Walter Scott at 250: so much more than a great historical novelist


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Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Wander through Edinburgh and you will find glimpses of Scotland’s most famous novelist, Walter Scott, everywhere: pubs named after characters or places in his books, his walking cane and slippers in The Writers’ Museum, and snippets of his work adorning the walkways of Waverley train station – named after his first and most famous novel. And just outside, towering over Princes Street Gardens, his statue stands beneath an elaborate monument affectionately dubbed the “Gothic Rocket”.

Built in 1840, eight years after his death at the age of 61, the Scott Monument captures the immense regard in which Scotland held this international bestselling writer and son of Edinburgh. Scott’s adventurous historical stories, set against a dramatic backdrop of brooding mountains, dark lochs and lush glens, brought a vision of Scotland to the world that captured the popular imagination. The gripping tale of the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy has never been out of print since it was published in 1817.

As his friendly rival Jane Austen once quipped, Scott had two careers in literature. He quickly became Europe’s most famous poet in 1805 with the immediate success of his first narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the tale of two lovers on opposite sides of a clad feud.

A 1810 book-length versification of King James V’s struggles with the powerful clan Douglas, The Lady of the Lake would have secured his legacy on its own. Selling 25,000 copies in eight months, it broke records for poetry sales and brought its setting, the picturesque Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, to the attention of a fledgling tourism industry.

Stunning winter view of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs from the summit of Ben A'an
Scott’s most famous poem Lady of the Lake is set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, and drew people to the area.
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Big fat novels

Scott also wrote songs and collected ballads for posterity, but after the success of his poetry, he turned to novel writing in his 40s. For nearly 20 years he produced a series of fat novels, which spread his reputation around the globe further still. Although dabbling in the gothic and picaresque styles popular at the time, Scott favoured historical themes, not only set in Scotland but also England, France, Syria and elsewhere, as far back as the 11th century.

Nobody before Scott had devoted so much space to Scottish characters and interests, on such a massive scale – not even 18th-century novelist and poet Tobias Smollett. Scott traversed the Scotland of 14th-century Perthshire and the Highlands of 1745, and gave a voice to the lairds and rustics alike.

Picture of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh under a bright blue winter's sky.
Edinburgh’s Scott Monument.
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These days, Scott’s writing has fallen out of fashion thanks in part to the sheer length of the novels. Arguably his best, The Heart of Midlothian still packs an emotional punch: Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister awaiting execution for the alleged murder of her baby. But, in keeping with the drawn-out journey, the story does suffer from slow pacing.

Waverley, Scott’s exploration of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, lends itself to political as much as literary analysis. And while it delivers stunning set pieces, some of them featuring Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, its first few chapters drag a little. But Scott rewards loyal readers with rich historical detail and sublime settings.

Master of the short story

Fortunately for the casual reader, Scott was more than a novelist. He was also a master of the short story, and wrote 17 or so shorter fictions, many of which have been all but ignored by scholars who prioritise the major novels. Five of his best short pieces can now be read for free online.

Scott contributed at least two stories to Blackwood’s Magazine, the leading literary periodical in Edinburgh: The Alarming Increase of Depravity Among Animals and Phantasmagoria. The first is a sort of true-crime animal fable in which animals are complicit in wrongdoing; the second, a bizarre Gothic pastiche in which the narrator (a sentient shadow) is far more interesting than the benign story it offers.

Another, Wandering Willie’s Tale, is delivered by a blind piper, revolving around the grisly death of a despotic laird and some missing money. A hellish underworld, a demonic monkey, a blatantly biased narrator: such things make the story wildly unpredictable – and far removed from the grand jousts and royal intrigues found in his historical novels.

The Tapestried Chamber is an ingenious ghost story in which the ghost barely features, but it still sends shivers down the spine, such is Scott’s gift for building atmosphere through dialogue. Where novels seek closure, typically with happy endings, short stories can leave plotlines unresolved. Novels comfort us, short stories can confront.

Although Scott is rarely thought of as a short story writer today, in 1827 he did produce a collection of short fiction, Chronicles of the Canongate, in which two standout pieces merit a wide audience: The Two Drovers and The Highland Widow. Here, Scott is perhaps at his most political, in the real sense: focused not on battles and courts but on everyday life.

The first follows a Highlander and a Yorkshireman on their journey south into an increasingly hostile environment. Initially their cultural differences are countered by a mutual love of music. But, tired of the casual xenophobia thrown at him, the Highlander kills his colleague. The suddenness of the act startles the reader, especially those used to the slower pacing of the novels.

