Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832), poet and novelist, was born in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh on 15 August 1771, the tenth child of Walter Scott (1729–1799) and Anne Rutherford (1739?–1819). His father, son of Robert Scott (1699–1775), a prosperous border sheep farmer, and of Barbara Haliburton, became a writer to the signet in 1755, and had a successful career as a solicitor in Edinburgh. His mother was the daughter of Dr John Rutherford (1695–1779), professor of physiology in the University of Edinburgh, who had studied in Edinburgh, Rheims, and Leiden (under Boerhaave), and of his first wife, Jean Swinton. Scott's parents married in 1758, and had thirteen children: besides Walter, those who survived childhood were Robert (1767–1787), John (1769–1816), Anne (1772–1801), Thomas (1774–1823), and Daniel (1776?–1806).

In 1932, and again in 1969 and 1970, Arthur Melville Clark argued that Scott was born in 1770, but his case was comprehensively destroyed by James C. Corson in 1970. Scott was indeed born on 15 August 1771. He seems to have been a healthy baby, but in the winter of 1772–3 he contracted what is now called poliomyelitis, and became permanently lame in his right leg. The best medical advice in Edinburgh was available; but there was, of course, neither diagnosis nor cure, and his maternal grandfather Rutherford advised that he be sent to his paternal grandfather's farm, Sandyknowe, near Smailholm in Roxburghshire, to benefit from country air. Many attempts were made to cure Scott's disability (without success), and much (successful) effort over the years was given to improving the use of the leg. Throughout his life Scott was conscious of his lameness, but it seems to have caused no psychological damage. The physical feats of later life—like climbing the Castle Rock in Edinburgh (Redgauntlet, Waverley Novels, 1993–2004, 17.2–3), the fights in which he engaged after his return to Edinburgh (Waverley Novels, 1829–33, 1.xcii), the long walks he undertook in his late teens and twenties (Scott, Memoirs, 35–6), and his activity as a volunteer cavalryman—suggest that his lameness did not restrict him, but at least some of this physical activity, or perhaps even the reporting of physical activity, was deliberate overcompensation for his disability.

Scott lived at Sandyknowe from 1773 to 1778, apart from about a year spent in Bath where he was taken by his aunt Janet (or Jenny) Scott in the middle of 1775, a spell in 1776 with his family in their new home at 25 George Square, Edinburgh, and some weeks probably in 1778 at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, where he went for sea bathing. In Sandyknowe he was in the company of adults and received much attention from his grandmother and aunt.

In his 'Memoirs' he says that the earliest sources of the historical information that characterizes his work were 'the old songs and tales which then formed the amusement of a retired country family': his grandmother used to tell him 'many a tale of Wat of Harden, Wight Willie of Aikwood, Jamie Tellfer of the fair Dodhead, and other heroes, merrymen all of the persuasion and calling of Robin Hood and Little John' (Scott, Memoirs, 13). His uncles told him stories about the Jacobite rising of 1745 and the executions in Carlisle. His aunt Jenny read popular songs to him from works such as Allan Ramsay's The Tea-Table Miscellany, and he learned long passages off by heart from her reading. He was thus an active participant in a traditional oral culture, and at the same time was taking written literature back into the oral, in a reverse movement to his own later practice when he translated traditional into written narratives.

Although he learned to read at a dame school in Bath in his fifth year, he was not unduly precocious as a reader; it was the narratives he learned from oral recitation that were crucial to his intellectual and imaginative development.

Scott's critical work has become inconspicuous because of his predominant fame as an imaginative writer; but what it loses on this account it perhaps gains in the special interest attaching to criticism formulated by a great creative artist. One phase of his work is emphasized and explained by the other, and we cannot afford to ignore his criticism if we attempt fairly to comprehend his genius as a poet and novelist. The fact that he is the subject of one of the noblest biographies in our language only increases our obligation to become acquainted with his own presentation of his artistic principles.

But though criticism by so great and voluminous a writer is valuable mainly because of the important relation it bears to his other work, and because of the authority it derives from this relation, Scott's scholarly and critical writings are individual enough in quality and large enough in extent to demand consideration on their own merits. Yet this part of his achievement has received very little attention from biographers and critics. Lockhart's book is indeed full of materials, and contains also some suggestive comment on the facts presented; but as the passing of time has made an estimation of Scott's power more safe, students have lost interest in his work as a critic, and recent writers have devoted little attention to this aspect of the great man of letters.

