Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Introduction to Walter Scott's Waverley

I have very mixed feelings about the introduction to my edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley; I’ve read only part of it, as I don’t like to hear an editor’s thoughts on the plot and characters until I’ve finished the novel, but I do like to read about the author’s life and context, so from that section of the introduction, I can quote a bit I found immensely annoying:

Scott’s triumph became a triumph for the form he wrote in. The novel gained a new authority and prestige, and even more important perhaps, a new masculinity. After Scott the novel was no longer in danger of becoming the preserve of the woman writer and the woman reader. Instead it became the appropriate form for writers’ richest and deepest imaginative explorations of human experience.

Yes, it’s the idea that women’s concerns are narrow and small, things that no man need worry about, but men’s concerns are wide and rich and universal. And heaven save us from those ubiquitous women writers and readers who are always threatening to take over everything. What the hell? The introduction was published in 1972, which is not to excuse it because of its relatively early date, but to wonder why Penguin couldn’t bother to get a less sexist editor in all that time.

The editor somewhat redeems himself with his discussion of Scott’s faded reputation. Scott was immensely, hugely popular in his time and was surely one of the most influential novelists of the 19C, so what happened? The editor claims that the 20C’s reaction against Victorianism and especially against Romanticism is to blame. His comparison of Scott and Austen is useful; he describes how his fortunes fell as hers rose:

Where Jane Austen is strong, Scott is weak: her careful sense of form and structure against his slack and slow-moving narrative procedures; her superb control of the complexities of tone against his pedestrian heavy-footedness; her profoundly ironic vision of human nature and human society against his complacent conventionality of attitude; her flexibility of language and style against his stilted, formal rhetoric.

I’ve been trying to imagine a world where Scott is valued more highly than Austen, and I can’t quite do it; it’s very hard for me to see why not everyone in all times and all places would see the genius of Austen and the lesser light of Scott as I do, but maybe that’s just me. Oh, wait — I haven’t actually read Scott yet. Mustn’t rush to judgment.

I’ve begun the first few chapters, and … well … they aren’t that good. I found them kind of obscure and hard to follow. But I know things will get improve and I fully expect to enjoy the book. As Sandra has rather wonderfully pointed out, 19C novels don’t tend to begin with a bang.

7 comments:

Emily Barton said...

Sometimes it's very interesting to read those old introductions, isn't it? But you're right. Why no update at this point? I'm enjoying Scott's Lady of the Lake immensely and have been wondering if his skill with poetry translates well to his novels. Maybe not, based on your initial reaction?

Imani said...

Ugh! That bit sounded perfectly horrible. I know of one Penguin Classics edition -- Sense and Sensibility by Austen, as it turns out -- that carried a ludicrous introduction but was accompanied by an excellent Tony Tanner essay at the end of the book. I took the second as Penguin's implicit apology for the first (since I've never come across another Classics edition with two essays). I wonder why they didn't see fit to do something similar (or get rid of it altogether)?

As for the horrible S&S intro essay the writer started out by analysing each Austen novel as though it were her child. Ooo did the alarms start to shriek at that point. Never finished the horror.

ted said...

"her superb control of the complexities of tone against his pedestrian heavy-footedness"

I love this.

I've always found heavy-handed/footedness to be the least desirable quality in a novelist. He was not very kind to Scott in this intro...

Dorothy W. said...

Emily -- yeah, although 1972 isn't that terribly old, and he really doesn't have an excuse. And I do think the novel will improve -- I'm glad you're enjoying his poetry.

Imani -- really? Austen's children?? Good lord.

Ted, well, he's nicer in other parts, but he sure does recognize Scott's weaknesses well, doesn't he?

Emily Barton said...

I know. That was my reaction, too: 1972?? But then, I thought about how someone who wasn't exactly "young and hip" might be in 1972, and it made some sense. (I remember considering writing a whole paper when I was an undergrad on an extraordinarily sexist introduction to Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, because it was written, I think, in the 1960s). Still, a bit hard to believe, isn't it? And even harder to believe that the editors at Penguin have done nothing to correct it.

obooki said...

You should have bought the cut-price Penguin Popular Classics version, which has the virtue of having no introduction at all. It does have an author's life though.

Eva said...

Wow-that quote was prety ridiculous! Kind of funny that he then discussed Austen; she's a pretty quintessential (sp?) woman-author, domestic-issues kind of writer!