|SIR WALTER SCOTT|
by Sir Walter Scott
Oxford World's Classics Edition
Introduction and Notes by Ian Duncan
A couple years ago I started reading through the books listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It's a cheesy project, made more cheesy by the fact that the title of the book is wantonly deceptive: "1001 Books" should say "1001 Novels" since the Novel is the only type of book recommended. My biggest problem is maintaining a steady supply of books to read, and my thought was that this would be "crap insurance" i.e. prevent me from descending into a pathetic diet of genre fiction. It was rewarding when I was reading through the 18th century: the novel was just rounding into shape, and the English language was non-standardized to the point where each book was a different linguistic adventure.
However, at about this time last year I paused on the threshold of the 19th century- in front of me lay the more familiar terrain of Austen and the Bronte sisters, and I was far from eager to dive into this terra cognita. A couple months ago, I made a feint towards forward progress by reading Peter Ackroyd's excellent and epic Charles Dickens biography, but it wasn't until I was reading about narrative themes in 19th century popular song that I decided on the first book I would read from the 19th century list: Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy.
First of all, Rob Roy was a hit- "The first edition, published on 31 December 1817, sold out it's huge print run of 10,000 copies within two weeks; two more editions were printed by the end of 1818." Second of all, Rob Roy started a fashion for the Scottish highlands that moved outside of the world of the novel and square into "popular culture" inspiring songs, plays and tourism. So I thought it would be interesting if I could read Rob Roy and understand the "why" of Rob Roy being such a huge hit.
And I'm reporting back: It's quite clear, after reading Rob Roy, why it was a hit. First of all, in the 15 plus years since the end of the 18th century, the English language became standardized to the point where non dialect speaking characters are easily comprehensible. Second of all, Scott draws upon already popular themes- the earlier parts of Rob Roy read like an outtake from an 18th century Gothic novel. Third, Roy is developing a newer novelistic genre- the historical novel, that was a la mode at the time of publication.
Reading Rob Roy was almost- almost- like reading a well written genre novel today: the characters did expected things in unexpected ways, and the scenery along the way was beautiful. Again and again I asked myself why this would be considered a "classic" rather then an 1817 version of "popular fiction" and for that, I have no answer. I am baffled by the discourse of Literature as practiced in the American academy. What a pointless, useless, waste of time, money, energy and human intelligence. Does one really need to read a book on uses of Gothic themes in Austen and Scott when those themes are perfectly clear in the source books themselves?
It's clear to me that the 19th century presents familiar terrain to the modern reader- this makes it a less interesting exploration for me, but truth be told I can't wait to dig into Ivanhoe next month.