The Highland Widow captures the conflicted mood of a young lad who, seeking better fortune, enlists in the Black Watch to the fury of his staunchly Gaelic mother. Drugging her son so he misses his appointment, she dooms him to military execution, and herself to a hermit-like existence. Although written in a sentimental style popular at the time, the story finds much to say about national tensions, military occupation, and cultural conflict in the lives of post-Union Scots.

For the modern reader Scott’s short stories are far bleaker than you might imagine, and they are all the more riveting for it. Gothic rocket indeed.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize: Milosevic ‘apologist’ award serves as a reminder that reform of the academy runs slowly


Kaley Kramer, Sheffield Hallam University

Fresh from the controversy of having to “postpone” awarding the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, due to a series of scandals that left the prize committee in disarray, the Swedish Academy – which gives out the literature prize – courted controversy again, naming Austrian novelist Peter Handke, as its laureate for 2019.

Over the past two decades, Handke has come in for savage criticism for his support for Serbia in the Balkans War in the 1990s and for delivering a eulogy at the funeral of convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in 2006. In the same year, he withdrew his nomination for the Heinrich Heine prize before it could be revoked by politicians. There were also protests in Oslo after he was awarded the Ibsen Prize in 2014.

Less controversial, is the decision to award the delayed 2018 prize to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. She is the 16th woman and the fifth Polish writer to be named as a literature laureate. The judges described her as “a writer preoccupied by local life … but looking at earth from above … her work is full of wit and cunning.”

The pair receive 9m Swedish krona (£746,678), which – the judges confirmed – represents the full amount for each year’s prize money.

Scandal strikes

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been mired in controversy for two years after several members of the committee resigned in 2018 following allegations of financial and sexual misconduct. French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault – whose wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, was a committee member, was accused of rape in 2017 and was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2018. His wife left the academy earlier this year after allegations of conflict of interest and the leaking of Nobel winners’ names.




Read more:
Nobel Prize crisis: flurry of withdrawals rocking Swedish Academy’s showpiece literature award


At the time, the executive director of the Nobel Foundation, Lars Heikensten, said is was important the Swedish Academy “quickly solves their problems. If they manage to do that in a way that restores confidence, they will be able to continue to award the Nobel Prize in Literature”.

Whether or not the academy has heeded the implied threat in Heikensten’s words, it seems quite ambitious to demand a “quick” solution. Over the year, several additional points of needed reform have been suggested, from revising the statutes to reconsidering the eligibility criteria for the award.

Lofty ideals and purity of spirit

The Nobel Prize in Literature is one of the more mysterious awards. According to the will of the founder, Alfred Nobel, the prize is awarded to writers who “have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

This has been interpreted since in different ways. French poet Sully Prudhomme, who won the first literature Nobel in 1901, was awarded for his poetry’s “lofty idealism”, while Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson won in 1903 for “the rare purity of [his poetry’s] spirit”. The following year, French writer Frédéric Mistral was awarded for “fresh originality and true inspiration”. The first female literature laureate, Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (1909), was given the prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”.

Quite what Nobel meant by an “ideal direction” has never been decisively stated and the academy has, over time, selected and discounted work depending on a very fluid consensus on how the term might be understood and applied.

Most recently, Tokarczuk was awarded for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. Meanwhile, the judges said Handke won “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”.

An ‘ideal direction’

The “ideal direction” that the prize should take, particularly after 2018, has been less ambiguous. As of yesterday, only 15 of 116 literature laureates have been women. And the desire for a “global distribution” of prize winners is equally out of step with the actual awards – winners from the global North overwhelmingly dominate the list of laureates, as do white writers. Works written in English have also been dominant – 29 laureates published their work in English and the next most awarded language is French at 14.

Things have changed, slowly, since the 1980s. Laureates have become more diverse in nationality and language, while eight of the 15 female laureates were awarded between 1991 and 2015.

The need for reform of the academy and Nobel prize judging had been building for some time. The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by Gustav III, is comprised of 18 members who were until 2018 elected for life and were not permitted to resign their position. There had, however, been a number of withdrawals – in 1989, two members quit the academy after it refused to condemn Iran after it issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. In 2005, academy member Knut Ahnlund quit in protest at the decision to give the 2004 prize to Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek whose work, he said, was “static and completely engulfed in cliché”.

Academy members can now voluntarily resign, which means that the seats of those who have withdrawn can be filled with new members. This will at least ensure regular injections of fresh blood and new energy. But real reform in the literary prize industry, if this year’s selection for the Nobel Prize is any indication, remains slow – and what is meant by “reform” is as vague as Nobel’s “ideal direction”.The Conversation

Kaley Kramer, Deputy Head of English/Principal Lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.