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Teaching Romanticism VII: Walter Scott

by Daniel Cook

As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching Walter Scott, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months.

Evan Gottlieb, Associate Professor of English, Oregon State University
I’ve been reading, writing about, and teaching Scott’s Waverley novels for some time now, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: the things instructors tend to love about his fictions are the very same things that students frequently find most difficult and off-putting. For efficiency’s sake, I propose that what “we” love / what “they” dislike about Scott can be summarized with 3 “D”s:

1. Dialect – Scott’s frequent use of Scots dialect is frequently confusing and frustrating to students, even as those of us who are familiar with it find it a great source of humor and charm.

2. Detail – As the most famous early practitioner of the historical novel genre, Scott’s novels are not only filled with historically specific details, but are usually framed by larger conflicts that need to be understood if both their plots and their stakes are to be appreciated.

3. Digressiveness – Scott is a notoriously diffuse author, happy to lard his plots with multiple subplots that may be fascinating to academics but can seem pointless to students.

But all is not lost! Although students’ objections and resistances on these three counts are legitimate, each can be addressed by helping them realize they have already likely encountered and negotiated versions of these challenges elsewhere.

drookit_tcm4-582248Yes, dialect takes work to understand and can slow down the reading process, even with the excellent glossaries in most modern Scott editions. But students should recognize that dialect – and its contemporary cousin, slang — still play important roles in many contemporary movies and books, lending texture and vitality to everything from Quentin Tarantino’s movies to cable TV shows to Irvine Welsh’s novels. As with those texts, students don’t have to understand every word in Scott’s novels to get the gist of what a character is saying. But skipping the dialect passages altogether often means skipping the funniest, liveliest parts of the novels!

eec-01-jjduk-john-jenkins-designs-jacobite-rebellion-ecossois-regimental-officer-500x500Like dialect, the historical details that fill Scott’s novels can be tough to handle. Certainly, the events in question (e.g. the Jacobite Rebellions, the Act of Union) are even farther away from us than they were for Scott’s original readers. Yet students have usually been exposed to historical movies, if not other historical novels, so they are probably more familiar with this kind of framing than they realize. Going over the basic historical context of the particular Scott novel they’re about to study before they begin reading it – much as many movies begin with on-screen, context-setting blurbs – can help orient them from the start. They don’t need all the details up front, just enough to get started.

In some ways, the digressiveness of Scott narratives is the biggest hurdle for students to surmount: to understand a Waverley novel, you simply cannot rush through it. But consider the example of one contemporary author whom students are likely to have read. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books famously got much longer as the series continued, and they’re ultimately stocked with at least as many subplots and digressions as a typical Scott novel. Students may never relate to Edward Waverley or Frank Osbaldistone as readily as to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but they can at least learn to appreciate that Rowling and Scott are doing the same thing: using detail and digression to create an immersive reading experience. Trying to rush through that experience will only ruin it. (It may or may not help to remind students that Scott’s original readers had far fewer entertainment options than we do today, and so would not have been pulled away from his books by so many other distractions.)

In the end, of course, we may not succeed in helping students love what we love, especially in the case of Scott. But identifying some of the common problems that students encounter when they read Scott, and then demonstrating that they’ve faced these obstacles before, can help them realize that they already have the tools to read Scott’s Waverley Novels effectively. And who knows? They might just come to enjoy them along the way.

Tony Jarrells, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina
There is something about Walter Scott that makes me afraid to be alone with him in the classroom.  For whatever reason, I have not felt this way about Wordsworth, Austen, Mary Shelley, or even the dangerous-to-know Byron. But it is clear from looking back at syllabi and lecture notes that when it comes to teaching Scott, I want someone else there, just in case. I have paired Waverley with Don Juan (as comparative Romanticisms), Rob Roy with James Hogg’s Shepherd’s Calendar (to compare the novel and the prose tale), “The Surgeon’s Daughter” with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (to examine representations of the East in British and Anglophone Literature), and Scott more generally with Austen (to think about what Zadie Smith calls “two paths for the novel”). It’s not that I think these others – Byron, Hogg, Ghosh, Austen – are more interesting than Scott. In fact, I’ve been accused of using “Austen” in course titles as cover for sneaking Scott in as my real subject. And it is not that I think Scott doesn’t merit individual attention: as the inventor of the historical novel, best-selling author of his day, and first-rate critic of Romantic writing, clearly he merits attention. But Scott can sometimes be too much to deal with alone, if that makes sense – a reference-laden, historical, dialect sublime that leaves students feeling scared and speechless.

