Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fortnightly Book, April 22

Sir Walter Scott originally made his name in poetry, and was in fact offered the office of Poet Laureate, although he turned it down (Southey got it instead). Scott had been researching the traditions of the Scottish Borders for a considerable time, and he seems to have toyed with putting some of it in a fictional form to make it more immediately interesting without finding, for quite a few years, anything that he thought worked. But in 1814 he published, anonymously, an attempt at this: Waverley, or 'Tis Sixty Years Since. He seems to have enjoyed the anonymity, even at times discussing with other people who could possibly have written it, although close readers who were familiar with his poetry recognized the similarity of poetry in the work, so it didn't last very long. The book has been criticized from the beginning for its unevenness, as well as the extremely gradual way in which it builds (e.g., the entire first chapter is about the title). But it became sensationally popular, and it marks a significant turning point in the wholly unexpected twist by which the laureled genre of English literature stopped being the poem and became the novel. Scott himself just liked a rousing story -- he had no pretensions to writing great art in his novels/romances and regularly compared himself negatively to authors like Maria Edgeworth. But posterity has consistently regarded Scott as underselling his talent. He was the first fantastically popular novelist who was also a widely lauded poet, and although he mostly just tossed off his novels, his sense of language was such that for the first time people started taking seriously the full potential of the novelistic romance.

Waverley takes us to Scotland in the Forty-Five. A number of Jacobite risings have already failed, but Bonnie Prince Charlie has come, and the Jacobite future is more promising than it has ever been before. Edward Waverley, a young man with dreams of glory from an English family with Jacobite sympathies, travels north and soon finds himself in the thick of it. We know, of course, that it will all fall apart, but what will happen to Edward when it does? It will all depend on a crucial split-second choice that he makes at the Battle of Prestonpans.

I will be reading Waverley in a Heritage Press (New York) edition. It's a nice-looking book, with tan cover printed with a pattern alternating thistles and crowns. The book itself uses laid paper rather than wove paper -- laid paper has more of a texture because, as the Sandglass says, "the dandy-roll which flattened the wet pulp was equipped with wires which left their impression in parallel lines that are clearly visible when a leaf of the book is held up to the light." The typeface, fittingly enough, is the Waverley typeface; the type has no connection to the novel beyond happening to share the same name, but it works very nicely. The book has illustrations from pencil, both black-and-white and colored, by Robert Ball (not to be confused with the English illustrator Robert Ball).

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