Sunday, August 09, 2015

Fortnightly Book, August 9

It will be some time before I have a chance to finish the Arabian Nights, so we move on to something else in the meantime: Ivanhoe: A Romance, by Sir Walter Scott. A work of historical fiction published in 1820, the novel is arguably one of the most influential novels ever written in the English language, contributing to the nineteenth-century renaissance of interest in the Middle Ages and contributing in a major way to the course of the Romantic movement in England. Probably the strongest rival candidate is the novel that started the series of which Ivanhoe is a part, namely, Waverley.

Sir Walter Scott was a poet, particularly interested in Scottish ballads, whose reputation was established by the highly popular The Lay of the Last Minstrel, published in 1805. He ventured into novel-writing as a different way of using the material he had collected about Scottish oral culture -- but novel-writing, unlike poem-writing, was not particularly respectable. So he published his novels anonymously. As time went on, it became obvious to those who happened to read both that Sir Walter Scott was the author of novels like Waverley, Rob Roy, or The Bride of Lammermoor, but Scott continued to publish in official anonymity even when it was unofficially obvious who he was. The author listed on the title page of the first edition of Ivanhoe was "'The Author of Waverley' &c." Only in 1827, thirteen years after Waverley had come out, could anyone get him to admit in public that he was indeed the author of the Waverley novels, possibly because he was undergoing severe financial hardship. He died heavily in debt in 1832, but his novels sold well enough that they covered everything he owed shortly after his death.

Highly popular in his day, his reputation underwent a slow decline in the late nineteenth century and a nearly complete collapse in the early twentieth. Since then his reputation has slowly increased, with the past few decades restoring a fair amount of critical interest in him and his place as a major and influential innovator of the novel.

He is, incidentally, one of the Scotts behind the expression "Great Scott!" The expression seems to have started independently, although knows for sure the original, and would often be applied to others named Scott, but there was a period during which it was heavily associated with him. Mark Twain, for instance, repeatedly uses it in this sense as part of any number of jokes puncturing Scott's reputation -- most famously in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which is a satire of exactly the kind of medieval historical romance Scott made famous.

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