Sir Walter ScottIn my experience, this “too much” factor should make Scott perfect for teaching – especially the novels. One problem with teaching a novel in a regular survey course, with two or three meetings per week, is that in order to give students time to read, I end up with class sessions devoted to, say, pages 110-185, and there is not always a lot to say about isolated chunks of a work of fiction.  When teaching Scott, however, it seems like it should be impossible to run out of things to talk about. In addition to style, character and plot tensions, for instance, I can teach students about what a Jacobite is or about what the Covenanting wars were fought over or what Nicol Jarvie might be saying in any given scene. To put it another way, Edward Waverley is not just a romantic, whimsical hero who gets mixed up with villains and falls for the wrong girl. His whimsy and those villains and that girl all can be mapped very specifically onto the history of party and in relation to the shadow lines that brought the multinational British state into being.

There is much that needs to be taught in Scott, that is, and this makes Scott a novelist who teaches like a poet (he is also a poet who teaches like a poet). In the same way that a student can come to class with a substantial amount of confusion about a poem like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and then leave class (when things go well) feeling a real sense of discovery and understanding about that poem, like something just clicked, a student can also come to class feeling overwhelmed and confused about all of the parts Scott has to assemble to set Waverley’s plot in motion and leave class with a clear sense of what those parts are and of how character motivations and plot tensionsnightingale-are-singing are products of a particular historical moment (or moments). The problem, however, is that Keats’s “Nightingale” is a lot shorter and this usually works better than Scott’s long, dense novels – at least in a survey course. There’s a better sense of the whole, a clearer point to the exercise (consciousness of death = beauty), and a faster payoff (to put it crudely): with lyric poetry you can get in and get out in a class or two and this seems to suit students who already are struggling with the difficulties of reading works that were popular two hundred years ago. There are, of course, complicated relationships between lyric and history, as much good Romantic scholarship has taught us. But a Keats poem can be read more simply and directly, too, with the layers of historical complexity there to be added gradually as needed. With Scott, the other stuff cannot be bracketed. The other stuff is what his novels are.

So in order to better manage the other stuff / too much issue, I have found it useful to teach Scott alongside other writers, highlighting common features of the novel or of the period as a way of managing the many materials that make up his novels. But I’ve also started teaching Scott’s shorter works – his tales – in order to capitalize on the density of small chunks of prose while avoiding the fatigue that comes from having to work through such difficult material day after day. “The Highland Widow” teaches very well. A Scottish Rip Van Winkle story, of sorts, it engages the historical and geographical themes of Scott’s longer fiction but in much more concentrated form. And “The Two Drovers” is as tightly controlled and evocative as any lyric poem I know of. The national tensions it engages can be talked about in specific terms. But the basic story about a violent conflict between two friends and the ways that the story suggests that the violent responses of both are conditioned by culture register with students even before we fill in the details of what those different cultural positions are.

My most recent experience teaching Scott came in an upper-level special topics course on Romanticism and popular culture. There is more time for doing a full novel in this kind of course.  But I stuck with the shorter fiction and I think this worked. One part of the course was on tales of terror and wonder. We started with Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter (and the different forms in which it appeared: magazine, antiquarian volume, chapbook, poetry collection) and then moved on to Scott’s “Glenfinlas” (published in Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Wonder, 1801) and “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (first published in Redguantlet, 1824), using Scott’s own account of the ballad (in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border) as a way into defining popular culture. Like “The Highland Window,” “Wandering Willie’s Tale” explicitly links character motivation and plot development with a particular historical moment: Sir Robert Redguantlet, no longer able to collect fines from non-conformists following the Revolution of 1688, attends more closely to his rents and, by dying while the silver of one of his tenants, Steenie Steenson (Wandering Willie’s grandfather), is being counted, forces the latter to pursue him all the way to hell – where Redguantlet is surrounded by other Tories, including the dreaded Claverhouse, persecutor of the Covenanters – in order to collect a receipt and prove his honor. The tale works as a representative example of Scott’s fiction, foregrounding his distinctive voice and the connection he often draws between character and history.

