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Victorian Legacies: Sir Walter Scott in Context

by Emma Butcher

The blow is struck—the lyre is shattered–the music is hushed at length. The greatest—the most various–the most commanding genius of modern times has left us to seek for that successor to his renown which, in all probability, a remote generation alone will furnish forth. —Edward Bulwer-Lytton, ‘On the Death of Sir Walter Scott’, The Mirror (6 October 1832) 

When Walter Scott died in 1832, the British nation mourned the loss of their best loved novelist. Bulwer-Lytton’s statement captured the Romantic attitude towards Scott, whose widespread fame would resonate throughout the nineteenth century. If anything, the Victorian period saw Scott’s international popularity increase, his works continuing to be translated into Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Polish [1]. (1820), Scott’s historical novel set in the Anglo-Norman period, was especially well received by Victorian audiences. Its resurrection of  medieval romance fell in line with the ever evolving, fashionable Gothic revival, embraced by eminent Victorian movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One of the most flagrant demonstrations of Scott’s chivalric legacy was the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, an aristocratic reenactment of a medieval joust inspired by Scott’s classic works. Like many, Andrew Graham-Dixon in his BBC 4 series (2014), remembers it for its failure, the Scottish estate known for its torrential downpours and soggy marshland. On a more positive note, other Scott-inspired events were much more successful; Nicola Roberts’ research has even suggested ‘that no Victorian fancy-dress ball or party was complete without an Ivanhoe in attendance.’ [2] Indeed, even Victoria   and Albert joined in with the Ivanhoe craze, one of their balls featuring an Ivanhoe quadrille, a rectangular formation dance traditionally accompanied by opera.

When Walter Scott died in 1832, the British nation mourned the loss of their best loved novelist. Bulwer-Lytton’s statement captured the Romantic attitude towards Scott, whose widespread fame would resonate throughout the nineteenth century. If anything, the Victorian period saw Scott’s international popularity increase, his works continuing to be translated into Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Polish [1]. Ivanhoe (1820), Scott’s historical novel set in the Anglo-Norman period, was especially well received by Victorian audiences. Its resurrection of  medieval romance fell in line with the ever evolving, fashionable Gothic revival, embraced by eminent Victorian movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The joust between the Lord of the Tournament and the Knight of the Red Rose, Edward Corbould, 1839.

One of the most flagrant demonstrations of Scott’s chivalric legacy was the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, an aristocratic reenactment of a medieval joust inspired by Scott’s classic works. Like many, Andrew Graham-Dixon in his BBC 4 series (2014), remembers it for its failure, the Scottish estate known for its torrential downpours and soggy marshland. On a more positive note, other Scott-inspired events were much more successful; Nicola Roberts’ research has even suggested ‘that no Victorian fancy-dress ball or party was complete without an Ivanhoe in attendance.’ [2] Indeed, even Victoria   and Albert joined in with the Ivanhoe craze, one of their balls featuring an Ivanhoe quadrille, a rectangular formation dance traditionally accompanied by opera.

When Walter Scott died in 1832, the British nation mourned the loss of their best loved novelist. Bulwer-Lytton’s statement captured the Romantic attitude towards Scott, whose widespread fame would resonate throughout the nineteenth century. If anything, the Victorian period saw Scott’s international popularity increase, his works continuing to be translated into Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Polish [1]. Ivanhoe (1820), Scott’s historical novel set in the Anglo-Norman period, was especially well received by Victorian audiences. Its resurrection of  medieval romance fell in line with the ever evolving, fashionable Gothic revival, embraced by eminent Victorian movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One of the most flagrant demonstrations of Scott’s chivalric legacy was the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, an aristocratic reenactment of a medieval joust inspired by Scott’s classic works. Like many, Andrew Graham-Dixon in his BBC 4 series The Art of the Gothic (2014), remembers it for its failure, the Scottish estate known for its torrential downpours and soggy marshland.

Ivanhoe costume designs from the nineteenth century. Used with kind permission from the University of Edinburgh.

Ivanhoe costume designs from the nineteenth century. Used with kind permission from the University of Edinburgh.

On a more positive note, other Scott-inspired events were much more successful; Nicola Roberts’ research has even suggested ‘that no Victorian fancy-dress ball or party was complete without an Ivanhoe in attendance.’ [2] Indeed, even Victoria   and Albert joined in with the Ivanhoe craze, one of their balls featuring an Ivanhoe quadrille, a rectangular formation dance traditionally accompanied by opera.

