Historical novel and its features. W. Scott, poet and novelist. Rob Roy

Tambov State University

Historical novel and its features. W. Scott, poet and novelist. “Rob Roy”

Student: Diakova L.Yu.

Tutor: Chernysheva A.P.

Tambov 2011



Historical novel

Walter Scott, biography and works

“Rob Roy”




Historical fiction as a genre is important and relevant to our times for many reasons. It has also been one of the more popular genres of the twentieth century world literature. There have been many novels and short stories belonging to this genre written in the past 200 years which have achieved cult status. Their fame and presence in literature is a matter of curiosity. Some of the most famous novels of this genre are, The Sea of Poppies, A Spoke in the wheel, Ivanhoe, Waverly, etc. The aim of this paper is to study and analyse various aspects of the historical novel, i.e., need for fiction in a historical narrative, the defining features of historical fiction and having a good look at works of Walter Scott, who is generally considered to be the founder of this genre, and his “Rob Roy” in particular.

But before we go on to define historical fiction as a genre, it is necessary to consider those parameters which would enable a set of texts to be termed similar and understand that it is also possible that a particular text belongs to multiple genres, a historical tragedy for instance, which borrows or recombines from more than one previously existing work of literature.

Historical novel

Irrespective of the literariness, human beings have always found a need to relook at their history every now and then. Not only has history been revisited again and again, but also, it has been reinterpreted and sometimes even been rewritten. One of the major driving forces behind this urge to know the past has been, to know what formed our identity at large, along with a curiosity to understand what it felt like to be in those defining moments or periods of history. In both cases, deeper understanding of history led to a more personal relationship with it, for one could only leave a large part of it to the imagination of the individual. And at the same time, it also varied as to how a person perceived life in a particular period of the past to be, based on the information given to him and based on how he interpreted it. Hence, while the accuracy of a given history is always debatable, history always has given ample scope for poets, novelists, and writers to simulate the emotions of people of the past, to cater to the curiosity and the need of the people of the present. At the same time in some cases the distinction between an author and a historian is blurring, with authors themselves providing other arguments or evidences supporting or opposing something and critically analysing various events in history from points of view generally alien to academic literature in history.

Thus, literary works pertaining to history have come to making a historiography of their own, much similar to political historiography, or social historiography, and merging a lot of other historiographies. Perhaps, what it ‘felt’ like to be in a period, consisted of all these components, and only if one considered various historiographies of a period was one able to understand a period from a more personal standpoint.

Coming to the ways in which history is dealt with by litterateurs, there have been many, such as in the form of epics, ballads, poems, folklores and most recently in the form of a novel.

It is important to understand the various factors which brought the novel itself into prominence before delving into the sub-genre of historic novel. The novel by definition itself is very narrowly different from history (as a genre). Fictionality and the presentation in a narrative are the two features most commonly invoked to distinguish novels from histories. Most importantly novels are supposed to show literature and art, instead of mere facts. Although the evolution of this genre is by distinguishing itself from history, over a period of time, it started acquiring qualities of its very own, and evolved too much for it to go back to its roots. For example, novels started addressing issues which were far and wide, and a novel became a very generic term to describe a particular text. The availability of novels of different kinds, led to them being categorized into various sub-genres, such as romantic novels, horror novels etc. Historic novel is a sub-genre which was defined at the very beginning of its birth. It is not possible to discuss historic novel as a genre without invoking Sir Walter Scott, the pioneer of this sub-genre. We will be discussing him over the course of this paper.

Without much digression, it is important to note that for historical fiction to be qualified as literature, it has to have a certain level of literariness, a specific narrative, plot, and most importantly ‘fictionality’. This fictionality in a realistic historical context can only achieved by introducing fictional characters and their lives in the times.

Thus, a historic novel is defined as

“a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact. The work may deal with actual historical personages...or it may contain a mixture of fictional and historical characters”. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

While, historical fiction in English literature was first seen only in works such as Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe, which used historical settings, it became quite common in literatures of other languages such a mandarin, French and Italian by 14th century. But historical fiction as a sub-genre was primarily taken up by Sir Walter Scott, who borrowed the method from German author Benedikte Naubert. In his novels of Scottish history, such as Waverley, Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, he extensively used the method used by Ms. Benedikte Naubert to produce some of the first works of historical fiction. Leo Tolstoy’ War and Peace is also considered to be one of the first texts in this sub-genre. Sir Walter Scott’s novels not only brought the new technique to English literature but were also profound enough to reinvent public interest in Scottish history and still are considered some of the best works about Scottish history. This illustrates another important aspect of historical novels, which is to rekindle interest in the events of the past, not necessarily relevant to the present.