But it does something else, too, something that shows Scott to be not just a singular writer – a seventh to be added to the big six – but also a writer engaged with a surprising number of the concerns, themes, and genres of the period. A story like “Wandering Willie” highlights the question of medium, for instance, something Maureen McLane foregrounds in her work on balladeering and minstrelsy. Read alongside Burns’s Tam, it reveals that it was not just in poetic forms that such an (c) Cutty Sark Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationissue was engaged: prose genres, too – and especially the non-novelistic genre of the tale – were concerned with the fate of orality in a print-saturated age. Reading “Wandering Willie” as a tale of terror also led us to other tales Scott wrote, including for magazines and literary annuals (“My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror” is a good one), and to periodical writing and popular forms more generally (in the popular culture course we went on to consider tales from Hogg, John Galt, and other Blackwood’s writers). In short, teaching the shorter fiction allows students the pleasures of reading close and deep, but it also affords them the opportunity to read wide (if I can put it that way) – across a single genre (the tale), for instance, or across several genres at once (the ballad, the tale, the novel), identifying the distinctive features of literary forms and highlighting the pressing questions of the cultural field writ large. For me, teaching Scott ends up being less about introducing students to a single writer, however great, and more about bringing them into contact with the concerns of the period itself, especially the slippery lines between high and low culture and the urgency surrounding questions about medium and media. Both, of course, have long been concerns in English departments. The latter in particular is worth thinking more about now that literature itself, at least at my university, seems to be losing its draw with students and its place in the core curriculum.

Kristen Lindfield-Ott, Lecturer in English, University of the Highlands and Islands
Here at UHI Scott is an integral part of our degree: we teach Waverley on the first-year introduction to prose, bits of “The Lady of the Lake” on our first-year introduction to poetry, a section of Rob Roy as a “practice” text on our first-year introduction to literary theory. Then, in second year, Scott lochkatrine1024x768is the final text on our core module on Romanticism, where we currently teach The Antiquary​. In third year we sneak him into a module on Nature Writing when we briefly discuss (literary) tourism. We are currently rewriting our fourth year to reflect our research interests more strongly, and one of the modules there is hopefully going to be on historical fiction, in case Scott will of course feature again.

We’ve also built him into our extracurricular activities, by planning to trip to Loch Katrine. As we teach students across the Highlands and Islands we vary our field trips to explore as much of the region as we can, and Loch Katrine is on next year’s list.

Nick Bujak, Postdoctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins University
I recently had the privilege to teach two semesters of an upper-level undergraduate course entitled “Best Sellers in the Early Nineteenth Century.” Approximately half of the readings were drawn from the works of Walter Scott — with a heavy emphasis on his best-selling poetry — and the other half was drawn from the works of Lord Byron. The course concluded by reading Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, which was not a bestseller in its time but which is in explicit conversation throughout with the themes and popularity of the poetry of Scott and Byron. (While the Austen assignment was most practical as a case study for bringing together many of the conversations we had been having throughout the semester about popularity, the novelistic elements and influences of narrative poetry, and so on, we also talked about Austen’s original and important contributions to the form of the novel.)

As one might imagine, students who sign up for a course on bestsellers are often surprised to see a syllabus filled almost exclusively with poetry. Thus, each time I’ve taught this course, I’ve begun with a general introduction to popular reading in the Romantic period. I will typically assert a version of Stuart Curran’s claim that “it is hard for a later culture to grasp” the extent to which Romantic-era British culture was “simply mad for poetry,” and then fill this out by quoting from the many charts and tables in William St. Clair’s indispensable The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period that establish the empirical basis of this claim. (For those interested in following up specific references in St. Clair, I highly recommend: chapter 12, “Romance,” particularly tables 12.1 and 12.2; and chapter 13, “Reading Constituencies”). And then, because I assume (usually correctly) that Austen is the only author on the syllabus with whom most of my students have any familiarity—she’s certainly the author they are typically most excited to read — I put on the board (a Keynote slide, actually) an excerpt from a letter that Jane Austen wrote to her niece Anna in 1814:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it—but I fear I must.

