Introduction to Sir Walter Scott: Works of Historical Fiction

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  • 0:06 Sir Walter Scott
  • 1:33 Early Life and Poetry
  • 3:35 Novels
  • 9:34 Scott's End and Legacy
  • 10:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

In his life, Sir Walter Scott was both a lawyer and a poet, though it's when he started to write historical novels - anonymously - that his work really took off. Watch this video to learn all about the man credited with creating a whole genre of fiction.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott time! In his day, Sir Walter Scott was one of the most popular writers around. You probably haven't heard of him, and that's because in the time since then, history hasn't been as kind to Scott's work as it has to some of his contemporaries. That's really a shame because a lot of it's great. There's an important thing that Walter Scott's really known for, and that's his historical novels, or a fictionalized novel set in a real historical period. The Help or The Kite Runner are more recent historical novels. He was really at the forefront of that genre, so he's an important figure in literature even if his work isn't as well-known now as maybe it could be or should be.

Scott didn't start off writing historical novels. Actually, in the time period that he wrote - the early 19th century - novels were considered an inferior form of literature for expressing important historical stories; poetry, especially epic poetry, really dominated that role. Still, Scott was able to create a successful career for himself even while embracing this supposedly lesser form, and in doing so, he managed to write a few of the real heavy hitters of the English language.

I know it might be surprising to think of novels as not being revered during Walter Scott's time because I think they really are a much more respected art form now, but that's really the truth at the time. It's important to keep in mind that when Scott was writing these works, it was a really exciting (dare I say novel) thing to do!

Early Life and Poetry

From his earliest days, Scott was obsessed with stories. As a very young child, he went to live with his aunt Jenny in the rural Scottish Borders to recover from a lameness that was brought on by polio (and I mean 'lameness' as in inability to move, not like he was not cool). While he was living with his aunt Jenny, he learned about many of his country's folktales and legends that would have a big influence on his later works.

At the age of 12, he attended the University of Edinburgh to study classics - 12 was young to go to college back then, by the way, but not as young as it seems now (he wasn't a Doogie or anything). He gained an extensive knowledge of poems, romantic tales and history, though all of this was put by the wayside for a while when, at the ripe old age of 18, he, instead, entered the family profession of law.

But Scott never let go of these early influences in his development. When a friend of his was founding a printing press in 1796, it seemed as good a time as any for Scott to embrace his early love of stories and get to work on creating some of his own. His first published work was a translation of some German poems. A few years after that, Scott's first original work made clear that he had a real interest in Scottish folklore - the stories that he had been told as a child. There was a three-volume set called The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a collection of ballads based on Scottish Border tales.

A number of poems followed for Scott, like The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a narrative poem about a sixteenth century Scottish border feud, and Marmion, an epic poem about a sixteenth century battle between the Scots and the English. These works and more led Scott to becoming a really extraordinarily popular figure in both Scotland and England at the time. He was even offered the position of England's Poet Laureate in 1813, but he declined.

Novels

After a while, Scott began to feel that with all of the knowledge he had collected about Scottish history and Scottish culture, perhaps a longer form than poetry might actually suit his interests and his writing style better. We already mentioned that novels were frowned upon in Scott's day, but this didn't deter him - he published his first novel in 1814. Maybe he's not quite as brave as I'd like to believe, because he did publish it anonymously. This first novel was called Waverley, and it was set during the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. What, you don't know what the Jocobite Uprising of 1745 is? Fine. I'll tell you. It was a conflict in which the followers of a deposed English/Scottish king violently attempted to return him to a throne others most vehemently did not want him to have. Pretty exciting stuff - you might see how that could be good fodder for a historical novel - kings and unhappy peasants, a lot of violence and upheaval - exciting stuff for reading.

This novel Waverley was so popular that Scott was able to kick out a new novel every one to two years for a while, and they kept selling, which is great because making a living as a writer is not easy at any time in history. He also kept publishing those books anonymously, and they were only attributed to 'the author of Waverley,' which led all these subsequent novels to be commonly referred to as 'The Waverley Series' or 'The Waverly Novels'. Scott finally revealed that he was the author of the Waverley books in 1827, but it wasn't that big of a deal - a lot of people already had suspected that for a long time, so maybe not quite the big reveal he had hoped for.

We should spend a little time talking about a few of Scott's most popular novels individually so you'll get a sense of the kind of plots that he favored - I think you might notice some consistencies. In general, you might notice that all of these books are full of characters (often with very intricate family relations) who are usually caught up in some twisting, potentially confusing plots like any soap opera you've ever seen.

That's because major historical events provided the skeleton to all of Scott's work. So, for those of us who might be unfamiliar with Scotland's tumultuous history, some of these conflicts with their many political and religious allegiances can be hard to follow - it's true. If anything, though, that should give you an idea of the grand scope of Scott's novels. He had his sights set on these really major events that had a big impact on his country's history. He liked important characters and sweeping action.

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