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Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (14 August 1771-21 September 1832) was a prolific Scottish historical novelist and poet popular throughout Europe during his time.

In some ways Scott was the first author to have a truly international career in his lifetime, with many contemporary readers all over Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, Australia, and North America.

His novels and (to a lesser extent) his poetry are still read, but he is far less popular nowadays than he was at the height of his fame. Nevertheless many of his Works remain classics of English literature. Famous titles include The Heart Of Midlothian.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1771, the son of a Scottish solicitor, the young Walter Scott survived a childhood bout of polio that would leave him lame in his right leg for the rest of his life. To restore his health he was sent to live for some years in the rural Scottish Borders region at his grandparents' farm at Sandyknowe. Here he learned the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends which characterized much of his work. Also, for his health, he spent a year in Bath, England.

After studying law at the University of Edinburgh, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a lawyer in Edinburgh. As a lawyer's clerk he made his first visit to the Scottish Highlands directing an eviction. He was admitted advocate in 1792. He had an unsuccessful love suit with Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn, who married Sir William Forbes.

Literary career launched

At the age of 25 he began dabbling in writing, translating works from German, his first publication being rhymed versions of ballads by Burger in 1796. He then published a three-volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy Of the Scottish Border. This was the first sign of his interest in Scotland and history from a literary standpoint.

Scott then became an ardent volunteer in the yeomanry and on one of his "raids" he met at Gilsland Spa Margaret Charlotte Charpentier (or Charpenter), daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon in France whom he married in 1797. They had three children. In 1799 he was appointed Sheriff-Depute of the county of Selkirkshire, based in the town of Selkirk.

In his earlier married days, Scott had a decent living from the monies he earned at the law, his salary as Sheriff-Depute, his wife's income, some revenue from his writing, and his share of his father's rather meagre estate.

After Scott had founded a printing press, his poetry, beginning with The Lady Of the Lake set in the Trossachs, portions of which (translated into German) were set to music by Franz Schubert. One of these songs, Ellens dritter Gesang, is popularly called "Schubert's Ave Maria".

Another work from this time period, Marmion, produced some of his most quoted (and most often mis-attributed) lines. Canto VI. Stanza 17 reads:

Yet Clare's sharp questions must I shun,
Must separate Constance from the nun
Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
A Palmer too! No wonder why
I felt rebuked beneath his eye;

In 1809 his Tory sympathies led him to become a co-founder of the Quarterly Review, a review journal to which he made several anonymous contributions.

The Novels

When the press became embroiled in pecuniary difficulties, Scott set out, in 1814, to write a cash-cow. The result was Waverley, a novel which did not name its author. It was a tale of the "Forty-Five" Jacobite rising in the United Kingdom with its English protagonist Edward Waverley, by his Tory upbringing sympathetic to Jacobitism, becoming enmeshed in events but eventually choosing Hanoverian respectability. The novel met with considerable success. There followed a succession of novels over the next five years, each with a Scottish historical setting. Mindful of his reputation as a poet, he maintained the anonymous habit he had begun with Waverley, always publishing the novels under the name "Author of Waverley" or attributed as "Tales of..." with no author. Even when it was clear that there would be no harm in coming out into the open he maintained the facade, apparently out of a sense of fun. During this time the nickname "The Wizard of the North" was popularly applied to the mysterious best-selling writer. His identity as the author of the novels was widely rumoured, and in 1815 Scott was given the honour of dining with George, Prince Regent, who wanted to meet "the author of Waverley".

In 1819 he broke away from writing about Scotland with Ivanhoe, a historical romance set in 12th-century England. It too was a runaway success and, as he did with his first novel, he unleashed a slew of books along the same lines. As his fame grew during this phase of his career, he was granted the title of baronet, becoming Sir Walter Scott. At this time he organised the visit of King George IV to Scotland, and when the King visited Edinburgh in 1822 the spectacular pageantry Scott had concocted to portray George as a rather tubby reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie made tartans and kilts fashionable and turned them into symbols of national identity.

Financial woes

Beginning in 1825 he went into dire financial straits again, as his company nearly collapsed. That he was the author of his novels became general knowledge at this time as well. Rather than declare bankruptcy he placed his home, Abbotsford House, and income into a trust belonging to his creditors, and proceeded to write his way out of debt. He kept up his prodigious output of fiction (as well as producing a non-fiction biography of Napoleon Bonaparte) until 1831. By then his health was failing, and he died at Abbotsford in 1832. Though not in the clear by then, his novels continued to sell, and he made good his debts from beyond the grave. He was buried in Dryburgh Abbey where nearby, fittingly, a large statue can be found of William Wallace- one of Scotland's most romantic historical figures.

Assessment

From being one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century, Scott suffered from a disastrous decline in popularity after the First World War. The tone was set early on in E.M. Forster's classic "Aspects of the Novel" (1927), where Scott was savaged as being a clumsy writer who wrote slapdash, badly plotted novels. Scott also suffered from the rising star of Jane Austen. Considered merely an entertaining "woman's novelist" in the 19th century, in the 20th Austen began to be seen as perhaps the major English novelist of the first few decades of the 19th century. As Austen's star rose, Scott's sank, although, ironically, he had been one of the few male writers of his time to recognize Austen's genius. Scott's many flaws (ponderousness, prolixity, lack of humor) were fundamentally out of step with Modernist sensibilities. Nevertheless, Scott was responsible for two major trends that carry on to this day. First, he essentially invented the modern historical novel; an enormous number of imitators (and imitators of imitators) would appear in the 19th century. It is a measure of Scott's influence that Edinburgh's central railway station, opened in 1854 for the North British Railway, is called the Waverley Station. Second, his Scottish novels followed on from James Macpherson's Ossian cycle in rehabilitating the public perception of Highland culture after years in the shadows following southern distrust of hill bandits and the Jacobite rebellions. As enthusiastic chairman of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh he contributed to the reinvention of Scottish culture. It is worth noting, however, that Scott was a Lowland Scot, and that his re-creations of the Highlands were more than a little fanciful. His organisation of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 was a pivotal event, leading Edinburgh tailors to invent many "clan tartans" out of whole cloth, so to speak. After being essentially unstudied for many decades, a small revival of interest in Scott's work began in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, postmodern tastes (which favoured discontinuous narratives, and the introduction of the 'first person' into works of fiction) were more favourable to Scott's work than Modernist tastes. Despite all the flaws, Scott is now seen as an important innovator, and a key figure in the development of Scottish and world literature.

Scott was also responsible, through a series of pseudonymous letters published in the Edinburgh Weekly News in 1826, for retaining the right of Scottish banks to issue their own banknotes, which is reflected to this day by his continued appearance on the front of all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland.

Many of his works were illustrated by his friend, William Allan

Sir Walter Scott books