The historical novel celebrates 200 years, thanks to Sir Walter Scott

BY Lorna Baldwin  July 7, 2014 at 2:33 PM EDT
Sir Walter Scott's home, Abbotsford, in the Scottish Borders was built in the Scottish Baronial style.  It's where Scott wrote his world-famous

Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish Baronial-style home Abbotsford is where the author wrote his world-famous “Waverley” novels. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

In July 1814, no one knew whose words they were reading exactly, but they read “Waverley” in such volume that the initial printing of 1,000 copies sold out in two days. Set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the historical novel tells the story of a young English soldier, Edward Waverley, sent north to Scotland to fight with the Redcoat army. Love gets in the way, and Edward’s passion for the feisty Highlander Flora leads him to join the Jacobites’ fight.

By November of 1814, “Waverley” was in its fourth printing and had become a runaway international success, all without the benefit of an author’s name on the title page.

Sir Henry Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822. Owned by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822, on display at the National Galleries of Scotland.

The author was widely believed to be Sir Walter Scott, at the time better known for his poetry — of the “Oh, what a tangled web we weave” variety.

“Waverley” was something new for Scott. He’d started it years earlier, put it away in a drawer and forgotten about it until late 1813. Then, in a three-week burst of creativity, he finished the second and third volumes at his new home in the Scottish Borders, Abbotsford.

The book was received with almost universal acclaim, and nearly every reviewer guessed it was written by Scott. Even some of his readers knew. Jane Austen wrote to her niece Anna in September 1814:

“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.  – It is not fair.  – He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.  – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must.”

Scott didn’t admit to authoring “Waverley” until 1827, by which time he’d written a slew of other historical novels, largely in a bid to dig himself out of heavy debt from the collapse of his printer and publisher. Many of the novels were set in Scotland. ”Rob Roy”  and ”The Bride of Lammermoor,” among others, helped export the romanticized vision of tartan, castles and heather-covered Highlands that persists to this day.
 

Scott's study was one of the last rooms at Abbotsford to be finished.  The desk is where he wrote the

Scott’s study was one of the last rooms at Abbotsford to be finished. The desk is where he wrote the “Waverley” novels. Image by Flickr user Bernard Blanc.

From his perch in his study at Abbotsford, Scott churned out dozens of works of this new genre in high demand. His books were among the most popular and widely read around the world for over a century. Scott welcomed fellow authors to his home, including the American writer Washington Irving. His library of 9,000 books reflected his global reach.

Some of the 9,000 books in Sir Walter Scott's library at Abbotsford. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Some of the 9,000 books in Sir Walter Scott’s library at Abbotsford. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Jason Dyer, director of development at Abbotsford, maintains Scott’s work is still relevant and important. “Through his novels and through his wider legacy, he is often credited as the man who reinvented Scotland as we know it today,” Dyer said.

“His works romanticized the Scottish landscape and Scottish history and this turned Scotland from being seen as a backward part of the British Empire, into a noble and majestic country. Through his works, tourists began to visit Scotland en masse.”

After Scott’s death in 1832, Abbotsford became a stop for literary pilgrims devoted to European Romanticism. Queen Victoria visited in 1867, writing in her diary:

“We went through some passages into two or three rooms where were collected fine specimens of old armour, etc., and where in a glass case are Sir Walter’s last clothes. We ended by going into the dining-room, in which Sir Walter Scott died, where we took tea…”

Scott spent the final few days of his life in the dining room, where a bed was made up for him in the window alcove overlooking the River Tweed. He'd suffered a series of strokes and died on September 21, 1832 at the age of 61. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Scott spent the final few days of his life in the dining room, where a bed was made up for him in the window alcove overlooking the River Tweed. He’d suffered a series of strokes and died on September 21, 1832 at the age of 61. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Scott incorporated gargoyles, or grotesques, into Abbotsford because of his interest in the supernatural, and to scare away evil spirits. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Scott incorporated gargoyles, or grotesques, into Abbotsford because of his interest in the supernatural, and to scare away evil spirits. Image by Lorna Baldwin.

Today, 40 percent of overseas visitors to Abbotsford are American. The house was reopened in July 2013, after a two-year, $20 million restoration. As for “Waverley,” to commemorate its 200 years in print, a newly adapted edition has been published by Jenni Calder, 50,000 words shorter than the original in a bid to lure in more modern readers to Scott’s work.