Friday, September 14, 2007

Compelled to Read the Novels of Sir Walter Scott

I did a bit of googling today to see if I could find a quick answer to the question of how exactly Sir Walter Scott's "Waverly novels" are connected to one another. Inspired by Dorothy W.'s recent foray into Scott, I’m poised to dive into The Heart of Midlothian and I thought a bit of context was in order. Alas, I wasn't able to find an answer that easily. But I did stumble upon a gem of a letter written to the editor of the Connecticut Mirror in 1824. The particular Scott novel to which the writer of the letter refers is none other than The Heart of Midlothian. It's a long letter, but I can't resist reproducing it in its entirety:

THE WAVERLY NOVELS (from the Connecticut Mirror, August 23, 1824, p. 3, col 2)

The Waverly Novels.--A subscriber in the country has given us the following account of the effect of the Waverly Novels in his family.--

To the Editor of the Mirror--

I have been compelled, almost in self-defence, to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. They cost me some "days in harvest," and I may find the balance against me in the spring; but it is not the mere loss of my own time that I regret. I brought the novels into the house, and something was directly at loose ends. There was neither breakfast, dinner, nor supper. The butter did not come--the soap did not come--the wheel stood still--the fire went out--there was neither sewing, spinning, nor knitting--the cows want milked--the cattle want foddered--the hogs want fed. It was catching weather and I had ten tons of hay down. Some of my hands had gone off--more were wanted--one cart had broke down, and it began to rain. The news was told to me in as quick succession as it was to Job. My wife insisted I must go, but I told her I would wait to see how Jenny Deans came out with the Duke of Argyle, if there wasn't a lock of sweet hay made in the country this season. But I soon found there was no stopping-place in the book--so I put it down, but was not fairly out of the room before my wife had taken it up and turned back to a place marked with a thread. I contrived to read it through, and on Saturday night, about sun-down, I found my wife a little way advanced in the second volume.--She is usually a strict observer of Saturday night, but she read till after candle-light.--The girls got the tea and cleared it off. My wife put by the book, but after musing sometime, asked me when it was on Saturday night that holy time commenced. "Sundown," said I. "It seems to me," said she, "that I have heard some people say it did not begin till midnight." "The evening and the morning," said I, "was the first day." "Ay, but which evening." "Why," said I, "[i]f it was the first day, it must have been the first evening." "That's true," said she, "I wonder there ever could have been a question about it."

By this time one of the girls was peeking into the book. "Shut it up and sit down, it's Saturday night."

Holy time, however it might begin, ended the next day pretty punctually at sunset, when the reading again commenced, and continued till I know not what time in the night, for I had been abed and asleep.

The next day our worthy Parson paid us a visit, and surprised my wife with the novel in her hand. She hastily laid it down, but not till she was caught by the Parson's question "what book it was," which she was obliged to answer not quite so glib as I have sometimes known her[.] The Parson took so fair an occasion to warn against the corrupting influence of novel reading. It consumed time, destroyed seriousness, gave false notions of things, and endangered morals.

I was about trying to help my helpmeet out of the scrape, when she did it much better herself, by telling the Parson that there was no magic in names, and there was a great difference in novels, as he might [b]e convinced if he would read the book, the first volume of which she offered him. He sent it home, however, the next day, with a civil request for the loan of the second.

I directly perceived that the perusal of the book must go through my family as strait as the small pox, so I determined they should all have a fair chance:--my laborers, and my folks in the kitchen, not forgetting the dogs. I then placed my three boys in a row, and made them read by turns, as they do at school, determined that the audience should have enough of it, and sit patiently 'till they were cured of novel reading. The youngest boy answered my purpose admirably. He made such work of the Scotch, and the poetry, and the pauses and the sense, that if the Author himself had been by, I would not have desired to put him in greater pain. And the eldest did pretty well for some time, till he caught the run of the story, when I found myself taken in by my own contrivance.--He varied his tones, noticed the pauses, and came very near the style of an actor. It was with me a moment of weakness, and my unlucky wife suggested the propriety of sending him to college. To make short of a long story, my family have turned heroes and heroines, and speak Scotch quite broad. The youthful reader is to go to College and be made a master of--Ravenswood--with a small chance for a little learning, and a pretty sure inheritance of poverty.

The letter may not be genuine. It has been speculated that it was penned by the then-editor of the paper in which it appeared. But I have no doubt that the phenomenon it describes--an all-consuming enthusiasm for the novels of Sir Walter Scott--was a genuine one. It reminds me of nothing so much as accounts that I read this summer of whole families collectively reading the final instalment in the Harry Potter series aloud.


Dorothy W. said...

A gem of a letter indeed! Genuine or not, that letter was amusing: "sit patiently 'till they were cured of novel reading"!

My edition of Waverley says that all Scott's novels were published anonymously and the ones after Waverley said "by the author of Waverley" on the title page, which the editor says is the source of the phrase "the Waverley novels" and that the phrase covers all of Scott's fiction.

Kate S. said...

Thanks for clarifying the meaning of the tagline "the Waverly novels." I was puzzled by the disparate range of books to which I'd heard it applied that didn't seem to me to have an obvious connection to one another. But I didn't realize it was applied to all of them! How interesting for an anonymous author to have nevertheless had a distinct identity as the author of a body of work. Clearly the marketing of the work didn't suffer for lack of an author to market alongside it! Different times...

Veronica Mitchell said...

Love the letter. I hope it's real.

I have not been able to enjoy Scott's novels as much, though. My husband and I tried reading Ivanhoe aloud to each other, but never finished (I had read it on my own before, though). His redundancies like "with hasty alacrity" got to be too much.

Didn't Frederick Douglass choose his last name from a Scott novel?