Sunday, 13 March 2011

The historical novel: a case for Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe

The candidate for the first historical novel may be debatable.  However, the case for the first popular English historical novelist is a little tighter.  Sir Walter Scott began a trend for the historical novel with Waverley (published 1814), and most enduringly with Ivanhoe (1819). 
His predecessor Daniel Defoe makes a good case for himself, of course, with novels such as Roxana and Journal of the Plague Year.  Yet the eighteenth century novel can be a difficult beast with its often peripatetic plots, frank to the point of lewdness yet curiously impersonal.  Most people, excepting serious students of English, are now trained to read in the style developed by the Romantics.  And that, in fact, is one of the reasons for Scott’s success, that he combined Romanticism with his fascination for legends and antiquities.  In his day, he was said to be the most widely read novelist in the world, and his influence on the genre of historical fiction was global, reaching writers of historical fiction from France (Alexandre Dumas) and Russia (Aleksandr Pushkin) to America (James Fenimore Cooper).
But at its heart, Ivanhoe is just a ripping good yarn.  Scott wrote at an impressive pace, churning out two novels a year, plus other writings, seldom stopping to edit himself (careful readers will catch inconsistencies of detail).  His characters are painted in broad, stereotypical brushstrokes, part of a style that he himself described as “the Big Bow-wow strain.”  Yet this is why they stick in our mind: the blond Saxon princess pitted against the beautiful dark-haired Jewess for Ivanhoe’s affections; the true knight who faces the corrupted crusader; Robin Hood and his men, as merry as you could wish. 
Scott’s very shortcomings become his triumph.  He was a pen and ink man, churning out historical novels to support the upkeep of his own piece of history, the estate of Abbotsford.  And whatever critics feel about the quality of some of his work, his efforts almost singlehandedly rehabilitated the reputation and pride of a Scotland still suffering from the consequences of the failed Jacobite rebellions.  In light of his passion for and influence on the genre, it is perhaps ironic that few of his novels are read today.
One final reason that I really like Ivanhoe is the teacher in me.  The story manages to capture the imagination of students, and those ‘broad strokes’ I mentioned above help them to feel confident as they practice skills of analysis.  In fact (and this whole post really wasn’t a plug!) I wrote a curriculum guide for the Center for Learning that pairs Ivanhoe and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, exploring among other things themes of chivalry and the influence of the medieval romance on the modern novel.
Scott’s most popular novels (today) include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Kenilworth; further reading on Scott’s life and writings include Sir Walter Scott by John Lauber (Twayne 1989) and Sir Walter  Scott: Wizard of the North by Pearle Henriksen Schultz (Vanguard 1969).
(By the way, if you are interested in the origins and influence of other historical novelists, you might check out the blog of the Ron Empress, whose work has been inspired by the fourteenth century Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)


  1. Susan, lovely blog. I've read that Scott's novels are considered the first HF. I've never researched to see if this is true. I've read many works written in the 18th and 19th century,(considered historical now) but the people were writing of their own times, at the time.

  2. Susan, I had never considered the age of the modern romantic novel, so this is fascinating. I blush to admit it, but I've never read Scott's novels at all! I do remember starting a near-family war over my right to finish watching Ivanhoe. I was meant to be in bed by 9, it was 9:45 and there were just 15 minutes left! I still feel robbed. LOL It's not up yet, but I'm going to have an award up at the blog for you tomorrow. And thanks for the shout out! I did NOT know you'd done that before I gave the award, LOL, so I really do appreciate it. ;D

  3. Very interesting, Susan. Ivanhoe is a great tale. Maggi

  4. Thanks, Susan! I loved Ivanhoe. It was probably the first novel set in the Middle Ages I read, though I'd long been a fan of the Robin Hood tv series that aired in the late '50s and the Sunday cartoon series "Prince Valient" (great historical detail.) I quickly soaked in all of Scott's works. The one I liked best was one you haven't mentioned: the Talisman, which tells the tale of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin. Interestingly, Scott led to a love for Robert Louis Stevenson,who wrote in much the same vein. I think in a lot of ways, my work's been influenced by both.

  5. I am in the throes of my first historical novel (end of Roman Empire) and starting to look around for writers with more experience in this area! Found you from Victoria Dixon's blog. Ivanhoe has been on my list to read ever since I read Ben Hur.

  6. Thank you for all your comments. @Vicky - I had thought of mentioning The Talisman, but wasn't sure how widely available it was. I read it in a musty, second-hand copy! @Margo - glad you stopped by. I had my daughter read Ben Hur when we homeschooled while living abroad. It was a great supplement to classical studies. And I love the movie, too!