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"There are some writers who have entirely ceased to influence others, whose fame is for that reason both serene and cloudless, are enjoyed or neglected rather than criticised and read. Among them is Scott. Yet there are no books perhaps upon which at this moment more thousands of readers are brooding and feasting in a rapture of silent satisfaction. The Antiquary, The Bride of Lammermoor, Redgauntlet, Waverley, Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian — what can one do when one has finished the last but wait a decent interval and then begin again upon the first..."

This was the opening of an essay by Virginia Woolf on The Antiquary, in The New Republic in December 1924, a century after the publication of Redgauntlet, Walter Scott's last indisputably great novel. It is now almost two centuries since the first of his novels, Waverley, was published in 1814. Sadly, it's probable that the claim made in the third sentence no longer holds good. Woolf's "common reader" has, it seems, deserted the first master of the historical novel, ironically at a time when the genre is more fashionable than it has been for more than 100 years. All six of last year's Man Booker shortlist were set in the past, with the winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as far back as the 16th century.

Edward Waverley; Flora MacIvor at the waterfall in Waverley" (etching by R.W. Macbeth in the 1893 edition) 

I still meet people who read and appreciate Scott, and the splendid new Edinburgh edition of his works has led to a reawakening of academic interest. Yet Woolf was probably justified in saying that he had "entirely ceased to influence" other writers, even 80 or 90 years ago. Certainly, it is likely that none of the authors on the Man Booker list owed him anything, consciously or unconsciously. It was different in the 19th century. Dumas and Hugo in France, Manzoni in Italy, Fontane in Germany, Tolstoy in Russia, and Thackeray — in Henry Esmond certainly and Vanity Fair probably — were all in his debt, as were Stevenson and Buchan in their historical novels. Hugh Walpole, in his Herries chronicles, was one of the last novelists to regard himself as a disciple of Scott. But though he was Woolf's friend, he knew, to his dismay, that she didn't think much of his books.

Historical novels continued to be written, and some were very good: Ford Madox Ford's trilogy, The Fifth Queen, for instance, makes for an interesting comparison with Mantel's award-winner, as does Buchan's Tudor novel, The Blanket of the Dark. There were fine novels set in antiquity by Robert Graves, Naomi Mitchison, Rex Warner, Alfred Duggan and Mary Renault among others, while Evelyn Waugh thought Helena his masterpiece (or said he did). But by and large the genre fell into disrepute in Britain, historical novels being regarded as entertainment, not serious fiction. Many of the most popular writers who set their fiction in the past offered no more than that, good examples being the romantically fictionalised histories of Margaret Irwin, and that 1940s' bestseller Forever Amber. Colourful swashbuckling novels pleased a public but were ignored or derided by serious critics.

Scott himself bears some responsibility for the disfavour with which the historical novel came to be regarded. His medieval novels, written for money and made from his wide reading, were more influential, more easily imitated than the novels set in the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries that are praised by Woolf. (Unaccountably, she omits The Tale of Old Mortality, one of the finest and most intelligent political novels in the language.) These medieval novels have their own charm. Ivanhoe especially, several times filmed, remains captivating and is, in John Buchan's words, "a glittering pageant". Goethe, entranced, called it "a wholly new art". Quentin Durward, with its fascinating depiction of that extraordinary figure, Louis XI of France, can still delight.
Scott was never other than intelligent, and, even in these later novels his analysis of conflicting currents in history and of the clash of cultures is often acute and interesting. 

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May 5th, 2010
1:05 PM
I may be jumping the gun here - no doubt others have mentioned him - but why have the works of Patrick O'Brian not been considered in the article? I love Mary Renault's books, but even she yields to O'Brian in terms of characterisation, historical veracity and intellectual depth. I could never wholeheartedly enjoy Scott's works - far too full of conscious archaism, tediously plotted and with many stylistic infelicities. Besides, he is at least partly responsible for many widely believed untruths about medieval society.

