Monday, July 21, 2014

History, Novels, and the Historical Novel by Rachel of Bookishly Witty

Today please welcome Rachel of the blog Bookishly Witty!  Rachel is going to attempt to get you to read an author most frown at the thought of reading.  She just might succeed!  Check it out:

Guess the following author:

He was a successful poet before embarking on a sweeping literary project that spanned many volumes. He drew on such sources as Shakespeare's plays and medieval and Renaissance verse and romance for inspiration and insight. And he changed the way we think about "The Novel" forever.

That's right, I'm talking about Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Now, whenever I mention this name, there's bound to be someone within earshot who rolls the eyes and sighs "booooooooooring," or looks confused and says, "hrnhh?" And to be honest, both of these reactions pain me, pain me deeply. For Scott didn't just write a few books about Scotland, based on some old tales and historical scraps. No indeed. He gave us a detailed, imaginative chronicle of a people that transcends time and space. In the characters of the Waverley novels, we see those fears and desires that drive people around the world to reach back into the past for a sense of community, which tends to get lost in the chaos of swift technological and social change, especially in the 19th century. And it is for these (and many more) reasons that Scott had such a profound influence on such writers as Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot.

But what, after all, is historical fiction? At first glance, it is simply the blending of historical events and fictional narrative. Since no one can really know what a former time-period was like, though, we must guess at the thoughts and feelings of historical figures, from queens and innkeepers to lawyers and artists. When a writer chooses, for instance, to write a story about a past event or person, they must decide how much liberty to take with the subject matter. After all, inhabiting a famous person's brain and making them say things of which there's no record takes courage and imagination.

We see this in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (1999), in which such towering historical figures as Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur are made to speak and interact with fictional characters, all in the service of Stephenson's story about encryption and codes during WWII and our own time. Ultimately, writers like Stephenson, James Michener, Geraldine Brooks, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others ask us to acknowledge that, no matter how objective-sounding and fact-filled a history textbook might be, it can never truly express all facets of life during a time-period far removed from our own. We might learn who fought in which battle, but only the historical novel can take us into the minds of specific soldiers or enable us to feel like participants in a certain historical moment.

But back to good ol' Walter Scott. How did I become so interested in him? Well, we were assigned Ivanhoe in middle school, and I read it without understanding much of it, but it stayed with me. I tried again in high school, and enjoyed the frank, energetic prose that marks Scott's style. I was also intrigued by the fact that Scott dealt with such issues as the plight of Jews in 12th-century England in a work otherwise focused on the monarchy and shifting political allegiances. And then...while at my in-laws' house several years ago, I noticed a beautiful collected edition of Scott's works (over 40 volumes)- you know, the kind that was published a century or so ago, with delicate pen-and-ink illustrations sprinkled throughout. I guess my jaw was kind of scraping the ground, because my in-laws wound up giving me the entire collection when they were doing some spring cleaning. They knew I would read it, and it would have a home amongst my hundreds of other well-loved and cherished books. And they were right.


Scott's tales of Highlanders, doomed lovers, and monarchs set within their specific historical contexts (and with appropriate dialect) have provided a powerful blueprint for how a historical novel might be crafted. His Bride of Lammermoor was even turned into an opera, which in turn was worked into various late-19th-century American novels interested in questions of class, culture, and art. Scott's extensive knowledge of literary forms, classic texts, and the history of his own people inspired him to launch a new kind of novel. So, off you go- grab yourself a copy of a Scott novel, if you've never read him before. And enjoy.


  1. I love Walter Scott! I think I had a crush on Ivanhoe when I was 8 or 9!

  2. I have never read Scott, but you've got me curious!!


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