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We’re overdue for a Sir Walter Scott revival


I’ve written here in the past about how, when I can’t find newer fiction that appeals to me (often the case), I read a classic. It was back in 2013 when I read The Antiquary. Last year I read The Heart of Mid-Lothian, and earlier this year I started (but didn’t finish) Ivanhoe. I found Ivanhoe a touch boring because so much of the story is familiar, and Ivanhoe is not set in Scotland. But now, after reading Guy Mannering: Or, the Astrologer, I believe I have become addicted to Walter Scott.

When people do read Walter Scott these days, I suspect they make the wrong choices. Ivanhoe and Rob Roy are about well-mined bits of history. To my taste, Scott’s best stories are about obscure and imaginary characters, stories drawn from Scott’s delightful imagination rather than from history.

I am not the first person to be surprised by the lamentable fact that filmmakers and the BBC have ignored Sir Walter Scott. There is rich material there to be mined, the very kind of material that makes for such good period pieces — the mixing of characters of both high and low social status; a constant change of location and scenery, including seascapes, moors, castles, humble cottages, firesides, pubs and inns, courtrooms, stagecoaches, firths, ships, and old Edinburgh; and some of the snappiest dialogue in English literature — if you can understand it. The Scots dialect, which Scott represents phonetically, can be a challenge, but there are many references on the dialect when readers are stumped. And of course some of the characters — the gentry and travelers from England — speak standard, if somewhat archaic, English. Scott does not commit the sin so common in so much literature that is considered archaic — page after page of narrative. Scott is a much more cinematic writer in that he relies on action and dialogue to tell his stories — easy work for screenplay writers. Truly, Scott is worth studying as a writer.

Walter Scott’s novels are available at Gutenberg.org in Kindle format. But if you read Walter Scott, I highly recommend exploring eBay, or a seller of old books on Amazon, for an old hardcover edition. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, publishers issued many sets of books by popular authors. Some were of higher quality than others. No one seems to do that anymore, and though you may find some poorly produced paperback editions of old novels, most of these classics have long been out of print. Many of the old books are beautifully printed. Look for editions with nice cloth (or leather!) covers, strong bindings, and paper that resists yellowing. All paper that is 140 years old will be somewhat yellow, but the better quality paper is far less likely to be brittle. In particular, look for books printed in London or Edinburgh. They probably won’t be expensive, because they’re still common. My copy of Guy Mannering cost $3 plus shipping. On eBay you’ll find sets of Scott’s works (not necessarily complete as books got lost over the years). I was tempted to buy a set of the complete works but decided against it. I like the idea of an assortment of different interesting editions, bought one at a time when I decide to read another Walter Scott.

I suspect that it would take only one popular film based on a Walter Scott novel to bring about a revival and new editions — and to overwhelm Scotland with yet more tourists. Until that happens, there are many homeless and beautiful old books that would love to find a forever home on your shelves. And you could become one of the few visitors to Edinburgh to be awed by the Walter Scott memorial who has actually read Walter Scott.


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⬇︎ Dirk Hatteraick Pursued by the Sloop of War

⬇︎ The Waste of Cumberland

⬇︎ “Gape, sinner, and swallow!”

⬇︎ Col. Mannering, Hazlewood, & the Smugglers

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