Walter Scott, biography and works

Walter Scott was born on August 15, 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Scott created and popularized historical novels in a series called the Waverley Novels. In his novels Scott arranged the plots and characters so the reader enters into the lives of both great and ordinary people caught up in violent, dramatic changes in history.
Scott’s work reflects the influence of the 18th century enlightenment. He believed every human was basically decent regardless of class, religion, politics, or ancestry. Tolerance is a major theme in his historical works. The Waverley Novels express his belief in the need for social progress that does not reject the traditions of the past. He was the first novelist to portray peasant characters sympathetically and realistically, and was equally just to merchants, soldiers, and even kings.

Scott's interest in the old Border tales and ballads had early been awakened, and he devoted much of his leisure to the exploration of the Border country. His early years Scott spent in Sandy-Know, in the residence of his paternal grandfather. There his grandmother told him tales of old heroes. At the age of eight he returned to Edinburgh. He attended Edinburgh High School (1779-1783) and studied at Edinburgh University arts and law (1783-86, 1789-92). At the age of sixteen he had already started to collect old ballads and later translated into English Gottfried Bürger's ballads 'The Wild Huntsman' and 'Lenore' and 'Goetz of Berlichingen' (1799) from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play. Scott was apprenticed to his father in 1786 and in 1792 he was called to the bar. In 1799 he was appointed sheriff depute of the county of Selkirk. After an unsuccessful love affair with Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn Scott married in 1797 Margaret Charlotte Charpentier (or Charpenter), daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon i n France. They had five children.

In 1802-03 appeared Scott's first major work, MINSTRELSY OF THE SCOTTISH BORDER. As a poet Scott rose into fame with the publication of THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL (1805) about an old border country legend. He had burned its first version, when his friends did not like it. Scott returned to the poem in 1802, when a horse had kicked him and he spent three days in bed. The Lay of the Last Minstrel became a huge success and made him the most popular author of the day. It was followed by MARMION (1808), a historical romance in tetrameter, set in 1513, and concerning the attempts of Lord Marmion to marry the rich Lady Clare. In 1810 appeared THE LADY IN THE LAKE and in 1813 ROKEBY. Scott's last major poem, THE LORD OF THE ISLES, was published in 1815.

In the 1810s Scott published several novels anonymously or under the pseudonym Jebediah Cleisbotham or 'Author of Waverley.' From this period date such works as WAVERLEY (1814), dealing with the rebellion of 1745, which attempted to restore a Scottish family to the British throne. The book set the classic pattern of the historical novel. It had a hero, whose loyalty is split between two rulers and two ways of life. Scott continued with GUY MANNERING (1815) and TALES OF MY LANDLORD (1816), consisting of The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality . ROB ROY (1817) was a portrait of one of Scotland's greatest heroes. THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN (1818) was a story of Jeanie Deans's journey to London to appeal on behalf of her sister who has been wrongfully charged with child murder. THE BRIDE OF LAMMERMOOR (1819), was a novel of loss, love and vengeance, a venture into the gothic genre. In A LEGEND OF MONTROSE (1819) Scott drew a picture of the campaigns of 1644. IVANHOE (1819) was set in the reign of Richard I and depicted the rivalry between the King and his wicked brother John (King 1199-1216).

In the 1820s appeared KENILWORTH (1821), THE FORTUNES OF NIGEL (1822), PEVERIL OF THE PEAK (1823), QUENTIN DURWARD (1823), THE TALISMAN (1825), WOODSTOCK (1826), THE SURGEON'S DAUGHTER (1827), ANNE OF GEIERSTEIN (1829). After the financial crash of 1825-26 the author's anonymity was destroyed, and he was exposed to the general public as Sir Walter Scott. He had at least five pen names, including Jebediah Cleisbotham, Crystal Croftangry, Malachi Malagrowther, Lawrence Templeton, and Captain Clutterbuck.

Scott's historical novels fall into three groups; those set in the background of Scottish history, from Waverly to A Legend of Montrose ; a group which takes up themes from the Middle Ages and Reformation times, from Ivanhoe to Talisman , and his remaining books, from Woodstock onwards. Scott's dramatic work include HALIDON HILL (1922), MACDUFF'S CROSS (1823), THE DOOM OF DEVORGOIL, A MELODRAMA (1830), and AUCHINDRANE (1830), which was founded on the case of Mure of Auchindrane in Pitcairn's Ancient Criminal Trials .

“Rob Roy”

Every now and then it’s great to read a novel that has acted as a prototype for its very genre. Rob Roy , by Sir Walter Scott, certainly fits into that category, as it’s one of the first examples of what we now call the “historical novel”. Published in 1817, it’s actually set a century earlier, in 1715, in the north of England and in Scotland just before the first Jacobite rising with much of Scotland in turmoil.

