The Waverley Novels

29 Jul

In the 1960’s and 70’s when Feminist historians began rewriting history to include women, they were conscious, as were their readers, that an ideology lay behind the writing of such histories that was just as  important if not more so than the histories themselves. Such a rewriting of history is possible if we concede that ‘history’ is not a given ‘reality’ or agreed upon set of ‘facts’ but conversely that it is contingent upon the values and ideals of those who write it.  History, in this respect, can be usefully conceptualised as a history of historiographies. On the one hand Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels operate in the terms of a teleological historiography which values commerce over feudalism, civility over barbarism and rationality over superstition. However, on the other hand the novels radically displace the notion of historiography altogether. Through the use of elaborate framing narratives, the tropes of romance fiction and playful self-referentiality Scott continually reminds the reader of the fictive nature of his versions of history, and by extension, all ‘versions’ of history. In this essay I will evaluate the ways in which more or less contradictory historical perspectives operate in two of Scott’s novels: Waverley and Old Mortality.

Although it appears at the end of Waverley, ‘A Postscript,Which Should have been a Preface’ with its ironically vacillating title suggests that what it contains is both a prerequisite for the novel as well as the afterthoughts of the author. What we get in this postscript is a sense of comfortable distance from a turbulent past (a sense which is  also established before the beginning of the novel in the subtitle: ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’). The narrator reflects that:

There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or              little     more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of             Scotland. … the total eradication of the Jacobite party … commenced this     innovation. …we are   not aware of the progress we have made, until we fix           our eye on the now distant point from which we have drifted (492).

The idea that society was continually progressing, that society was perfectible, was a popular view during the Enlightenment, particularly for Whig thinkers; many of whom believed this perfectibility to be an indisputable fact of European history. For these thinkers the moral, political and social order of the present day could thus be constantly ratified by a comparison with a less civilised past. The Waverley postscript passage reflects this type of concern; historical change is described as a process of ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’ that hinges on the ‘eradication’ of the Jacobite party. Yet Scott seems to undercut the Whig party line (so to speak) by encouraging the reader, in line with more reactionary Tory ideals, to reconcile what is gained with what is lost:

This race has now almost entirely vanished from the land, and with it,         doubtless, much absurd political prejudice – but also many living examples of singular and disinterested attachment to the principles of loyalty which they     received from their fathers, and of old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and          honour (492)

Apart from being a good old swords and sandals (or cutlass and kilts) romp through the Scottish Highlands the narrative of Waverley functions as means of discursively balancing these two opposing views of history.

At the centre of the novel we have Edward Waverley whose early development forms the beginning of the narrative. Edward is brought up in an environment – very carefully constructed by Scott – to reflect both Whig and Tory views of history. Edward’s family are split down the middle. Uncle Everard Waverley is a nostalgic Jacobite supporter while Edward’s father Richard is a politically active Whig. The distinction between the backwardness of Jacobitism, emphasised in Everard’s fixation on the heroic past of his ancestors, and Whig politics, which play an active part in society, is quickly established. Edward Waverley’s mixed affiliations throughout the novel stem from this quietly divided upbringing. The structure of the novel relies on each successive character he encounters reflecting an aspect of the political standpoints he begins with. While Edward’s uncle inhabits the role of the nostalgic yet perennially inactive Jacobite (perhaps symbolised by his vow of celibacy), Flora Mac-Ivor – whom Edward meets later on – whose ‘ruling passion’ is ‘loyalty’ represents the noble side of Jacobitism. Her brother Fergus, in his lust for personal gain, represents its mercenary self interest. Through each successive character, Scott builds up the full picture.  It is in deposing the negative elements of Jacobitism whilst retaining the values of ‘old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and honour’ that constitutes balance in the novel. This is reflected in the death of Fergus and compounded in the marriage between Waverley and Rose Bradwardine at the close of the novel, in which Rose’s domesticated Jacobitism is married off to Waverley’s newly realised Whig progressivism. Having projected the older forms of social life as obsolete and dangerous despite their virtues, the novel then rescues the virtuous representatives of the past and destroys those it has conceived as dangerous.