May 5th, 2010
5:05 AM
I suspect that the past seems easier to grasp than the present at least partly because we are more easily capable of deluding ourselves that we have grasped it because no one remains from that past to insist we have got it all wrong. That said, historical fiction is my favorite kind of fiction (I've devoted a website to it at When done well, it strikes an exceptional balance, I think, between the discipline required of the author to study a particular space of time that is not one's own and present as faithful a reimagining of it as possible, down to the smallest detail, and the enormous freedom of letting one's own time and biases go so that one can play with the possibilities of going altogether naked of cultural preconceptions. In this way, there might even be said to be a special nobility of purpose in reading for "escape" - people of the past were immersed in biases that we find ridiculous, reprehensible and/or monstrous, but when we put ourselves in their skins and realize how committed they were to these biases, it can make us wonder what biases of our own may seem equally appalling to some future age.

May 2nd, 2010
1:05 AM
Wendell Berry has some thought-provoking comments perhaps more relevant to American poetry and Rain: A Dust Bowl Story, but also meaningful to the larger discussion--he suggests that the lack of interest in narrative verse "is indicative of a serious lack of interest, first, in action, and second, in responsible action." In other words, the historical dimension takes the work directly into contact with the world, where some contemporary readers/critics do not want it to be.

April 30th, 2010
9:04 AM
Ben, I share your enthusiasm for 'Julian'. I've read it approximately once a decade since the 1960s, each time with added pleasure. And I agree about the added pertinence of the book today. Amongst Vidal's other books, I found 'Lincoln' masterly. I've yet to read 'Woolf Hall' but Mantel's earlier historical novel,'A Place of Greater Safety', was possibly the best English language fictional work to date on the French Revolution (a category that includes "A Tale of Two Cities") . But the greatest historical novel of them all is, to my mind, 'The Leopard'. No book better encapsulates the simple truth that everything changes and everything stays the same. And no book is so subtly sensual, almost tactile, in its ability to describe a vanished reality. Like War and Peace, it's only semi-historical, as its epilogue is set at a time when the author must already have been born, with characters based on his family. I think Allan Massie is right to point to the distinction between such books and those set in a remote past. The former can be highly instructive with respect to how the present grew out of the past. The latter, on the other hand, hold up a strange, compelling mirror to the present. Many of the great novels of the Mid Victorian period (e.g. Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, the memorable first part of David Copperfield) are set a few decades earlier, as the commercial civilization of the nineteenth century was just coming into being. There's a hint of the explanatory about them, but that doesn't detract from their literary greatness. Meanwhile, Massie has re-whetted my appetite for Scott. I think I've got "The Heart of Midlothian" buried away somewhere.

April 28th, 2010
7:04 PM
An excellent essay, but indeed the genre continues to develop as more and more accurate historical information is revealed. Several writers (e.g. Bernard Cornwell, Diana Gabaldon and even Ken Follett) continue to write very successfully with historical action. When the characters are invented within the realities of a historical period, a powerful teaching tool is created for use. If the writer is adept at wielding that tool, it becomes a hard book to put down. When could you ever say that about your history text book? Go Flashman.

April 28th, 2010
1:04 PM
I thought the Rome series by Colleen McCullough well researched and lively, and I did not think much of Harris' Imperium.

Miguel Cavalcanti
April 27th, 2010
8:04 PM
Another title worth considering is Michael Crichton's Timeline. It's basically a time-travel caper novel, but Crichton's researched the Hundred Years War thoroughly and addressed one aspect that I think contributes to historical fiction's low repute: the longing on the part of the reader to escape the present, to indulge in the feeling that one would have been better off living in the X-age. Most common are fantasies of living in the Middle Ages--not as a peasant, slave, heretic, or whatever, but as the king or at least a knight. Crichton addresses this fantasy while Scott only exploited it.

April 25th, 2010
7:04 PM
Not a single plug for Harry Flashman ? MB not great literature , but there's a lot of history learnt as you roll on the floor laughing .

Jonathan Stone
April 24th, 2010
4:04 AM
Fans of Sabitini and O'Brian should give Arturo Perez-Reverte a try. Undoubtedly better in the original Spanish, his works are marvelous even in translation.

April 23rd, 2010
9:04 PM
Dame Dorothy Dunnett, hands down. Fourteen marvelous books in two (related) series take one directly into the entire renaissance from the fall of Constantinople to the reign of Elizabeth I, and includes both the middle east and africa. oh, and russia. in great detail, and brilliantly.

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