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  • 10/18/2003

Sir Walter Scott

(August 14,1771-September 21,1832)

"Love rules the court, the camp, the grove,
And men below, and saints above;
For love is heaven, and heaven is love."
(From The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1805)

Sir Walter Scott was a prolific Scottish historical novelist popular throughout Europe.
Born inEdinburgh in1771, the young Walter Scott survived a childhood bout of polio that would leave him lame in his right leg for the rest of his life. After studying law atEdinburgh University, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a lawyer in his nativeScotland. Beginning at age 25 he started dabbling in writing, first translating works fromGerman then moving on to poetry. In between these two phases of his literary career, he published a three-volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. This was the first sign of his interest in Scotland and history from a literary standpoint. In1797 he married Charlotte Carpenter, with whom he had five children.
After founding a publisher, his poetry brought him fame, beginning with "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" in1805. He published a number of other poems over the next ten years, including the popular "Lady of the Lake" in1810, portions of which (translated into German) found their way intoSchubert's "Ave Maria".
Faced with financial difficulties with his publishing company, in1814 he set out to write a cash-cow. The result was the anonymously published novel Waverley. It was a tale of the lastJacobite rebellion in theUnited Kingdom, the "Forty-Five", and a considerable success. There followed a large set of novels in next five years, each the same general vein. Mindful of his reputation as a poet, he maintained the anonymous habit he had begun with Waverley, always publishing the novels under the name "Author of Waverley" or attributed as "Tales of..." with no author. Even when it was clear that there would be no harm in coming out into the open he maintained the façade, apparently out a sense of fun. During this time the nickname "The Wizard of the North" was popularly applied to the mysterious best-selling writer. His identity as the author of the novels was widely rumoured, however.
In1820 he broke away from writing about Scotland withIvanhoe, a historical romance set in 12th-century England. It too was a runaway success and, as he did with his first novel, he unleashed a slew of books along the same lines. As his fame grew during this phase of his career, he was granted the title of baronet.
Beginning in 1825 he went into dire financial straits again, as his company nearly collapsed. That he was the author of his novels became general knowledge at this time as well. Rather than declare bankruptcy he placed his home,Abbotsford, and income into a trust belonging to his creditors, and proceeded to write his way out of debt. He kept up his prodigious output of fiction (as well as producing a non-fiction biography ofNapoleon Bonaparte) through 1831. By then his health was failing, and he died in1832. Though not in the clear by then, his novels continued to sell, and he made good his debts from beyond the grave. He was buried inDryburgh Abbey where nearby, fittingly, a large statue can be found ofWilliam Wallace -- one of Scotland's most romantic historical figures.

Scott was responsible for two major trends that carry on to this day. First, he popularized the historical novel to a considerable extent, and an enormous number of imitators (and imitators of imitators) would appear in the 19th century. It is a measure of his influence that the main train station in downtown Edinburgh (dating back to Victorian times) is called Waverley Station. Second, his Scottish novels rehabilitated Highland culture after years in the shadows following the Jacobite rebellions. It is worth noting, however, that Scott was a Lowland Scot, and that his recreations of the Highlands were more than a little fanciful. It is known that he invented many clan tartans out of whole cloth, so to speak, for a visit byGeorge IV to Scotland in 1822. Nevertheless, even though he is less popular these days, the echoes of Waverley and its sequels still reverberate in modern times. Scott was also responsible, through a series of pseudonymous letters published in the Edinburgh Weekly News in 1826, for retaining the right of Scottish banks to issue their own banknotes, which is reflected to this day by his continued appearance on the front of all notes issued by theBank of Scotland.

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