This then is not a ‘real’ view of history in any sense, but a considerably engineered one that could be described as a masterful exercise in ‘fence-sitting’. Scott ends the novel with a handpicked selection of Jacobite and Whig values that reflect his own particular worldview, rather than historical reality in any concrete sense. But the historical reality of Scott’s novel is never a given, the reader is never coerced into taking things as ‘fact.’  Although we might think that Scott tries to authenticate his narrative by his detailed descriptions and textual notes – he is always giving us involved footnotes – this is only ostensible. Scott’s reservations about the historical veracity of Waverley are often coded in the text. One particularly significant instance of this occurs towards the end of the novel as Waverley and the Baron of Bradwardine look upon a new painting in Tully-Veolan:

There was one addition to this fine old apartment… which drew tears into the Baron’s eyes. It was a large and spirited painting, representing Fergus Mac- Ivor and Waverley in their Highland dress; the scene a wild, rocky and           mountainous pass, down which the clan were descending in the background.         It was taken from a spirited sketch drawn while they were in Edinburgh by a        young man of high genius, and had been painted on a full-length scale by an    eminent London artist (489).

 This instance of ekphrasis, as the two men look into the painting, directs the reader outside of the text. The painting of Waverley in his Highland dress seems to suggest itself as a microcosmic representation of the novel itself. As the Baron weeps at the painting in acceptance of the decline and fall of the Stuart claim, so the reader has to evaluate their own response to the book. Yet it becomes apparent, somewhat ironically, that the Baron is weeping at a ‘painting’ of ‘a spirited sketch’ drawn in Edinburgh of a Highland pass. Scott stresses the absolute artificiality of the image, though it is important that this still elicits an authentic emotional response from the viewer. This would seem to suggest that Scott is very aware of the particularity of his own ‘version’ of history, its fictive status, and the extent to which it is always twice removed from the events themselves. Scott’s novels turn literature into historiography by not only providing a particular vision of historical process and change, but also a reflection of how that vision is constructed.

Old Mortality is a later novel about an earlier period of history: The Killing Time. Scott’s use of multiple framing narratives in this challenging work allows him to further develop the theme of how historical visions are constructed. The narrative can only begin once Scott has established that the reader is being presented with a set of papers which have been preserved by a schoolmaster, Jedediah Cleishbotham; these papers in turn contain a novel written by his deceased colleague Peter Pattieson, which is based on oral accounts of ‘The Killing Time’ by an old survivor of the extreme Covenanting Calvinists, Old Mortality. These narrative frames ensured that there was suitable distance created between Scott’s nineteenth century readers and a period of history that he perceived as radically different from their own. And yet the framing devices also operate, perhaps paradoxically, as a means for these readers to access the narrative – once it eventually gets going – instantaneously; without this ideological bridge, the whole structure becomes merely unsorted experience. Scott is aware that the ‘sorting’ of historical experience is not only practical, a device to make his books reader-friendly, but that it necessarily constitutes historical writing. This is part of a realisation that all history is founded upon the process of narrative.

The violent opposition between Whigs and Royalists in Old Mortality is obviously comparable to that between the Jacobites and Government forces in Waverley. Also, much like Edward Waverley, Henry Morton occupies a position of centrality in the text to which the opposing forces in the novel gravitate towards. The opposing sides in the novel are both characterised, at numerous intervals, as violent fanatics; Claverhouse the head of the Royalist troops admits of himself and his enemies ‘we are both fanatics; but there is a distinction between the fanaticism of honour and that of dark and sullen superstition’ (356). Both varieties of fanatacism, however, end up causing violence and conflict in the novel. Between them Claverhouse, Burley, Olifant and Bothwell start a bar-fight, persecute peasants, steal a castle, commit murder and provoke a war. By the end of Waverley it is relatively clear which aspects of the novel’s conflicting value systems are to be appropriated and synthesised before a resolution will occur; conversely Old Mortality seems to reject wholesale the ideologies of each of the armies it follows as fanatic and destructive. Scott has written elsewhere that ‘as to Covenanters and Malignants, they were both a set of cruel and bloody bigots…neither had the least idea either of toleration or humanity…’. The inevitable consolation for Scott is in the implied nineteenth century comparison.

