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Which, being an exquisitely fine novel, Waverley

July 31, 2009

Waverley is the fourth of Sir Walter Scott’s novels I have read, and had I started to read it first, as I might have done, as it was Scott’s first novel, I’m not sure I would have continued to read it, and that would surely have been my loss. I now understand the hazards inhering in the preference of facts over narrative — most especially, beautiful narrative that envelops facts that reveal a complex story, a portrait gallery of the factions playing out the conflict between the English government under King George II and the passionate Jacobites, and a veritable catalog of typologies in the near-flesh — until the reader, even the most fact-obsessed reader who would rather skip the beauty of the narrative, soon has no choice but to concede that the beauty has, like gift wrap that is as gilt and wondrous as the gift, become an end in itself.

I cannot back off from saying that Waverley was a slow starter for me. It did not begin with immediately engaging action, as did The Heart of Midlothian and Ivanhoe. Waverley begins more beautifully than Old Mortality, and Old Mortality compelled endurance; thus, a fortiori, Waverley compelled it more. I had already learned to trust Scott, so if he presented Edward Waverley as a kind of erudite flake, I simply knew that, surely to goodness, Scott was not going to require me to find a hero in a flake.

Early on, when Waverley is a new Dragoon in full regalia for the first time, and a young lady beneath his station has dressed to impress him, Scott avails himself of being irresistibly proverbial:

There is no better antidote against entertaining too high an opinion of others, than having an excellent one of ourselves at the very same time.

Waverley, like Old Mortality‘s Henry Morton, is not heroic in spite of who he is; he is heroic because he sets out to encounter circumstances that require him to engage the full substance of his being. The birth and honor he so highly values contribute to this, and so do his talents, education, and the graces of his compassion and empathy. At first, I was afraid he was just a handsome rich guy with the leisure to acquire a taste for poetry and music; but Waverley is, in the comprehensive English sense, a gentleman. Waverley has military competence but he is a man of peace. His ethos is not that of a soldier, even though he is a very good soldier. For a soldier, war is life. For Waverley, war is so you can go home to your life.

Waverley was not a natural rebel, and the Jacobite rebellion was not for him a cause of passion. He was in it for the people. He met some Jacobites and he loved them. There was a Jacobite tradition in his family, and that, and the love he bore for his Jacobite friends, was sufficient justification for him to join the rebels.

From the desultory style of his studies, he had not any fixed political opinion…

Waverley’s ingenuousness as to the Jacobite cause, compared to the treacherously obsessive passions driving the Jacobites, served him well as a prisoner of war, and Scott takes this opportunity for, pardon the expression, a teachable moment.

The inexperience of youth, Mr. Waverley, lays it open to the plans of the more designing and artful… from your apparent ingenuousness, youth, and inacquaintance with the manners of the Highlands, I should be disposed to place you among the former.

Waverley is not unaware of his condition.

I shunned to bear my own share of the burden, and wandered from the duties I had undertaken, leaving alike those whom it was my business to protect, and my own reputation, to suffer under the artifices of villainy. Oh, indolence and indecision of mind! If not in yourselves vices, to how much exquisite misery and mischief do you frequently prepare the way!

As Waverley’s great Highland friend and comrade in arms, Fergus Mac-Ivor, notes, “you are not celebrated for knowing your own mind very pointedly.”

In Edward Waverley, Scott casts the romantic. In Fergus and Flora Mac-Ivor, the author models the idealist. Flora rejects Edward’s offer of courtship because the focus of all her passion is the restoration of a Stewart on the throne of England. The realm of the idealist is a realm of pure abstraction. Manifest existence would crash the whole system. When her beloved brother Fergus is to be executed for high treason, Flora says,

“I do not regret his attempt because it was wrong! Oh no! on that point I am armed; but because it was impossible it could end otherwise than thus.”

A happy ending is as inevitable as Fergus Mac-Ivor’s death, and to attain a happy ending, the romantics must win, and they win with a flourish in Waverley.

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