For the purposes of exciting interest in the poetry of Scott, this letter is particularly useful. Waverley was Scott’s first published novel (though it’s actually the last work by Scott that we read), and so it’s very clear that Austen’s expectation about the quality of Scott’s novel can only be based on her opinion of his poetry. She, like so many other authors of the Romantic period, was jealous of him — a fact that is barely obscured by the gentle irony in which she wraps the tone of her letter. It has been easy to forget how important and beloved Scott was as a poet, simply because his career as a novelist was even more spectacularly successful. This letter helps to establish what it was like to be an aspiring writer in an age of best-selling poetry, and also (I think) gives students some reason to be patient with Scott’s poetry if it doesn’t immediately click with them.

In my own personal experience, I have found that students do eventually come around to enjoying Scott’s poetry, to find something in it that continues to appeal to popular interests. But, in the meantime — while their palates are acquiring a taste for Scott’s somewhat exotic vintage — I present several conceptual, theoretical, and visual tools to aid them in their initial grapplings with his writing. (This is particularly important in a course like mine, where we spend the first six classes reading Scott’s first three poems — The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake — and so a significant portion of their grade depends on them being able to think with and about Scott.)

BorderMapTo begin with, I make available on the course web page (and use in my slideshows for class) older and more recent Scottish maps that establish the old rivalries — between Scotland and England, Highlands and Lowlands, and individual clans within the Highlands. I also use Google Earth, which allows you to experience topography in 3D, to prepare brief class trips through the knotty, often impassable, geography of Scotland. Because both territorial disputes and the difficulties of traveling in Scotland are essential not just for imagining the world evoked by Scott’s poetry, but also to understand the plots themselves (particularly in Marmion and The Lady of the Lake, not to mention Waverley), these maps prove to be enormously helpful as tools to consult while reading and teaching.

Scottish_clan_mapFinally, since Scott’s poetry is constantly in conversation with antiquarian concerns raised by the 18th-century ballad revival, I present students with some of the basic terms of the debates surrounding minstrelsy, print, and remediation. Specifically, I briefly lecture on what Paula McDowell has termed the “confrontational model of print and oral tradition,” which posits that the rise of the printing press caused the downfall of minstrelsy and the power and importance of the oral tradition. The following three quotes are pithy enough to fit on a single slide, and contain most of the important parameters of this discourse:

1. Thomas Percy, “An Essay on the Ancient Minstrels” (1765)
“But as the old Minstrels gradually wore out, a new race of ballad-writers succeeded, an inferior sort of minor poets, who wrote narrative songs merely for the press.

2. Walter Scott, “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad” (1830):
“The invention of printing necessarily occasioned the downfall of the Order of Minstrels.”

3. Walter Scott, “Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry” (1830)
“The press . . . at length superseded the necessity of such exertions of recollection” [upon which, it was widely agreed, pre-literate oral composition and transmission were dependent.]

Additionally, as a way of expanding the theoretical complexity of these discussions, I offer students the following short quote from Maurice Blanchot, which gives them some practical terminology for analyzing the relation between print narration / remediation (never living, an artifact of the page) and embodied minstrelsy (dying or dead):

Maurice Blanchot, “The “The Narrative Voice: (The ‘He,’ the Neuter)” (1969)
The narrative voice…is inside only insofar as it is outside, at a distance without any distance, cannot be embodied: even though it can borrow the voice of a judiciously chosen character or even create the hybrid position of mediator…, it is always different from what utters it, it is the indifferent-difference that alters the personal voice. Let us say (on a whim) that it is spectral, ghost-like.

We spend part of a class acquainting ourselves with the terms of these debates in media theory and narrative theory, and then use them to interpret the formal and theoretical engagements of the poems (extremely useful for analyzing the differences between print narration and minstrelsy, whose conflict is staged everywhere in the poems). In my experience students appreciate having the focus of these terms within this debate to help them as they overcome the challenges, and learn the rewards, of reading Scott’s poetry.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English and Associate Director of The Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).


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