The figure of Old Mortality in the novel represents what little residual heritage Scott perceives, or would like to perceive, is left of seventeenth century fanaticism. We come across Old Mortality as Peter Pattieson strolls through a graveyard;

An old man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered Presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the   inscription, which, announcing, in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain, anathematised the murderers with corresponding violence (290).

If Scott’s vision of history is one in which a conciliatory balance is always sought after, here he brings to life a character with values completely opposed to his own. This passage represents another significant instance of Scott’s use of ekphrasis. Just as Old Mortality is employed in preserving the memory of the Covenanters, so Pattieson, and Scott set themselves a task which equally involves preserving the past. Yet whereas as Old Mortality wishes to reawaken old conflicts in the present ‘generation of vipers’, Scott wishes to leave such conflict firmly in the past, whereupon the Enlightement project of understanding historical influence can take place. Old Mortality’s ‘peculiar opinions’ are laughed off and eventually edited out of the anecdotes that Pattieson will use to construct the main narrative. Old Mortality is for Pattieson a ‘singular’ character, both in the sense of novel from an antiquarian’s point of view, and literally singular, the last of his kind, a remnant. He is associated, quite explicitly, with death. He dies soon after he appears in the narrative, leaving his work in preserving the memory of the Covenanters to ruin and decay (34). Pattieson’s story is a ‘re-chiselling’ of a new history onto what Pattieson, and Scott see as an old history of Whig bias: with this new story, Scott seeks to overcome the distortions of the Whigs and their persecutors and to forge a position epistemologically superior to their mutually destructive fanatacisms.

The conclusion of Old Mortality seems ambivalent as to whether such a position of superiority, a position where the past has been laid to rest and conflict ceases, has been achieved. The marriage between Henry Morton and Edith Bellenden in the last line is so quickly dealt with as to seem almost ridiculous. In comparison to the constant to-and-fro of the novel it seems out of place, bathetic. It is tempting to see it as a parody of the marriage in Waverley. Scott then ends the book with a conversation between Pattieson and his gossiping friend Miss Buskbody the draper, who is only able respond to the romance elements in Pattieson’s text. The ‘Conclusion’ is on one level a throwaway piece of levity, a dig aimed at the superficiality and escapism Scott attached to readers of romance novels. On a deeper level the ‘Conclusion’ is a commentary on the failure to fictively interpret and manage the destructive forces of the past. Scott is conscious of his version of history in Old Mortality as precisely that, his own version of history determined by the limits of his literary historiography. There seems to be real uneasiness concerning the degree to which the dead past will stay suitably dead, the degree to which a novel which is intended to be explanatory and reassuring has succeeded in these aims.

You have been reading about the ways in which Waverley and Old Mortality are simultaneously dictated by an Enlightenment historiography of ‘progress’ and a drive to consider what constitutes the particular historiography behind literary productions of the past. I have emphasised Scott’s philosophy of mediation and balance, which, in some respects, seems to stand at odds with historical veracity. The structures of these two novels allow for partial viewpoints to stand in close proxy to each other without one viewpoint necessarily overwhelming the other. This is a supremely rational way to approach a subject for understanding. In these novels, Scott is able to make his own value judgements and yet avoid dogmatism: ultimately his debates remain ambivalent and open ended. In each novel the terms of the argument are again refigured. Scott may structure his narratives so that his characters end with their faces turned bravely towards a progressive future, but at the opening of each new novel the future turns out to have again acquired the features of a barbaric past which, once more, has to be expunged from the kingdom of progress.


3 Responses to “The Waverley Novels”

  1. Juan Manuel Ruiz Jayme July 29, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    Hi.Alasdair peoples your works about Edinburgh are very helpfull to me because I`m learning to move in your languague,your articles are not only funny .They are interesting,have a lot of idiomsand they meke the opotyunity to see a new culture besides improve my English
    Best wishes
    Juan Manuel Ruiz Jayme

    • @alipeoples July 29, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

      Thank you Juan that is very flattering, good luck with your English!

  2. Delia William February 16, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    seemingly a minority opinion. Scott does, however, attempt to be comic, or at least to follow the conventions of the picaresque novel. The comments on the relay of information via Dyers Weekly Letter, the self-explanatory name of the lawyer, Clippurse, Sir Everard’s desire and courting of the youngest sister, Lady Emily, all point in this direction.

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