The present article is an attempt to show the scope and quality of Scott's critical writings, and of such works, not exclusively or mainly critical, as exhibit the range of his scholarship. For it is impossible to treat his criticism without discussing his scholarship; since, lightly as he carried it, this was of consequence in itself and in its influence on all that he did. The materials for analysis are abundant; and by rearrangement and special study they may be made to contribute both to the history of criticism and to our comprehension of the power of a great writer. In considering him from this point of view we are bound to remember the connection between the different parts of his vocation. In him, more than in most men of letters, the critic resembled the creative writer, and though the critical temperament seems to show itself but rarely in his romances, we find that the characteristic absence of precise and conscious art is itself in harmony with his critical creed.

The relation between the different parts of Scott's literary work is exemplified by the subjects he treated, for as a critic he touched many portions of the field, which in his capacity of poet and novelist he occupied in a different way. He was a historical critic no less than a historical romancer. A larger proportion of his criticism concerns itself with the eighteenth century, perhaps, than of his fiction, and he often wrote reviews of contemporary literature, but on the whole the literature with which he dealt critically was representative of those periods of time which he chose to portray in novel and poem. This evidently implies great breadth of scope. Yet Scott's vivid sense of the past had its bounds, as Professor Masson pointed out. It was the "Gothic" past that he venerated. The field of his studies, chronologically considered, included the period between his own time and the crusades; and geographically, was in general confined to England and Scotland, with comparatively rare excursions abroad. When, in his novels, he carried his Scottish or English heroes out of Britain into foreign countries, he was apt to bestow upon them not only a special endowment of British feeling, but also a portion of that interest in their native literature which marked the taste of their creator. We find that the personages in his books are often distinguished by that love of stirring poetry, particularly of popular and national poetry, which was a dominant trait in Scott's whole literary career.

With Scotland and with popular poetry any discussion of Sir Walter properly begins. The love of Scottish minstrelsy first awakened his literary sense, and the stimulus supplied by ballads and romances never lost its force. We may say that the little volumes of ballad chap-books which he collected and bound up before he was a dozen years old suggested the future editor, as the long poem on the Conquest of Grenada, which he is said to have written and burned when he was fifteen, foreshadowed the poet and romancer.

Yet Scott's career as an author began rather late. He published a few translations when he was twenty-five years old, but his first notable work, the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, did not appear until 1802-3, when he was over thirty. This book, the outgrowth of his early interest in ballads and his own attempts at versifying, exhibited both his editorial and his creative powers. It led up to the publication of two important volumes which contained material originally intended to form part of the Minstrelsy, but which outgrew that work. These were the edition of the old metrical romance Sir Tristrem, which showed Scott as a scholar, and the Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of Scott's own metrical romances. So far his literary achievement was all of one kind, or of two or three kinds closely related. In this first period of his literary life, perhaps even more than later, his editorial impulse, his scholarly activity, was closely connected with the inspiration for original writing. The Lay of the Last Minstrel was the climax of this series of enterprises.

With the publication of the Minstrelsy, Scott of course became known as a literary antiquary. He was naturally called upon for help when the Edinburgh Review was started a few weeks afterwards, especially as Jeffrey, who soon became the editor, had long been his friend. The articles that he wrote during 1803 and 1804 were of a sort that most evidently connected itself with the work he had been doing: reviews, for example, of Southey's Amadis de Gaul, and of Ellis's Early English Poetry. During 1805-6 the range of his reviewing became wider and he included some modern books, especially two or three which offered opportunity for good fun-making. About 1806, however, his aversion to the political principles which dominated the Edinburgh Review became so strong that he refused to continue as a contributor, and only once, years later, did he again write an article for that periodical.

In the same year, 1806, Scott supplied with editorial apparatus and issued anonymously Original Memoirs Written during the Great Civil War, the first of what proved to be a long list of publications having historical interest, sometimes reprints, sometimes original editions from old manuscripts, to which he contributed a greater or less amount of material in the shape of introductions and notes. These were undertaken in a few cases for money, in others simply because they struck him as interesting and useful labors. It is easy to trace the relation of this to his other work, particularly to the novels. He once wrote to a friend, "The editing a new edition of Somers's Tracts some years ago made me wonderfully well acquainted with the little traits which marked parties and characters in the seventeenth century, and the embodying them is really an amusing task." Among the works which he edited in this way the number of historical memoirs is noticeable. After the volume that has been mentioned as the first, he prepared another book of Memoirs of the Great Civil War; and we find in the list a Secret History of the Court of James I., Memoirs of the Reign of King Charles I., Count Grammont's Memoirs of the Court of Charles II., A History of Queen Elizabeth's Favourites, etc. Such books as these, besides furnishing material for his novels, led Scott to acquire a mass of information that enabled him to perform with great facility and with admirable results whatever editorial work he might choose to undertake.

