Historical Authenticity in the Waverley Novels

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Author: David Brown
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 5,604 words

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[(essay date 1979) In the following excerpt, Brown views Ivanhoe as Scott's most self-conscious attempt to resolve the problems posed by an artistic approach to history.]

Scott's Dedicatory Epistle to Ivanhoe

Redgauntlet raises again one of the crucial questions facing readers of the Waverley Novels: what constitutes 'realism' in the historical novel? Robert Gordon puts the problem in a nutshell by asking: 'what are we to make of Redgauntlet where a rebellion that never occurred is defeated by an imagined act of royal forgiveness?'1 In what sense can these totally fictitious events be called 'historical' at all?2 What grounds are there, if any, for Gordon's subsequent critical judgment that the effect of Scott's inventiveness here is actually 'not escapist but realistic in the profoundest sense?' The defence of Scott's audacity made in the previous chapter rested on certain assertions which require substantiation. Similarly, Scott's defensible fabrications have somehow to be separated from effects which, in other novels, damage the credibility of the whole genre.

These theoretical questions pertain to all historical novels. The problem of authenticity arises from the nature of the historical novel itself, and as the founder of the genre Scott naturally wrestled with its problems. However, with the exception of a short, analytical passage at the beginning of Waverley, Scott's approach to the question of historical authenticity in the major Scottish novels seems to have been intuitive rather than conscious. The turning point is Ivanhoe, written in 1820 and the result, apparently, of Scott's fear that the public was tiring of 'Scottish manners, Scottish dialect, and Scottish characters'.3 Certainly, in breaking with the Scottish milieu in Ivanhoe, Scott's imaginative grasp of his material was for the first time revealed as insecure, and he may have faced the problems posed by the novel theoretically in the Dedicatory Epistle because he felt he had been unable to solve them in practice, in the novel itself. The result is that the Dedicatory Epistle is only superficially a defence of Ivanhoe: Scott's confident style fails to conceal his own doubts. In a sense, the Dedicatory Epistle actually draws attention to the faults in Ivanhoe, since the response to the novel of the public at large was enthusiastic: Scott admitted that 'it would be ungrateful not to acknowledge that it met with the same favourable reception as its predecessors'.4 The Epistle's lasting interest is in the extent to which Scott identifies the theoretical problems of the historical novelist. It is therefore worth considering the points he makes there in some detail, before suggesting tentative answers of our own to the questions raised.

Scott opens with two possible criticisms of Ivanhoe arising from the novel's setting in twelfth-century England.5 He first puts forward the point of view which holds that the secret of the previous Waverley Novels' success lay in their Scottish author's unique national standpoint--his familiarity with the periods and localities of which he was writing: 'All those minute circumstances belonging to private life and domestic...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420105285