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Before Wolf Hall: How Sir Walter Scott invented historical fiction

Historical fiction, the form Walter Scott is credited with inventing, is currently experiencing something of a renaissance. It has always been popular, of course, but it rarely enjoys high critical esteem. Now, however, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s controversial portraits of Thomas Cromwell (in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), James Robertson’s multi-faceted studies of Scotland’s past (in The Fanatic and And the Land Lay Still), and Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, the genre has recovered serious ground, shrugging off the dubious associations of bag-wig, bodice, and the dressing-up box.

Part of the difficulty of finding a place for historical fiction lies with our belief that history (being fact) and fiction (being invention) are such completely different entities, when in truth the historian’s techniques (of retrospection, selection, and re-engagement) and tools (narration) are also those of the novelist. All history, however scrupulous its record, is written, like fiction, out of an excess of material, constrained and shaped by hindsight, and from a sense of significance unavailable to those living through it.

Women writers have long found success with historical fiction, and that too has on occasion been another obstacle to the form’s serious valuation. From the 1920s to the 1970s there was a flourishing female tradition. Several of its practitioners in Britain and North America were among the first generation of women university graduates; many saw active lives of public service during the First World War. For women writers like Naomi Mitchison, Hilda Lewis, Carola Oman, Dorothy Kathleen Broster, Eleanor Hibbert (who was both Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt), Anya Seton, Margaret Irwin, Mary Renault, and Norah Lofts and their readers, the historical novel was a space for mapping alternative histories, for expressing dissatisfaction with History’s orthodox and professional faces, and for supplementing the official record with the lives of the marginalized or those who appear not to have been there at all. Whose story will history tell? How many stories will it tell? The academy — what Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, called ‘real solemn history’ — only caught up around 1975. Under some circumstances, it is because fiction is invented that it can inform us about reality; historical novels can, as these women writers found, expand our understanding of history by means of the story that pretends to be true.

Sir Walter Scott by Henry Raeburn, 1822. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. National Galleries of Scotland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Walter Scott by Henry Raeburn, 1822. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. National Galleries of Scotland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ideas about the nature and uses of history, above all about its impact on the lives of men and women, are woven into historical fiction. If the professional historian need not always reflect on the purposes of history, the historical novelist should. In the best examples, a complex sense of the past makes for fiction that engages us critically or ethically with historical issues. Waverley is a novel about war and the pity and waste of war. It is set at precisely the same distance in the past for Scott as Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, about a group of Australian PoWs working on the Thailand-Burma ‘Death’ Railway in the early 1940s. In Scott’s case, the decisive historical event is the 1745-6 Jacobite rising, the last civil war fought on mainland Britain.

Edward Waverley, Scott’s romantic protagonist, is caught up in events that prove beyond his ability to comprehend. He earns our compassion not because he is heroic (he is not) but because in him we see represented what we understand to be our own condition of helplessness and moral inadequacy. Waverley refines our historical intelligence through the failures and education of his own. He makes terrible mistakes, he fails the men under his command, he has their blood on his hands. A fictional character, Waverley travels through history and out the other side. Others stay sealed within history – actual characters from the past, like Charles Edward Stuart, of course; yet others, fictional creations like the MacIvors, in standing for a particular fusion of history and imagination, develop Scott’s enduring fascination with fanaticism. Fanaticism implied for Scott a particularly malign relationship to history – one that refuses to acknowledge that the primary law of history is change.

Re-reading Scott’s novel in the early twenty-first century has been for me a powerful experience. Like Scott in 1814, we in 2015 are caught up in reassessing the past, as we continue the long commemoration of the centenary of the First World War and confront the legacies of twentieth-century conflicts across the globe. We are now exactly the same distance from the events of 1914-18 as those then active were from Waterloo. The events of 1745-6 had been a serious threat to British unity and were followed by terrible reprisals – the brutal suppression of the Highland clan system and the systematic destruction of an older way of life. More than sixty years later, Scott approached his subject under the shadow of another war – Britain’s long campaign against Napoleon, during which the exceptional heroism of the Highland regiments, now a weapon turned against enemies abroad, won them adulation at home. History, Scott knew, reaches long fingers into the future and has a way of returning in unexpected shapes.

Featured image: Old Books, CC0 via Pixabay.

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  1. […] fiction,” observes editor Kathryn Sutherland, “has always been popular, of course, but it rarely enjoys high critical esteem.” […]

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