Reviewed by David J. Marcou
By Sir Walter Scott
Available in many editions, both soft and hardcover
British Romanticism thrived during the early Industrial Age, led by such poets as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats; painters such as Constable and Turner; and novelists like Sir Walter Scott.
The two Sir Walter Scott novels (part of his famed Waverly series) most popular today are Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. Ivanhoe is one of Scott’s most complex yet effective writings, evoking vivid images of what Britain must have been like from the Middle Ages to early Renaissance.
The first great author of historical romances, Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771. After graduating from Edinburgh University, he was admitted to the bar in 1792. From 1799 until his death in 1832, he was sheriff of Selkirkshire, and from 1806-30 he was also principal clerk to the chief Scottish civil court. In addition, from 1805 on, Scott was a secret and controlling investor in the Ballantyne brothers’ printing businesses.
Despite having polio early, conflicts in his teens with his lawyer father, romantic rejection in his 20s (moving on to marry Charlotte Carpenter, who bore him five children, the first dying soon after birth) and near financial ruin in his 50s, Scott proved an energetic translator, poet and novelist. His first significant original work, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), began his series of narrative poems focusing on events and settings from Scottish history.
After declining the poet laureateship in 1813 (recommending Robert Southey instead), Scott moved into fiction. Waverly (1814) and its sequels fictionalized the political, social, economic, cultural, military and religious conflicts of Scottish history. Some novels in that series, beginning with Ivanhoe (1819), even extended back into the England of the Middle Ages.
This is an adventure story. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a Saxon knight returned from the Crusades still loyal to Richard Plantagenet. It is filled with colorful figures, both fictional and historic, fair and foul: Richard the Lion-Hearted; the beautiful Jewess Rebecca; her father, Isaac; beloved and beautiful Rowena; Cedric the Saxon; Robin Hood and his Merry Men; the infamous Prince John; Knight Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert; helpful hag Urfried; loyal manservant Gurth; and the simple jester Wamba.
The conflict Ivanhoe faces is between “ancient” and “modern” fealties—not so much Norman versus Saxon or Jewish versus Christian, but humane versus inhuman. Or more simply, good versus evil. It is an imagined world striving to be modern in the face of prejudices and fantasies, virtues and vices. Jousts are fought on many levels, and despite its trials, good triumphs in the end.
Scott was something of a righteous knight himself. Created a baronet in 1820, he nearly became insolvent during the financial crisis of 1825-26 along with his printer (Ballantyne) and his publishers (Constable, et al.). He chose not to declare bankruptcy and instead worked hard to pay his debts. Despite failing health, he continued to write new novels, as well as revise and annotate earlier ones. He also wrote a nine-volume Life of Napoleon and a four-volume history of Scotland (Tales of a Grandfather).
Sir Walter Scott’s creditors were paid from his literary proceeds soon after his death, and his works are still read and revered today. Despite the cynicism of our modern world, perhaps we still like to be reminded that there are timeless virtues.