Intro to Walter Scott’s Waverley

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

5 responses to “Intro to Walter Scott’s Waverley

  1. Too bad about the introduction. Hope the novel picks up quick and you end up enjoying it!

  2. Oh, now that intro about women writers might just put me off the whole book altogether. What a pompous S***. I haven’t had a major urge to read him, so I am curious how you will like the novel. And it is very true that some novels really take a while to get into. Sometimes I feel like I expect too much too soon and it isn’t fair to judge a book by its first few pages. Sometimes it takes chapters for the story to get moving, but once it does it’s great.

  3. Gotta love academic sexism. It would have been more useful for him to discuss the fact that concerns over the “feminization” of the novel were pervasive at the end of the 18th/early 19th centuries. (Instead the editor seems to have bought into that way of thinking himself!) Recent scholars have been discussing the ways that Scott and the historical novel represent an attempt to “masculinize” novel writing by incorporating traditionally “male” forms of writing, such as philosophy and history. The conversation between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke over the French Revolution really illustrates the heated nature of the debate over what constitutes “real” writing and whether novels should even have a say in the public sphere. What gets really fun, in my opinion, is that women were also writing historical novels (i.e. Maria Sedgwick) so that complicates things quite nicely. I’ll be reading Waverly this semester for my Romantic Era Novel course, so I’ll let you know what we come up with! Sorry for the length of the comment and the rampant use of quotation marks. Perhaps if Jane Austen fans descended on Penguin en masse we could get them to find a new introduction?

  4. Oh, that introduction is outrageous!

    I haven’t read any Walter Scott myself so I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Waverley.

  5. Stefanie — I’m certain it will pick up; I’m used to these slow openings — 18C and 19C authors very often begin with a rather dull but informative survey of the hero/heroine’s life, education, family, background, etc.

    Pompous s*** indeed, Danielle! I agree. I’m probably more impatient with slow openings in recent books, but in the earlier ones I expect it.

    Sarah — now that would have made for a very good introduction — considering the gender dynamics of publishing at the time, but this editor wasn’t up to it. The argument about “masculinizing” the novel sounds interesting — let’s start including things in the novel the women don’t know about to take the genre away from them! Yikes. Do share what you learn about Waverley when you get there — I’m happy to get your long comment!

    Jess — outrageous is the word for it. I’ll be certain to let you know what I think!

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