Rob Roy was written from the spring of 1817 and published on Hogmanay of that year. Like the original Waverley novel it was published anonymously and came in three volumes. The demand for the novel was huge and a whole ship from Leith to London contained nothing but an entire edition of it. Furthermore, Rob Roy was written at a time when many Europeans started regretting colonialism and imperialism as reports circulated back of horrendous atrocities towards "primitive" cultures. It was also a time when debates raged about the slave trade, the British occupation of India, and, more relevant to the novel, the disastrous effect of the Highland Clearances

It tells the story of Francis Osbaldistone, son of a rich merchant in London, who is expelled from his father’s home for the gross indecency of pursuing a career in poetry. Francis, the narrator, is sent to the house of his hard-drinking uncle Hildebrand in the north of England in the hopes that he will help the family business collect assets owed across the border in Scotland. Frank falls in love with Diana Vernon, Sir Hildebrand's niece, whose father has been forced to go into hiding because of his Jacobite sympathies.Eighteen year old Diana Vernon, who by her father's will must either marry one of Frank's six cousins or enter a convent. Along with the youngest of her cousins, Rashleigh Osbaldistone, Diana is heavily into the political intrigues along the Border which lead to the premature rising in 1715 to restore the Stuart monarchy in Britain. Frank's cousin, Rashleigh, steals important documents vital to the honour and economic solvency of Frank's father, William, and Frank pursues Rashleigh to Scotland. Several times his path crosses the mysterious and powerful figure Robert Roy MacGregor, known as Rob Roy, an associate of Diana's uncle Sir Hildebrand. There is much confusion as the action shifts to the beautiful mountains and valleys around Loch Lomond. A British army detachment is ambushed and there is bloodshed. All Sir Hildebrand's sons but Rashleigh are killed in the Jacobite Rising, and Rashleigh too meets a bloody end. Following this, Frank inherits Sir Hildebrand's property and marries Diana.

The novel is a brutally realistic depiction of the social conditions in Highland and Lowland Scotland in the early 18th century. The Highlanders were compared with American Indians, as regards to their primitive, isolated lifestyle. Some of the dialogue is in broad Scottish, and the novel includes a glossary of Scottish words. The plot has been criticised as disjointed. Robert Louis Stevenson, however, who loved it from childhood, regarded Rob Roy as the best novel of the greatest of all novelists. Rob Roy has a fairly straightforward structure, establishing a series of basic binaries that hold the themes of the novel together: England versus Scotland, poetry versus commerce, the poor versus the rich, etc. It also spends a bit too much of the early part of the novel focusing on Francis’ infatuation with the lovely Diana and their many instances of flirtatious jousting. But once the novel introduces the Scottish characters, it takes off with the kind of energy one would expect from a 19th-century romance or adventure novel. The story is full of a wonderful mythologizing of Scotland itself and a sense of the historical importance of the novel’s time and place.

Critical response to Rob Roy was almost unanimously favourable. For his power of characterization, Scott was now frequently compared with Shakespeare, with particular praise reserved for Bailie Nicol Jarvie and Andrew Fairservice, Frank's shrewd but cowardly manservant. The only substantial complaint on this count came from Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review , who perceived improbabilities in Scott's portrayal of Diana Vernon. Her manners, maturity and firmness of character, he argued, were unlikely given the society she grew up in. Readers, however, were enchanted by her boldness and wit. The novel was a tremendous commercial success, the original print run of 10,000, a huge figure for the time, being bought up in two weeks.


Historical Novel continues to be a popular genre among readers and authors alike. It is a genre, which is gaining more popularity with newer experiments by authors such as mixing it with other genres like science fiction, horror, mystery etc. A case in point is Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which is almost bordering on alternative history. But more and more serious and important works are being published in this genre, compelling one to say that it is a genre which is going to stay for sometime. And this fast paced, low-attention-span age, it is historical novel which is likely to hold its fort without compromising on profundity.

Scott's influence as a novelist was profound. He established the form of the historical novel and his work inspired such writers as Bulwer-Lytton, G. Eliot, and the Brontës. Scott’s amiability, generosity, and modesty made him popular with his contemporaries. He was also famous for entertaining on a grand scale at his Scottish estate, Abbotsford and there is also a significant revival of critical and scholarly interest on Scott.

Few novels can match “Rob Roy” for suspense and narrative daring, or in the swirl of colour of its characters. Scott's tour de force of family intrigue has two heroes. Francis Osbaldistone, dispatched in disgrace from London, joins his foxhunting cousins at their ancestral seat in Northumberland. His suspicions of villainous Rashleigh Osbaldistone, and the request of Diana Vernon, the cousin whom Francis loves, draw in Scott's other hero the brave, bitter Highlander and enigmatic outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. Set on the eve of the Jacobite rising of 1715, Rob Roy (1817), in some ways the quintessential English-Scottish encounter, does not give up its secrets until the very last page.


1. Sampson Mark. Review: Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott

2. Uglow, Nathan. "Historical Novel (British)". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2002 (http://www.litencyc.com/index.php)

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_novel

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott


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