Writing One’s Own Story with Walter Scott

Your author’s quill commands no life to grow
The codex mute remains in dusty gloom
’Till, tripping lightly thro’ the antique stacks
A bookworm sings themselves in unison
With inky song.
                                   Old Play [1]

In 1816, the anglophone literary sphere was reeling from a trilogy of historical novels by the ‘Author of Waverley’, when a rival series appeared on the market. Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816 and advertised confidently as the author’s final work) were suddenly challenged by the Tales of my Landlord, which were introduced via the spurious persona of Jedidiah Cleishbotham, the parish-clerk and schoolmaster of Gandercleugh. Who, the reading public was invited to wonder, was this new anonymous author capable of emulating Waverley and its instantly canonical sequels?

Of course, the Tales of my Landlord were immediately recognised by Francis Jeffrey as ‘a new coinage from the mint which produced Waverley, Guy Mannering, and the Antiquary’.[2] And for all his lingering anonymity, Walter Scott had been touted widely (though not universally) as the man behind Waverley from its first reviews in journals including the Antijacobin, the Critical Review and the Monthly Review. It was all Scott, who was in the process of developing a rotating cast of pseudonymous identities. Underlying the specific ruse of 1816, Scott had switched publishers from Archibald Constable in Edinburgh and Longmans in London to work with William Blackwood and John Murray on the Tales of my Landlord. But when the copyright for the 1819 fifth edition of the series was sold to Constable, this enabled all the author’s novels to date to be formally collected as Novels and Tales of the Author of Waverley in December 1819.[3]

That important moment in Scott’s career preceded his formal, public avowal of the Waverley Novels, which Scott performed by subscribing his name to the introduction to Chronicles of the Canongate (1827).[4] At the distance of two centuries, it is difficult fully to recapture the significance of that revelation, however perfunctory the actual unmasking had become by 1827. That Walter Scott, the most popular poet publishing in the English language until he was surpassed by Lord Byron in the mid-1810s, was also the ‘Author of Waverley’ (not to mention his poorly disguised rival behind the Tales of my Landlord) reflects a unique level of prominence that he would sustain over much of the nineteenth century.

It is the occasion of this post, then, to wish Scott a happy 250th birthday. Born in Edinburgh’s Old Town on Thursday 15th August 1771, Scott went on to become the single most influential author in the anglophone library culture of the nineteenth century, and is thus a major landmark for the research of ‘Books and Borrowing’. My recent work on the Wigtown Subscription Library, for example, has found that Scott accounted for a whopping 19% of all borrowings between 1828 and 1836, and we expect to see comparable patterns at equivalent institutions such as the Kirkwall Library. Previous posts have commented on the stranglehold exercised by the historical survey works of Charles Rollin on the reading diet of the eighteenth-century Scottish universities, but even that is far outstripped by Scott’s period of remarkable popularity.

Scott’s works also have much to say about the act of reading. The Pirate, which was completed by November 1821 and published the following year and so is currently wearing its bicentenary glow (if I may be excused for mixing celebrations), features in the character of Norna of the Fitful Head one of Scott’s key archetypes. As an unstable and tragedy-stricken woman who maintains her social power through a supernatural aura, she is a riff on the gypsy Meg Merrilies from Guy Mannering (1814). At the same time (and unlike Meg who operates in an oral culture) Norna’s arcane knowledge is derived to a significant degree from her ‘confused collection of books in various languages’.[5] In this respect she recalls another character from Guy Mannering, Dominie Sampson, whose complete absorption in books is a key expression of his abstraction from society. At the end of The Pirate, Norna redemptively gives up her occult studies for the Bible, a safer form of reading. But her young relative Minna Troil embodies an additional corrective, since, although she has inherited Norna’s intimacy with nature, Scott tells us that ‘the knowledge which is derived from books was beyond her reach’ (22).

Scott thus presents a view of reading as a powerful form of derangement through characters such as Norna and Dominie Sampson, the latter of whose personality merges with his beloved antiquarian books. Sampson throws himself ‘body and soul’ into ‘the arrangement of the bishop’s library’ acquired by Mannering, becoming a physical manifestation of quixotism with his arms swinging ‘like the sails of a wind-mill’ (109). Guy Mannering’s own semi-playful study of astrology is another take on this bookish theme in the same novel, in which Scott also lays considerable stress on the reading habits of Guy’s daughter, Julia Mannering.