These labors Scott always considered as trifles to be dispatched in the odd moments of his time, but the great edition of Dryden's Complete Works, which he began to prepare soon after the Minstrelsy appeared, was more important. This, next to the Minstrelsy, was probably the most notable of all Scott's editorial enterprises. It was published in eighteen volumes in 1808, the year in which Marmion also appeared. When the poet was reproached by one of his friends for not working more steadily at his vocation, he replied, "The public, with many other properties of spoiled children, has all their eagerness after novelty, and were I to dedicate my time entirely to poetry they would soon tire of me. I must therefore, I fear, continue to edit a little." His interest in scholarly pursuits appears even in his first attempt at writing prose fiction, since Joseph Strutt's unfinished romance, Queenhoo Hall, for which Scott wrote a conclusion, is of consequence only on account of the antiquarian learning which it exhibits.

Having become seriously alarmed over the political influence of the Edinburgh Review, Scott was active in forwarding plans for starting a strong rival periodical in London, and 1809 saw the establishment of the Quarterly Review. By that time he had done a considerable amount of work in practically every kind except the novel, and he was recognized as a most efficient assistant and adviser in any such enterprise as the promoters of the Quarterly were undertaking. Moreover, his own writings were prominent among the books which supplied material for the reviewer. He worked hard for the first volume. But after that year he wrote little for the Quarterly until 1818, and again little until after Lockhart became editor in 1825. From that time until 1831 he was an occasional contributor.

1814 was the year of Waverley. Before that the poems had been appearing in rapid succession, and Scott had been busy with the Works of Swift, which came out also in 1814. The thirteen volumes of the edition of Somers' Tracts, already mentioned, and several smaller books, bore further witness to his editorial energy. The last of the long poems was published in 1815, about the same time with Guy Mannering, the second novel, and after that the novels continued to appear with that rapidity which constitutes one of the chief facts of Scott's literary career. For a few years after this period he did comparatively little in the way of editorial work, but his odd moments were occupied in writing about history, travels, and antiquities.

In 1820 Scott wrote the Lives of the Novelists, which appeared the next year in Ballantyne's Novelists' Library. By this time he had begun, with Ivanhoe, to strike out from the Scottish field in which all his first novels had been placed. The martial pomp prominent in this novel reflects the eager interest with which he was at that time following his son's opening career in the army; just as Marmion, written by the young quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Horse, also expresses the military ardor which was so natural to Scott, and which reminds us of his remark that in those days a regiment of dragoons was tramping through his head day and night. Probably we might trace many a reason for his literary preoccupations at special times besides those that he has himself commented upon. In the case of the critical work, however, the matter was usually determined for him by circumstances of a much less intimate sort, such as the appeal of an editor or the appearance of a book which excited his special interest.

When Scott was obliged to make as much money as possible he wrote novels and histories rather than criticism. His Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, which appeared in nine volumes in 1827, enabled him to make the first large payment on the debts that had fallen upon him in the financial crash of the preceding year, and the Tales of a Grandfather were among the most successful of his later books. His critical biographies and many of his other essays were brought together for the first time in 1827, and issued under the title of Miscellaneous Prose Works. The world of books was making his life weary with its importunate demands in those years when he was writing to pay his debts, and it is pleasant to see that some of his later reviews discussed matters that were not less dear to his heart because they were not literary. The articles on fishing, on ornamental gardening, on planting waste lands, remind us of the observation he once made, that his oaks would outlast his laurels.

By this time the "Author of Waverley" was no longer the "unknown." His business complications compelled him to give his name to the novels, and with the loss of a certain kind of privacy he gained the freedom of which later he made such fortunate use in annotating his own works. From the beginning of 1828 until the end of his life in 1832, Scott was engaged, in the intervals of other occupations, in writing these introductions and notes for his novels, for an edition which he always called the Opus Magnum. This was a pleasant task, charmingly done. Indeed we may call it the last of those great editorial labors by which Scott's fame might live unsupported by anything else. First came the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, then the editions of Dryden and Swift. Next we may count the Lives of the Novelists, even in the fragmentary state in which the failure of the Novelists' Library left them; and finally the Opus Magnum. When, in addition, we remember the mass of his critical work written for periodicals, and the number of minor volumes he edited, it becomes evident that a study of Scott which disregards this part of his work can present only a one-sided view of his achievement. And the qualities of his abundant criticism, especially its large fresh sanity, seem to make it worthy of closer analysis than it usually receives, not only because it helps to reveal Scott's genius, but also on account of the historical and ethical importance which always attaches to the ideals, literary and other, of a noble man and a great writer.

