I have very mixed feelings about the introduction to my edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley; I’ve read only part of it, as I don’t like to hear an editor’s thoughts on the plot and characters until I’ve finished the novel, but I do like to read about the author’s life and context, so from that section of the introduction, I can quote a bit I found immensely annoying:
Scott’s triumph became a triumph for the form he wrote in. The novel gained a new authority and prestige, and even more important perhaps, a new masculinity. After Scott the novel was no longer in danger of becoming the preserve of the woman writer and the woman reader. Instead it became the appropriate form for writers’ richest and deepest imaginative explorations of human experience.
Yes, it’s the idea that women’s concerns are narrow and small, things that no man need worry about, but men’s concerns are wide and rich and universal. And heaven save us from those ubiquitous women writers and readers who are always threatening to take over everything. What the hell? The introduction was published in 1972, which is not to excuse it because of its relatively early date, but to wonder why Penguin couldn’t bother to get a less sexist editor in all that time.
The editor somewhat redeems himself with his discussion of Scott’s faded reputation. Scott was immensely, hugely popular in his time and was surely one of the most influential novelists of the 19C, so what happened? The editor claims that the 20C’s reaction against Victorianism and especially against Romanticism is to blame. His comparison of Scott and Austen is useful; he describes how his fortunes fell as hers rose:
Where Jane Austen is strong, Scott is weak: her careful sense of form and structure against his slack and slow-moving narrative procedures; her superb control of the complexities of tone against his pedestrian heavy-footedness; her profoundly ironic vision of human nature and human society against his complacent conventionality of attitude; her flexibility of language and style against his stilted, formal rhetoric.
I’ve been trying to imagine a world where Scott is valued more highly than Austen, and I can’t quite do it; it’s very hard for me to see why not everyone in all times and all places would see the genius of Austen and the lesser light of Scott as I do, but maybe that’s just me. Oh, wait — I haven’t actually read Scott yet. Mustn’t rush to judgment.
I’ve begun the first few chapters, and … well … they aren’t that good. I found them kind of obscure and hard to follow. But I know things will get improve and I fully expect to enjoy the book. As Sandra has rather wonderfully pointed out, 19C novels don’t tend to begin with a bang.