British and Irish Literature Walter Scott
Ainsley McIntosh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0052


Walter Scott (b. 1771–d. 1832) began his literary career as a translator and collector of ballads from the German and Scottish traditions. His first edited collection of Scottish border ballads appeared as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Soon after, he achieved fame as an original poet, receiving most acclaim for the first three of his extended narrative romances: The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810). The success of these poems turned Scott into a literary phenomenon. Additionally, he produced verse dramas and engaged in major editorial projects, including The Works of Dryden (1808) and his nineteen-volume The Works of Jonathan Swift (1814). An important contributor to the Edinburgh Review from its inception in 1802 until differences of political opinion led to his founding of the Edinburgh Annual Register in 1808, Scott then helped launch the Quarterly Review in 1809 along with Robert Southey and other eminent Tories of the day. His contributions to each of these publications indicate his immersion in the review and print culture of the period. Scott’s reviews, revealing his critical acuity, occupy nearly five volumes of his collected prose. Of greater significance, Scott played a pivotal role in the development of the novel, in particular the rise of the historical novel in the early 19th century. Waverley (1814), his first work of fiction, was published anonymously, and for many years his novels appeared under the pseudonym Author of Waverley. A prolific writer and a prominent figure with a literary career spanning several decades, he profoundly influenced such diverse authors as Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Aleksandr Pushkin, Herman Melville, Lev Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. In 1826, following the financial failure of his publisher, Archibald Constable, and his printer, James Ballantyne, Scott, who was financially involved in each firm, put his affairs into the hands of a trust to which he committed all his literary earnings. By the time of his death he had paid off half of the £126,000 debt for which he was liable, and the sale of his copyrights in 1833 raised enough to settle all his creditors’ claims. Scott is perhaps best remembered for orchestrating King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and his involvement in this event helped reinvent Scottish culture for the modern world. He also left behind Abbotsford, “a romance in stone” that stands testimony to the imaginative capacity of this remarkable man.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

The recuperation of critical interest in Scott in the latter half of the 20th century and the accompanying assertion of his centrality to Scottish, Romantic, and world literature have led to the production of a formidable body of general overviews and critical studies of his life and art. Traditional overviews tend to be comprehensive and valuable for their range rather than for their particular critical comment. They draw attention to the stature of Scott’s achievement as the progenitor of the historical novel (the key reason behind the renaissance of interest in Scott’s fiction), and they serve as a reminder that it was once necessary to recover his fiction from critical obscurity. Hart 1966 is a good example of this defensive kind of critical study. Cockshut 1969 and Crawford 1982 are similarly representative of traditional studies that are part biography and part literary criticism. Like Cockshut 1969 and most studies of Scott’s fiction from this period, Gordon 1969 focuses primarily upon the Waverley novels that are set in Scotland. It is an intelligent study that suggests that Scott’s fiction reveals his pessimistic view of social progress rather than a desire for escapism. Welsh 1992 is an influential early study of the Waverley hero as a passive type who personified the propertied classes of the early 19th century. Bold 1983 indicates the greater variety of critical approaches to Scott that had developed by the 1980s, when his reputation had been more fully rehabilitated and was flourishing with the rise of new historicism. Another valuable essay from this period, Hewitt 1988, forcibly conveys the sheer extent, diversity, and quality of Scott’s literary output and argues persuasively for the need to position it at the heart of the Romantic canon (a cry that has been duly taken up in more recent years). As Scott studies have strengthened, teaching Scott in universities has also gained momentum. Lumsden 2009 offers students a succinct and thought-provoking summary of some of the major developments in Scott criticism during this time, and the author contextualizes Scott’s fiction within the English novel tradition and the development of the novel form in the early 19th century. Instructors seeking guidance on teaching Scott should also consult Gottlieb and Duncan 2009, a fine collection of essays written by distinguished scholars in the field. It provides clear evidence of the rich critical currency that Scott scholarship has accrued and the diversity of pedagogical approaches that Scott’s fiction has fostered.

  • Bold, Alan, ed. Sir Walter Scott: The Long-Forgotten Melody. London: Vision, 1983.

    Nine wide-ranging essays that offer a valuable discussion of Scott’s fiction and aspects of his achievement from a variety of critical standpoints. Contains an essay on Scott’s narrative poetry and another on Scott and opera.

  • Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London: Collins, 1969.

    Part one places Scott’s literary achievement in the context of a biographical study of his life. Part two explores five of the novels set in Scotland. Some critics interpret this study as a Marxist reading of Scott’s novels.

  • Crawford, Thomas. Scott. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.

    Revised and expanded version of the original 1965 text. Part biography and part critical study that encompasses Scott’s engagement with ballads and poetry as well as an analysis of thematic and stylistic aspects of the novels.

  • Gordon, Robert C. Under Which King? A Study of the Scottish Waverley Novels. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969.

    Intelligent discussion of Scott that argues that Scott’s fiction reveals a tendency to pessimism rather than escapism.

  • Gottlieb, Evan, and Ian Duncan, eds. Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

    A wide-ranging collection designed specifically for university teachers. Part one compiles a core list of primary and secondary materials; part two explores various strategies for teaching Scott’s fiction and offers essays on selected case studies.

  • Hart, Francis R. Scott’s Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1966.

    Comprehensive study that engages with all of Scott’s novels. The introduction offers a good contextualization of early critical approaches to Scott’s fiction.

  • Hewitt, David. “Walter Scott.” In The History of Scottish Literature. Vol. 3, Nineteenth Century. Edited by Douglas Gifford and Cairns Craig, 65–85. Aberdeen, UK: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

    In a wide-ranging essay that offers an excellent overview of Scott’s multifaceted literary output, Hewitt creates a stirring and convincing defense of the quality of his artistic achievement and his centrality to the Romantic canon. Deals at some length with Waverley, Rob Roy, and Redgauntlet.

  • Lumsden, Alison. “Walter Scott.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Novelists. Edited by Adrian Poole, 116–131. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521871198

    Useful teaching and student guide that explores Scott’s relationship to the English novel and suggests that his fiction was self-consciously derived from this tradition. Draws attention to Scott as innovator and outlines his role in the development of the novel form. Summarizes key developments in 20th-century Scott studies and offers a freshly articulated approach to Waverley and Ivanhoe.

  • Welsh, Alexander. The Hero of the Waverley Novels: With New Essays on Scott. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    Three new essays are added to this update of the original 1963 text. An influential study of the passive hero of the Waverley novels that situates him as the personification of the emergent middle classes. Emphasizes the shifting significance of social contract and individual property rights in the 19th century.

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