Many writers, like fads in fashion, enjoy extraordinary popularity and then pass out of vogue. One graduate student is fighting that trend and is trying to lead the revival of one of the most popular authors of the 19th century.
by Paul Arant
My story began in the countryside outside of a small town near Raleigh, N.C., down a long gravel driveway surrounded by deciduous and evergreen trees and abutted by large green pastures. Enclosed fields of rolling grass exemplified the quiet, pastoral nature of my community, whose silence was interrupted only by the occasional vehicle and the sounds of foraging cattle. The winding, unpaved road that led to my driveway was populated by a few other houses that also enjoyed the seclusion from the bustle of city life.
Minus the modern technology, it was a scene that would not be out of place in Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley, which tells the story of a young man who is sent to his uncle’s estate in the Scottish Lowlands. In the isolated environment of my childhood, there were very few children my age with whom I could play, and this resulted in most of my days being filled with wanderings through the large woods behind my house. On these solitary adventures, I suppose, like many young boys in similar situations, I created worlds in my mind, worlds in which I played a pivotal role. I was a soldier, explorer or action hero who found himself on missions of life and death, whether it was to rescue fallen comrades or save the world from impending destruction.
While I did not realize it at the time, this fervent imagination was instigated by the contents of the large, imposing wooden bookcases that I found in my father’s study. Like the mysterious library of Osbaldistone Hall in Scott’s Rob Roy, where the future lovers Diana and Frank have their evening lessons, I vaguely understood that the contents of the bookshelves were important and held a special place in our home. Both of my parents heartily encouraged me to read from an early age, which resulted in the blossoming of my love for fiction.
I can still recall the excitement with which I read books like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the classics of science fiction that my father loved. I was also a frequent visitor to the local town library, where I developed a love for comics and young adult fiction, including serials like The Hardy Boys. At some point, the precise moment lost in the haze of childhood memories, I was introduced to 19th-century British literature. By this time, I had developed a love of history, and my curiosity was piqued by stories about people who had lived long ago in a land across the Atlantic. Perhaps it was the tales of a detective named Sherlock Holmes that first created an insatiable appetite to read more about these adventures in Victorian Britain.
It was in my teenage years that I was first introduced to Scott and his historical novels. Often referred to as the father of historical fiction, Scott crafted tales of intrigue and adventure, most often taking place in 17th- and 18th-century Scotland. Because he has seemingly been forgotten by both today’s culture and the academy, it is sometimes difficult to fathom that Scott was the most popular writer of his day and influenced writers throughout the Victorian era. In fact, the novels of Scott were often said to be available in every household in America during the antebellum period. However, due to a dislike by influential figures like Mark Twain, Scott fell out of mainstream favor in America during the early 20th century. While it can be asserted that this disfavor was unfair and was largely due to cultural bias, it seems that Scott’s reputation has yet to fully recover. This presents a great opportunity to introduce an entire generation of readers to the high drama, vivid characterizations and intelligent humor found in the meticulously recreated periods of Scott’s novels.
What initially captured my imagination was the imperfect protagonist, often a young man characterized as naïve and idealistic, who must come to grips with the tumultuous events taking place around him. One such protagonist is the young hero of Redgauntlet, Darsie Latimer, who ignores the warnings of those close to him as he sets out to discover the truth about his origins in the southern borderlands of Scotland. In today’s era of superheroes, it is refreshing to read about common individuals who discover that they are capable of extraordinary acts. These unlikely heroes find the wherewithal to summon their courage and stand by their convictions in the face of great trials and cataclysms: a true and relatable heroism.
The novels of Scott provide us with these characters and more, while having them meet and interact with historical figures who are often considered to be heroes themselves. This literary device, popularized by Scott, is still prevalent in historical novels of today, and it is this realism tinged with the fantastic that I find so attractive. In Redgauntlet, Darsie is kidnapped by the fanatical Jacobite Edward Hugh Redgauntlet, who knows of Darsie’s actual status as the heir to the Redgauntlet name. It is during his confinement that Darsie discovers his true mettle, and his refusal to follow Hugh and the exiled Prince Charles Edward Stuart shows his growth as a character. Rather than take the easy way out and the path of possible fame and fortune, Darsie decides to stick to his principles and face the consequences. The maturation of the common man in his confrontation with adversity contains the potential to inspire readers even in our oftentimes cynical world. And, as in our world, the protagonists in Scott’s novels often find that their reward is simply the self-assurance that they have done what is right, regardless of the consequences.
Scott’s evocation of the beauty of his home country and its heroic past is most commonly associated with the idea of a romantic Scottish nationalism, yet this fails to take into account the complexity of Scott’s portrayal of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Scott looked toward a future of British harmony, while also eulogizing the perceived remnants of Scottish life, most notably that of the feudal society of the Highlands. Oftentimes, as in Redgauntlet, the depiction of the passing of old Scottish culture is a somber affair, as the ghosts of the past are supplanted by the new vibrancy and skeptical optimism of the future. Through his writings, Scott developed an image of a Scottish nation that was imbued by traits of its gallant past, but which sought to embrace a new identity free from previous failures. His protagonists and central characters often reflect this vision, as they usually have families and histories that straddle the borders of England and Scotland. In fact, some of his novels end with the union of a nominally English hero and Scottish heroine, as happens in Waverley when Edward Waverley marries the Scottish Lowlander Rose Bradwardine.
As the product of a mixed marriage, and as a boy who grew up with a love of different cultures, I find this to be an inspiring message and one full of hope and tolerance. In my own journey as a scholar and writer, my greatest desire is that I will be able to convey these same ideals of hope for a brighter future and tolerance for those of differing beliefs and opinions. That same little boy who scampered across shaded hills, leaves crunching beneath his feet, still resides in my heart, and it would be an almost unimaginable blessing if I could help stir the imagination of a new generation, much like the tales of Scottish heroes from a time long ago have inspired me.
– Paul Arant is a graduate student in the College’s English program.
Illustration by Britt Spencer