Thursday, September 13, 2007

I forgive you Walter Scott

Remember how I was complaining that the opening of Waverley is a bit slow? Well, Walter Scott has read my thoughts and kindly apologized:

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probable, without it … Those who are contented to remain with me will be occasionally exposed to the dulness inseparable from heavy roads, steep hills, sloughs, and other terrestrial retardations; but, with tolerable horses and a civil driver … I engage to get as soon as possible into a more picturesque and romantic country, if my passengers incline to have some patience with me during my first stages.

Thank you for the warning! I’m not quite to the “picturesque and romantic country” yet, but I’m certain I’ll get there and this novel will be fun — it surely was so popular for a reason. Can you imagine a contemporary author asking for the reader’s patience in this way? Yes, the novel will be dull in places, but bear with me; I promise there’ll be good bits.

Actually, there are good bits even in the introductory chapters; the very first chapter doesn’t begin the story at all but is a discussion of the novel’s title, and if you know me, you’ll know I can’t resist this kind of novelistic navel-gazing. What he’s doing in discussing the title is placing his novel in its context amongst other novels of the period. He found the choice of “Waverley” relatively simple, but his subtitle plagued him for a while. He considered “Waverley, a Tale of Other Days,” but that sounded too Radcliffean; if he had used that subtitle:

… must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited, and the keys either lost, or consigned to the care of some aged butler or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts?

He considered “Waverley, a Romance from the German,” but then readers would have expected:

a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trap-doors, and dark-lanterns.

“Waverley, A Sentimental Tale” would have meant (this one is particularly good):

a heroine with a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage, although she herself be sometimes obliged to jump out of a two-pair-of-stairs window, and is more than once bewildered on her journey, alone and on foot, without any guide but a blowzy peasant girl, whose jargon she hardly can understand.

And the last one, “Waverley, A Tale of the Times,” which must have involved:

a dashing sketch of the fashionable world, a few anecdotes of private scandal thinly veiled, and if lusciously painted, so much the better.

Sorry for all the quotations, but I find them irresistible. Scott gets away with both establishing what his own work does and doesn’t do, and making fun of the stereotypes of the fiction of his time. What he settles on is “Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since,” a time not so long ago as to be exotic nor so recent as to make people think they are reading a commentary on modern times. Instead, the time period allows him to put the focus on his characters and on their passions, instead of on their context. He wants characters likely to be seen as universal types, and he decides this is the best way to achieve them.

So, yes, after that wonderful opening chapter and with the promise of excitement to come, I’m willing to put up with a little dullness.

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