Evolving the famous handling of Edward Waverley’s dangerously romantic reading in the previous year’s novel, Julia’s role in the narrative is constantly a question of her literary exposure (and her own letter-writing), which is traced back as far as her mother’s own addiction to ‘romances’ that bled into real-life ‘complicated intrigues’ (95). With her lively, quizzing personality, Julia is an embodiment of the supposedly gossipy, feminine qualities of the novel as a genre: as she puts it, ‘I jingle on my unfortunate harpsichord, and begin at the end of a grave book and read it backwards’ (160). Part of what Scott is getting at, it seems, are the similarities between such ‘trifles’ and the ‘abstruse and mystic studies’ of Mannering or indeed Sampson as forms of alternative or augmented reality in a novel chock-full of formative, volatile reading experiences.

In one of Guy Mannering’s chapter epigraphs, Scott refers to an ‘author, who, placing his persons before ye, | Ungallantly leaves them to write their own story’ (91). The fanciful notion of characters writing their own stories blends seamlessly in this novel into a vision of readerly agency. In doing so, it raises a philosophical question in Scott’s oeuvre: to what degree do books make people? How much are Julia Mannering and Dominie Sampson drawn into their reading habits because of underlying characteristics, and how much are those characteristics the outcome of prior reading? In what Scott calls Sampson’s ‘originality’ (104), for example, he seems to be describing what we might now consider a neurodevelopmental disorder in behaviour that cannot be fully accounted for through books but is channelled into them. Equally, the foundational handling of Waverley’s education mediates carefully between the boy’s underlying ‘propensity’ and the contingencies of his early experience including book selections. [6] Similar versions of the nature/nurture conundrum are available again and again in the Waverley Novels, stories that foreground reading in the makeup of their characters as well as their plots.

In the ‘Introductory Epistle’ to The Fortunes of Nigel, another of the fruits of 1821 (published 1822), Scott offers some of his richest and most densely self-mythologising material on literary culture, including the memorable description of the author as simply a ‘postman who leaves a packet at the door’ for the reader to deal with as they see fit.[7] In the main plot, Margaret Ramsay is in the Julia Mannering role: ‘Romances have cracked her brain!’ complains Dame Ursula, whose own role in propelling the narrative is troped as an act of reading: ‘it will be a dim print that I will not read for your sake’ (102-3).

At the novel’s crisis, the titular Nigel Olifaunt is hiding out in the house of Trapbois the usurer in the London underworld of Whitefriars, when he asks for a book to pass the time. Having been informed of a scarcity in the house (aside from a Bible, there is only ‘Whetstone of Witte, being the Second Part of Arithmetic, by Robert Record, with the Cossike Practice and Rule of Equation’), Nigel is eventually fetched ‘God’s Revenge against Murther’, the publication details of which Scott discusses in friendly confidence with his ‘bibliomaniacal reader’ (266-7). Nigel becomes engrossed in the volume – ‘the narratives, strange and shocking as they were to human feeling, possessed yet the interest of sorcery or of fascination’ ­(267) – and still has the book in his hands when he is disturbed in his chamber by Trapbois, setting the scene for the older man’s shocking murder. In other words, the horrific contents of the book escape into the world of the novel, such that reading becomes indistinguishable from reality, which (at least in this fictional realm) is constituted like a hall of mirrors.

Nigel, it is important to note, is a certain type of reader: having recently left his study of ‘humane letters’ in Leyden to attend to his family affairs, he lacks worldly knowledge but possesses a robust moral compass (126). King James VI and I is another: fond of extravagant displays of erudition but easily distracted by whimsy, providing the centrepiece as Ian Duncan has recently discussed for a culture of gossip in the Fortunes of Nigel. The fact that these people read, and what they read, plays its part in the social and political history of the early seventeenth century. Reading is not simply shorthand for personality types in Scott (though it certainly is that), but also an instrument of plot and the larger histories it signifies. Literary culture is always a curate’s egg from Scott’s irony-laden perspective, but one of the revelations of his novels is that whether by distortion or illumination, texts do in fact organise reality, and albeit readers possess an unknowable range of predispositions, reading poses an essential vehicle of character formation for anyone who happens to get their hands on a book.


[1] Readers familiar with Scott’s chapter epigraphs will know that ‘Old Play’ is generally code for the author’s own invention; in the case of this doggerel, mine.

[2] See ‘Tales of My Landlord’, The Edinburgh Review, 28 (March, 1817): 193-259, (193).

[3] See Scott, The Tale of Old Mortality, ed. Douglas Mack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), 377.

[4] Scott, Chronicles of the Canongate, ed. Claire Lamont (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 11.

[5] Scott, The Pirate, ed. Mark Weinstein and Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 259. As Meg Merrilies explains, ‘I canna write mysell––but I hae them that will baith write and read, and ride and rin for me’. See Scott, Guy Mannering, ed. P. D. Garside (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 278.

[6] Scott, Waverley, ed. P. D. Garside (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 13.

[7] Scott, The Fortunes of Nigel, ed. Frank Jordan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 9.