ne day in December 2001 when Philip V. Allingham was visiting Singapore as a Victorian Web Fellow, we were discussing the possibility of his creating materials on Sir Walter Scott. In the midst of our conversation, I raised the question broached four decades ago by Robert Preyer in his graduate seminar at Brandeis University: "What did the Victorians see in Sir Walter Scott?" Why were his novels and poems so important in the Victorian years? In short, why did the Victorians love Scott? Why, too, did his popularity continue until well into the twentieth century? I know that my father, who was born in 1909, in his later years could still recite passages from Marmion that he had been made to commit to memory in primary and secondary school, and my wife and I, who attended high school during the 1950s, remember reading Ivanhoe.
Some reasons for Scott's tremendous appeal to the Victorian and later readers, as Philip points out, derives in part from the Scottish author's "vast learning and his imaginative handling of plot, character, and setting." Scott's "sheer erudition, that was so utterly convincing, his command of a great range of dialects within spoken English, and an infallible sense of formal English usage" all contribute to his Victorian reputation. A more fundamental answer to our basic question can be found in what Philip's observation that the story "The Highland Widow" contains a fundamental
contrast between the nostalgic yearning for a heroic and romantic past and the necessary acceptance of England's respect for the authority of law for Scotland's future. The conflict between these national characteristics, as in many of Scott's novels, is the cause of the tragedy. The deep-seated national pride, the rugged independence and individualism, and heroic determination of the Highlander fall to the disciplined power of the English.
Victorians loved Scott, in other words, not only because he was a wonderful storyteller but also because he brought them romance, exoticism, and adventure but reassured them that the English middle class orderly way — their way — was the way of the future. Scott's historical settings, effective use of dialect, and often tragic action offered guiltless, non-threatening indulgence in adventure and romance. Unlike the Pugin, Carlyle and Ruskin, all of whom used the middle ages to attack contemporary society and its beliefs, Scott allowed the Victorians to have their cake and eat it — - though shouldn't it be, "eat their cake and have it?" Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, his books permitted readers access to vanished worlds of wonder, worlds that no longer fit in present-day existence. Therefore, as Philip also points out,
For those of a Liberal, progressive bent such as Dickens and Macaulay, Scott's Waverley Novels demonstrated the inevitable triumph of English capitalist, middle-class, representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, scientific rationalism, and industrial technology. Scott himself, as readers of the novellas "The Highland Widow" and "The Two Drovers" can readily appreciate, was somewhat ambivalent about the necessity of Scotland's being subsumed by England under the banner of "The United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Part of that ambivalence appears in Scott's "establishing the convention that the story's romantic principals should speak standard English rather than dialect." But the Victorian reader would have experienced that convention, one assumes, as yet another instance of what we can see as Scott's assurance to Victorian readers that their modernity was the wave of the present and future.
Last modified 30 December 2001