock some years ago, and just last year I read The Antiquary and loved it. I do not think that you will be disappointed in it! I am looking forward to reading as much of Scott as I possibly can, although that is true of many other authors as well, I do not think he is irrelevant today, far from it. But the past is present for me.

  3. Rohan says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Patrick! AR and I will report our experiences with The Antiquary sometime this summer. If we do a read-along of Heart of Midlothian at The Valve, you might enjoy following along and commenting. I’ll post an announcement here of whatever the plan turns out to be.

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