‘They besieged and took Carlisle, and soon afterwards prosecuted their daring march to the southward’. I don’t suppose that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, however well they do in the imminent General Election, are planning a daring expedition into England of the kind narrated in Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley, from which my quotation comes (vol. 3 chapter 10). But none the less, with so much reactionary drivel being spouted by the Tories about the supposed ‘threat’ that a post-election SNP-Labour Party deal might pose, this is certainly a topical and exciting moment to be re-reading Scott’s first novel.
I can see more clearly too, now, why Scott’s Waverley novels appealed so intensely to William Morris – not just because of the rugged Highland scenery, picturesque social customs and racy linguistic dialect they depict, but rather because of the sheer energy and intelligence of their engagement with politics and history. Waverley vividly dramatises a country in civil war as the 1745 Jacobite rebellion breaks out, as does Morris’s own News from Nowhere at the other end of the nineteenth century, with its gripping chapters on ‘How the Change Came’. The invocation by Scott’s Flora and Fergus MacIvor of ‘the cause’ must have deeply stirred Morris, even though his own chosen cause was socialist rather than royalist; as must the book’s searching explorations of how political loyalties are formed in the first place (Waverley himself famously ‘wavers’ from side to side), how far ethical considerations should or should not be subordinated to one’s chosen political commitment, and where fanaticism might be considered as beginning. I suspect too that, in the narrower sphere of literary characterisation, some of Flora MacIvor’s highminded militancy feeds through into Ellen in News from Nowhere.
Scott’s novels do not currently feature on our Romanticism course in the Lancaster University English Department, and that seems a real loss. At a time when Russian-backed separatists are fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine, and the jihadis of Islamic State are violently imposing their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, we can surely see more clearly that the historical novel as invented by Scott was an epoch-making generic innovation that rises to the level of such brutal transformative processes. It still has much to tell us about them, and about the process of building more humane revolutionary transformations too.