As well as Scott’s broader cultural impact, his writings remained iconic. The Victorian literary marketplace was saturated with collected editions of Scott up until the 1890s. Annika Bautz’s study of his presence in Victorian reprints and lending libraries exposes Scott as a driving, posthumous literary force throughout the majority of the nineteenth century [3]. Numerous canonical authors admired and imitated his work. Charles Dickens’ two historical  novels, Barnaby Rudge (1841) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859), emulated Scott’s ‘invention’ of the historical genre. Ian Duncan even observes that Dickens’ early attraction to Catherine Hogarth was partly instigated by her father’s intimate friendship with Scott [4]. Other eminent mid-nineteenth-century authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and William Thackeray were all influenced by Scott’s historical model. Each produced fiction that reflected on past times yet remained thematically applicable to nineteenth-century society, especially in relation to social unrest and political turbulence. Scott’s influence on Victorian literary creativity is especially typified in the works of the Brontë sisters. Charlotte Brontë declared in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey: ‘For fiction read Scott alone; all novels after his are worthless’ [5]. The collective Brontës manipulated Scott’s literary techniques, biographical writings and fictitious landscapes, employing Scott’s legacy within their juvenile writings. Emily Brontë is noted as being particularly drawn to Scott’s landscapes. Alongside her sister Anne, she re-created the sublime elements of the Scottish wilderness in her Gondal saga. This was carried through to her later novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), her interaction with Scott’s Waverley novels explored in detail by Yuraki Oda [6]. Wuthering Heights  also contains numerous nods to Scott’s Gothic story, ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’, published in Scott’s novel Redgauntlet (1824), both involving a character spending a night in a haunted room and being confronted by a terrifying apparition.

Despite Scott’s domination over Victorian literature and culture, his popularity dramatically decreased in the twentieth century. The great British critic F. R. Leavis set the precedent for Scott-bashing, his The Great Tradition (1948) dismissing his work and claiming that it copied a ‘bad’ eighteenth-century tradition. This type of criticism, combined with newly emerging styles of writing contributed to the perception of Scott as unfashionable and unreadable. Although small clusters of scholarly criticism—mainly in the 70s and 80s—have devoted themselves to Scott’s works, a vast array of his fiction has ultimately fallen out of today’s canon.

Postcard of the Sir Walter Scott Monument

In 2012, an article in the Telegraph reported that Scott’s novels were being rewritten in order to ‘make the work less tedious for a public raised on JK Rowling and Dan Brown’, an interviewee claiming that his novels are ‘long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span’ [7]. It is only recently that Scott has been somewhat reclaimed, heralded as a national hero by  Scotland. With the 200th anniversary of Waverley just passed, Scotland took to social media to celebrate its long neglected hero with the hashtag #waverley200; quotations from Scott equally attired Edinburgh station. Still standing proudly, the Scott monument—built in 1844 and the largest monument to any writer in the world—provides a stark reminder of Scott’s legacy in nineteenth-century society. Although there is a way to go in order to fully resurrect the ‘Wizard of the North’, it can be safely said that his presence is still simmering under the radar, waiting for future scholars to address his impact on the Victorian imagination and our broader cultural understandings of British history.

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Notes

[1] John O’Hayden, Walter Scott: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1970), p. 17.

[2] Nicola J. Watson. ‘Afterlives’. The Edinburgh Companion to Walter Scott, edited by Fiona Robertson (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 149.

[3] See Annika Bautz, The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott: A Comparative Longitudinal Study (London, New York: Continuum, 2007), p. 82.

[4] Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 189.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Selected Letters, edited by Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.

[6] See Yukari Oda. “Wuthering Heights and the Waverley Novels: Sir Walter Scott’s Influence on Emily Brontë.” Brontë Studies, 32 (2007), pp. 217-226.

[7] Richard Alleyne. ’Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe controversially rewritten to make it easier to read’. The Telegraph, 29 January 2012. [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9047680/Sir-Walter-Scotts-Ivanhoe-controversially-rewritten-to-make-it-easier-to-read.html].


Emma is a second-year AHRC doctoral candidate at Hull University. Her thesis responds to the Brontës as commentators of war, looking at representations of conflict and military masculinity in their juvenilia. A keen tweeter and blogger, she can be found both here and here: EmmaButcher_.


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