"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: Waverly

The proper name of this book is actually Waverly, or 'Tis Sixty Years Since, which helpfully reminds you that although it was written in the past, it is also written about the past - apparently the first historical novel in the English cannon. And it is also the first novel I've read in months that professes to be out simply to please you, not to educate you, shock you, or dismember your mental faculties until you are left with a shambles of a sense of reality.

Well, Sir Walter Scott, writing anonymously, did want Waverly to educate people. As a scot, Scott (ahahaha, I'm amazed more people don't make this into a poor joke) wanted the english to better understand and be more sympathetic toward the unfortunate Jacobites, supporters of King James Stuart, who rose of in Scotland twice during the 18th century and twice were quashed. It's not a political novel as such, because by the time Scott was writing, in the early 19th century, the rebellion and the question of succession were pretty much history - two generations gone. But the novel is definitely trying to show the highlanders and other Jacobites in a fair light without espousing their political cause.

I read this for class - otherwise, I probably wouldn't have made it all the way through, because it's very old-fashioned indeed. But I ended up really enjoying both the story and the very-present, but pleasantly ironic authorial voice that comments on the action and reminds you what you're feeling and what your hero's feeling at all times.

This hero is Edward Waverly, a young and very romantic man who goes up north from his English estate and gets caught up in the Jacobite rebellion, not because he's a great political leader or even a great soldier, but because he is in love with the ancient, fading highland way of life, and he makes personal connections with many of the rebels. There's much saving of lives, pledging of fealty, and heaving of tormented bosoms, but Scott's awareness and exploitation of Waverly's innocence and idealism gives it all an edge and doesn't require you to take it too seriously. The things that happen to Waverly first feed directly into his romantic dreams and then begin to unravel them, so it's both a national story and a coming-of-age story.

A lot of people in my class found it dull and slow-going and had trouble with the archaic language. For whatever reason, I got through the difficulties, though, and enjoyed it a lot. There were even moments (brief moments) when I didn't want to put it down and go make a cup of tea, because I had to know what was going to happen to poor Waverly and his friends. I also enjoy the challenge of sinking into another form of language, whether it's a foreign one or foreign version of my own. Probably that's the language major in me.

The question of language is particularly interesting at the moment because I'm starting work on my own historical novel project. I'm writing about France in the 17th century, but in English, so I not only need to imagine what the characters would have said and thought, but also need to translate that into English and once again into modern parlance. Last night I started re-reading Wolf Hall, and am just amazed at how Hilary Mantel manages to make medieval characters sound ancient and modern at the same time. I keep trying to skim it, because I'm short on time, but it's so good I just want to read every word over again. If you haven't gotten around to reading it since I reviewed it over the summer, I recommend it again heartily.

I also recommend Waverly, but only if you enjoy classics and sweeping narratives and want to spend hours imagining yourself tramping around Scotland with a sometimes silly, but also often endearing protagonist and also, of course, with Scott's authorial voice. If, like me, you're semi snowed-in, it's a great curl-up-by-the-fire read. So is Wolf Hall. This is definitely historical novel weather, when you want to dive headfirst into another world and linger there for hours, which is exactly what I'm doing this weekend. You can imagine me floating from Henry VIII's court to Paris's literary salons, with a brief detour through the kitchen for breakfast.

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