Read More: The First Historical Novel?

  • by Antony Ramm, Information and Research, Central Library

This is an entry in our Read More series. These are ‘long-form’ articles, where staff offer a curated and detailed look at areas of our book collections, usually based around a specific theme or subject. These posts aim to guide the interested reader through to those books that offer a more in-depth look at a topic, or which are classics in their field.

July the 7th marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Walter’s Scott’s novel Waverley. Set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the book soon became a popular favourite among European audiences and is often thought to be the first example of historical novel in Western literature. Initially publishing anonymously – not acknowledging authorship until 1827 – Scott went on to write a number of other novels on similar themes, all of which have been grouped together and named for that first in the series: the “Waverley novels”. This anniversary has sent us into the archives, stacks and holdings of our Information and Research department to search for other Walter Scott-related materials. Some of our most interesting finds are described below.

Of most immediate relevance, we can tell you that we hold a complete set of those “Waverley novels” in a handsomely-bound series from 1894 that is available for reference purposes (simply ask staff for access). Notable examples of Scott’s fiction that are available to loan include his Supernatural Short Stories, while a five-volume set of his poetry is also available for reference use.

Although primarily known for his fiction, Scott was also a prolific writer of non-fiction. One especially interesting volume held by the library is an 1826 first edition of Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland, a folio-sized guide to locations of historic interest. Scott provided the written descriptions and artists – including J.M.W. Turner – illuminated those words with richly textured engravings.

Engraving by Turner of Edinburgh city centre, as seen from Calton Hill
Engraving by Turner of Edinburgh city centre, as seen from Calton Hill

The department also holds first-editions of his Tales from a Grandfather: Being Stories from The History of France [1831; in three volumes] and the intriguingly-titled Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft [also 1831].

Illustration from Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft
Illustration from Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

All five-volumes of Scott’s biography of Napoleon Bonaparte can also to be found in our holdings, along with Napoleon the First: A Reply from the Count of St.Leu to ‘The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte’ by Sir Walter Scott. Continuing the Napoleon theme, the department also holds an 1816 first-edition of Scott’s Paul’s Letter to His Kinsfolk – a collection of the author’s impressions on his visit to Europe following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Again, these volumes are available for reference use and can be requested from staff in the Information and Research library.

The spine of Scott’s Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk

The spine of Scott’s Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk

In a similar vein to his observations from the European continent, library users can also read Scott’s celebrated journals and his early letters. The letters are especially interesting as several volumes cover the very beginnings of his literary career, allowing the reader to trace the composition and publication of Waverley in the author’s own words.

Letter from Scott to his friend John B.S. Morritt, in which Scott explains some of his motivation for writing Waverley
Letter from Scott to his friend John B.S. Morritt, in which Scott explains some of his motivation for writing Waverley

Those wishing to further explore the life of this seminal figure would be well advised to search out one of the several biographies available to loan in the Information and Research library. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown (Edgar Johnson) is a monumental two-volume work covering the author’s life in forensic detail. Arthur Melville Clark’s Sir Walter Scott: The Formative Years shows the importance of the first twenty years of Scott’s life on his writings, while Walter Scott and His World (David Daiches) sets Scott’s achievements into the wider context of the Enlightenment. A.N. Wilson’s The Laird of Abbotsford: A View of Walter Scott is a sympathetic analysis of the author’s work and life by a fellow novelist and biographer.

Once the novels have been read and the life explored, budding Scott aficionados can delve into a wide range of scholarship, criticism and analysis. Of particular note are Under Which King?: A Study of the Scottish Waverley Novels (Robert C.Gordon), The Author of Waverley: A Critical Study (D.D. Devlin) and The Language of Walter Scott: A Study of His Scottish and Period Language (Graham Tulloch). These titles are also available to loan, but for a full list of all the books related to Walter Scott that are available to loan from the Information and Research library, please see our catalogue. Remember: you can reserve any of these titles to be collected at your local library.

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