After Lady Scott's death on 14 May 1826 Scott wrote to his daughter Sophia: 'Whatever were her failings they hurt only herself and arose out of bodily illness' (Letters, 10.39). It is not clear what was wrong. From 1823 Scott's letters repeatedly mention asthma, but the term may only indicate difficulty in breathing. Oedema and a blotchy discoloration of her face noticed by some visitors suggest partial heart failure. At the end of her life she was taking digitalis. However, she was in great pain (was it cancer?), and took so much laudanum that it is probable that James Hogg was right in saying that Charlotte became addicted. Although expecting the end for two years Scott found her death difficult. He preferred to go to Edinburgh to fulfil his duty in court rather than watch her die, and his commentary in the Journal on his response to her death is the most moving section of the whole.

As a result of the crash and Charlotte's death Scott began to commit whole days to writing. It is not surprising that he complained about headaches. Nor is it surprising, given his life of unceasing labour and the death of Charlotte, that he was frequently depressed. From January 1827 he complained more frequently about his lameness, and of pain in his leg (he was probably suffering from post-polio syndrome).

On 15 February 1830 Scott suffered his first stroke. He retired as principal clerk to the court of session on 12 November with a pension of £864, and soon afterwards suffered a second, damaging stroke which affected his ability to write and to express himself clearly, but he again recovered. The following month he presided in the sheriff court, and began a pamphlet advocating the reintroduction of the income tax rather than reform of the House of Commons. The paper was not published, as in the ferment for reform all Scott's advisers thought it would damage sales, but the idea that social justice requires the redistribution of wealth rather more than the extension of voting rights has, over the last two centuries, had formidable intellectual and political support. In April 1831 he had a third stroke, but over the summer worked on the fourth series of Tales of my Landlord, and on a fifth series of Tales of a Grandfather (the second on the history of France), which remained unpublished until 1996. He worked too on further notes for the 'Magnum opus'. In July he reluctantly agreed to go to the Mediterranean for the sake of his health. The original idea was for an overland journey, but William IV made a royal command that Scott be given a passage on a man-of-war, and in October he embarked on HMS Barham for the Mediterranean, Malta, and Naples. He moved on to Rome, and on 11 May 1832 began the overland journey home, via Florence, Venice, Verona, the Brenner Pass, Augsburg, Mainz, and down the Rhine. In Nijmegen he had a fourth stroke. He spent three weeks in London before travelling north by steamboat to Edinburgh. He reached Abbotsford on 11 July, and died there on 21 September 1832. He was buried on 26 September beside his wife in Dryburgh Abbey, Berwickshire.

References:

  • The letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C. Grierson and others, centenary edn, 12 vols. (1932–79)
  • J. C. Corson, Notes and index to Sir Herbert Grierson's edition of the letters of Sir Walter Scott (1979)
  • J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott, 7 vols. (1837–8)
  • W. Scott, ‘Memoirs’, Scott on himself, ed. D. Hewitt (1981)
  • The journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W. E. K. Anderson (1972)
  • W. B. Todd and A. Bowden, Sir Walter Scott: a bibliographical history (1998)
  • W. Scott, Waverley novels, 48 vols. (1829–33)
  • The poetical works of Sir Walter Scott, bart., ed. J. G. Lockhart, 12 vols. (1833–4)
  • W. Scott, Waverley novels, ed. D. Hewitt and others, Edinburgh edition, 30 vols. (1993–2004)
  • W. Scott and others, correspondence, NL Scot.
  • The prose works of Sir Walter Scott, bart., 28 vols. (1834–6)
  • J. Millgate, Scott's last edition (1987)
  • E. Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: the great unknown, 2 vols. (1970)
  • J. Sutherland, The life of Sir Walter Scott (1995)
  • P. D. Garside, ‘Dating Waverley's early chapters’, The Bibliotheck, 13 (1986), 61–81
  • J. C. Corson, ‘Birth of the last minstrel: vital year in debate’, Weekend Scotsman (26 Dec 1970), 1–2
  • A. Melville Clark, Sir Walter Scott: the formative years (1969)
  • H. Grierson, Sir Walter Scott, bart. (1938)
  • K. W. Harry, ‘The sources and treatment of traditional ballad texts in Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish border and Robert Jamieson's Popular ballads and songs’, PhD diss., U. Aberdeen, 1975
  • F. Russell, Portraits of Sir Walter Scott (1987)
  • H. P. Bolton, Scott dramatized (1992)
  • J. Mitchell, More Scott operas (1996)
  • T. P. MacDonald, ‘Sir Walter Scott's fee book’, Juridical Review, 62 (1950), 288–316
  • D. A. Low, ‘Walter Scott and Williamina Belsches’, TLS (23 July 1971), 865–6
  • P. Garside, ‘Patriotism and patronage: new light on Scott's baronetcy’, Modern Language Review, 77 (1982), 16–28
  • G. Allan, The life of Sir Walter Scott, baronet (1834)
  • J. Hogg, Anecdotes of Sir W. Scott, ed. D. S. Mack (1983)

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