Sir Walter Scott, 1771–1832.

Portrait

Biographical note

Poet, novelist, and biographer, son of Walter Scott, a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, and Margaret Rutherford, daughter of one of the Prof. of Medicine in the University there. Through both parents he was connected with several old Border families; his father was a scion of the Scotts of Harden, well known in Border history. In early childhood he suffered from a severe fever, one of the effects of which was a permanent lameness, and for some time he was delicate. The native vigour of his constitution, however, soon asserted itself, and he became a man of exceptional strength. Much of his childhood was spent at his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe, Roxburghshire, and almost from the dawn of intelligence he began to show an interest in the traditionary lore which was to have so powerful an influence on his future life, an interest which was nourished and stimulated by several of the older members of his family, especially one of his aunts. At this stage he was a quick-witted, excitable child, who required rather to be restrained than pressed forward. At the age of 7 he was strong enough to be sent to the High School of Edinburgh, where he was more remarkable for miscellaneous and out-of-the-way knowledge and his powers of story-telling than for proficiency in the ordinary course of study; and notwithstanding his lameness, he was to be found in the forefront wherever adventure or fighting were to be had. Thereafter he was for three sessions at the University, where he bore much the same character as at school. He was, however, far from idle, and was all the time following the irresistible bent, which ultimately led to such brilliant results, in a course of insatiable reading of ballads and romances, to enlarge which he had by the time he was 15 acquired a working knowledge of French and Italian, and had made the acquaintance of Dante and Ariosto in the original. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, published in 1765, came into his hands in 1784, and proved one of the most formative influences of this period. At 15 he was apprenticed to his father, but preferring the higher branch of the profession, he studied for the Bar, to which he was called in 1792. He did not, however, forego his favourite studies, but ransacked the Advocates’ Library for old manuscripts, in the deciphering of which he became so expert that his assistance soon came to be invoked by antiquarians of much longer standing. Although he worked hard at law his ideal was not the attainment of an extensive practice, but rather of a fairly paid post which should leave him leisure for his favourite pursuits, and this he succeeded in reaching, being appointed first in 1799 Sheriff of Selkirk, and next in 1812 one of the Principal Clerks to the Court of Session, which together brought him an income of £1600.

Meanwhile in 1795 he had translated Bürger’s ballad of Lenore, and in the following year he made his first appearance in print by publishing it along with a translation of The Wild Huntsman by the same author. About the same time he made the acquaintance of “Monk” Lewis, to whose collection of Tales of Wonder he contributed the ballads of Glenfinlas, The Eve of St. John, and The Grey Brother; and he published in 1799 a translation of Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen. In 1797 he was married to Miss Charlotte Margaret Charpentier, the daughter of a French gentleman of good position. The year 1802 saw the publication of Scott’s first work of real importance, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, of which 2 vols. appeared, the third following in the next year. In 1804 he went to reside at Ashestiel on the Tweed, where he ed. the old romance, Sir Tristrem, and in 1805 he produced his first great original work, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was received with great favour, and decided that literature was thenceforth to be the main work of his life. In the same year the first few chapters of Waverley were written; but the unfavourable opinion of a friend led to the MS. being laid aside for nearly 10 years.

In 1806 Scott began, by a secret partnership, that association with the Ballantynes which resulted so unfortunately for him 20 years later. Marmion was published in 1808: it was even more popular than the Lay, and raised his reputation proportionately. The same year saw the publication of his elaborate ed. of Dryden with a Life, and was also marked by a rupture with Jeffrey, with whom he had been associated as a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, and by the establishment of the new firm of J. Ballantyne and Co., of which the first important publication was The Lady of the Lake, which appeared in 1810, The Vision of Don Roderick following in 1811.

In 1812 Scott purchased land on the Tweed near Melrose, and built his famous house, Abbotsford, the adornment of which became one of the chief pleasures of his life, and which he made the scene of a noble and kindly hospitality. In the same year he published Rokeby, and in 1813 The Bridal of Triermain, while 1814 saw The Life and Works of Swift in 19 vols., and was made illustrious by the appearance of Waverley, the two coming out in the same week, the latter, of course, like its successors, anonymously. The next year, The Lord of the Isles, Guy Mannering, and The Field of Waterloo appeared, and the next again, 1816, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, The Antiquary, The Black Dwarf, and Old Mortality, while 1817 saw Harold the Dauntless and Rob Roy. The enormous strain which Scott had been undergoing as official, man of letters, and man of business, began at length to tell upon him, and in this same year, 1817, he had the first of a series of severe seizures of cramp in the stomach, to which, however, his indomitable spirit refused to yield, and several of his next works, The Heart of Midlothian [1818], by many considered his masterpiece, The Bride of Lammermoor, The Legend of Montrose, and Ivanhoe, all of 1819, were dictated to amanuenses, while he was too ill to hold a pen. In 1820 The Monastery, in which the public began to detect a falling off in the powers of the still generally unknown author, appeared. The immediately following Abbot, however, showed a recovery. Kenilworth and The Pirate followed in 1821, The Fortunes of Nigel in 1822; Peveril of the Peak, Quentin Durward, and St. Ronan’s Well in 1823; Redgauntlet in 1824, and Tales of the Crusaders (The Betrothed and The Talisman) in 1825.

