Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. Next post from me will be a projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 Draft, going up Tuesday.
Walter Scott’s Waverley has earned praise from a diverse group of writers from Jane Austen to the Marxist philosopher György Lukács and was 84th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, all based on its status as one of the first historical novels as well as a major social document about the second-class status of Scottish people within the United Kingdom during the 1700s. Perhaps it’s my modern sensibilities or merely my age showing, but I found Waverley‘s dated prose an incredibly slow read, for the language itself, for the bland story, and for Scott’s circuitous route to every point, no matter how minor.
The novel revolves around the title character, a sort of latter-day Tom Jones whose adventures are less bawdy and more political, as he becomes wrapped up in the Jacobite rebellion and ends up fighting for Charles the Pretender in his failed attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne. Edward Waverley is more or less cast aside by his ambitious biological father and reared instead by a Jacobite-leaning uncle who gives his ward a cursory education and encourages him to join the army to find a vocation befitting his birth. On leave from the army, he finds himself introduced first to a band of Highland bandits and then to the chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor, who leads one of the units in the ragtag revolutionary army seeking to install the young Charles as king. It’s all a hell of a lot less interesting than this sounds, though, as the title character has very little personality of his own and is as much witness as participant in the major historical events within the book.
Waverley, fundamentally a work of historical fiction (the subtitle is “’Tis Sixty Years Since”), incorporates elements of the picaresque through side characters, from Miss Nosebag, all up in everybody’s business, to the fatuous Baron Bradwardine, who peppers his speech with bons mots from sundry foreign tongues. That makes the book a little lighter, but it’s never actually funny, and the funny-name characters (according to Roger Ebert, funny names themselves are never funny) delivery some pretty obvious jokes. The book needed some levity amidst all the grandstanding about English oppression in ol’ Caledonia and a rather uninteresting love triangle, but one-joke side characters don’t cut it.
Scott strongly emphasizes Scottish history, culture, and even dialects, sprinkling the book with Scottish-English vernacular and rendering many characters’ speech phonetically, which served as yet another obstacle to working through his sentences. He originally published the novel anonymously despite his established reputation as a poet, likely because he didn’t want to be associated with the work of verbal quicksand he’d produced. (He failed, as writers and critics apparently recognized his voice immediately.) I understand that the subject matter and his even-handed treatment of both peasants and gentry would have seemed novel at the time, but 200 years later it’s unremarkable and didn’t do anything to sustain my interest.
Perhaps I’m the last person to criticize an author for long sentences, but I imagine Scott served as an inspiration for Proust, or perhaps an excuse (“Well, if Wally Scott could go 60 words between periods, why can’t I go 80?”). The length of the sentences, the heavy use of dialect and phonetic spellings, and the fact that long stretches of the book go by with nothing happening made it a tough slog – in fact, I started reading it in the fall of 2010, put it back on the shelf, and started over last week. If it wasn’t on the Novel 100 I probably would have given up a second time, this one for good.
Next up: I just finished Graham Greene’s tragicomic spy novel The Honorary Consul this morning.