By this time Scott had long reached a pinnacle of fame such as perhaps no British man of letters has ever attained during his lifetime. He had for a time been the most admired poet of his day, and though latterly somewhat eclipsed by Byron, he still retained great fame as a poet. He also possessed a great reputation as an antiquary, one of the chief revivers of interest in our ancient literature, and as the biographer and ed. of several of our great writers; while the incognito which he maintained in regard to his novels was to many a very partial veil. The unprecedented profits of his writings had made him, as he believed, a man of wealth; his social prestige was immense; he had in 1820 been made a baronet, when that was still a real distinction, and he had been the acknowledged representative of his country when the King visited it in 1822.

All this was now to change, and the fabric of prosperity which he had raised by his genius and labour, and which had never spoiled the simplicity and generosity of his character, was suddenly to crumble into ruin with, however, the result of revealing him as the possessor of qualities even greater and nobler than any he had shown in his happier days. The publishing and printing firms with which he had been connected fell in the commercial crisis of 1826, and Scott found himself at 55, and with failing health, involved in liabilities amounting to £130,000. Never was adversity more manfully and gallantly met. Notwithstanding the crushing magnitude of the disaster and the concurrent sorrow of his wife’s illness, which soon issued in her death, he deliberately set himself to the herculean task of working off his debts, asking only that time might be given him. The secret of his authorship was now, of course, revealed, and his efforts were crowned with a marvellous measure of success. Woodstock, his first publication after the crash, appeared in the same year and brought £8000; by 1828 he had earned £40,000. In 1827 The Two Drovers, The Highland Widow, and The Surgeon’s Daughter, forming the first series of Chronicles of the Canongate, appeared together with The Life of Napoleon in 9 vols., and the first series of Tales of a Grandfather; in 1828 The Fair Maid of Perth and the second series of Tales of a Grandfather, Anne of Geierstein, a third series of the Tales, and the commencement of a complete ed. of the novels in 1829; a fourth and last series of Tales, History of Scotland, and other work in 1830. Then at last the overworked brain gave way, and during this year he had more than one paralytic seizure. He was sent abroad for change and rest, and a Government frigate was placed at his disposal. But all was in vain; he never recovered, and though in temporary rallies he produced two more novels, Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous, both in 1831, which only showed that the spell was broken, he gradually sank, and died at Abbotsford on September 21, 1832.

The work which Scott accomplished, whether looked at as regards its mass or its quality, is alike marvellous. In mere amount his output in each of the four departments of poetry, prose fiction, history and biography, and miscellaneous literature is sufficient to fill an ordinary literary life. Indeed the quantity of his acknowledged work in other departments was held to be the strongest argument against the possibility of his being the author of the novels. The achievement of such a result demanded a power of steady, methodical, and rapid work almost unparalleled in the history of literature. When we turn to its quality we are struck by the range of subject and the variableness of the treatment. In general there is the same fulness of mind directed by strong practical sense and judgment, but the style is often heavy, loose, and even slipshod, and in most of his works there are “patches” in which he falls far below his best. His poetry, though as a whole belonging to the second class, is full of broad and bold effects, picturesqueness, and an irresistible rush and freshness. As a lyrist, however, he stands much higher, and in such gems as “Proud Maisie” and “A weary lot is thine, Fair Maid,” he takes his place among our greatest singers. His chief fame rests, of course, upon the novels. Here also, however, there is the same inequality and irregularity, but there is a singular command over his genius in virtue of which the fusing, creating imagination responds to his call, and is at its greatest just where it is most needed. For the variety, truth, and aliveness of his characters he has probably no equal since Shakespeare, and though, of course, coming far behind, he resembles him alike in his range and in his insight. The most remarkable feature in his character is the union of an imagination of the first order with practical sagacity and manly sanity, in this also resembling his great predecessor.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

See also:

Works

The "Waverley" Novels

Chronicles of the Canongate

Tales of My Landlord

Tales from Benedictine Sources

The Keepsake Stories [1828]

Poems

Plays

  • Halidon Hill [1822]
  • The Doom of Devorgoil, a melodrama [1830]
  • Auchindrane or the Ayrshire tragedy [1830]

Other Works

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