How Sir Walter Scott Changed the Face of World Literature

One of the 19th century’s most bestselling authors, Sir Walter Scott, whose fame spanned the globe, created the historical novel and influenced generations of writers in Britain, Europe, and America.

Sep 9, 2022By Michael Gouck, BA English Literature (Honours), MA Victorian Studies

how sir walter scott changed world literature


World literature of the 19th century was transformed by the publication of one novel in 1814. Waverley by Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott introduced a new form of fiction: the historical novel. This single title, issued anonymously, as were many of Scott’s subsequent novels, was destined to revolutionize how writers of fiction used history. Scott showed authors across the globe that previous fictional representations of the past had been limited in scope. By fusing together narrative elements addressing national identity, class issues, and regional conflicts, he showed it was possible to create literature that was aesthetically significant as well as socially transformative. Over the course of the following eighteen years, Scott enjoyed worldwide celebrity. However, like many of the tragic characters in his novels, Scott’s fame was won at great personal cost.


Sir Walter Scott Becomes the “Wizard of the North”

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Portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1822, via National Galleries Scotland


One of the earliest occurrences of Sir Walter Scott being referred to as the “Wizard of the North” was in the periodical The Literary Gazette on July 14th, 1821. For many critics and readers, Scott had magically transformed fiction into something fresh and new during the previous seven years. The nickname, not always kindly used by critics in the decades to come, was an attempt to capture the extent of Scott’s fame and reputation as the most popular and significant writer of his time.


Since the publication in 1814 of the historical novel Waverley, the prolific Scott had produced a series of novels that revolutionized the fiction of the period. He had brought to life a new form of fiction: the historical novel. Although previous writers had used history, Scott’s innovations ushered in new uses of it in fiction.


Drawing on the inheritance of the Scottish Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the idea of progress, Scott’s novels were not merely entertainments or novels of manners. They sought to balance the need for realism with the opportunity for fiction to portray social and personal change in response to the powerful forces of societal disorder. Although they were referred to as Historical Romances, with an implicit suggestion that they would focus on the grand and the emotional, Scott’s novels went beyond the limitations of previous romance writers in poetry and fiction. His novels addressed issues of national identity, political power, and how the environment shapes individual destiny. Scott showed writers new ways to use history in fiction. As a consequence, Scott’s influence spread outside Britain to Europe and America.

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Scott Emerges as an Important Literary Figure

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Bonnie Prince Charlie Entering the Ballroom at Holyroodhouse by John Pettie, 1892, via Royal Collection Trust


In 1828, the German writer Goethe described the novel Waverley as being one of “the best works that have ever been written in this world.” This was high praise coming from one of the greatest European writers. It showed the extent of the Scottish author’s reach across Europe’s culture.


Waverley’s author, Sir Walter Scott, was born in 1771, and studied law at Edinburgh University. Following his father into the legal profession, Scott held the position of Clerk in the senior Scottish civil court, the Court of Session in Edinburgh. His literary career began with poetry in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Works such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake were hugely popular and established Scott as a literary figure of importance. These poetical works were the fruit of Scott’s early years, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Scottish Borders and its people. As would be the case with the novels, Scott’s evocation of landscape and the romantic depiction of its grandeur inspired legions of visitors from all over Britain eager to see the locations he described.


However, Scott had greater literary ambitions. Partially as a result of Byron’s success in 1812 with “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” eclipsing his fame as a poet, Scott revised a novel he had started to write a few years before. Waverley, or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since, was published in three volumes in 1814 and set against the background of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The novel quickly became a sensation. With Waverley, Scott established the key elements he would later incorporate into many of his stories.


Scott Remakes the Novel of History

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George IV at St Giles’s, Edinburgh by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1822, via Tate Museum, London


As Andrew Sanders has pointed out in The Victorian Historical Novel (1840-1880), in many of Scott’s novels, a relatively innocent central character encounters opposing forces within a particular and well-defined historical context. As a result of this encounter and the dramatic events which follow, a resolution is reached either through accepting the status quo or as a result of a renewed commitment to a progressive order in society. The hero is often passive; an observer distanced from any direct involvement in the historical events. Waverley became the template for many of Scott’s future works.


This narrative form allowed Sir Walter Scott to use the novel to explore the dynamics of social power and question the nature of such issues as the misuse of authority and the place of tradition in society. He also encouraged the nineteenth-century reader to apply the answers to such questions in their contemporary lives. Scott’s literary art was complex and extended the use of history in fiction beyond the boundaries set in the previous century by more realistic writers such as Richardson and Fielding.


The result of Scott’s work was that authors in Victorian Britain seized upon the freedom he had created and used the historical novel as a vehicle to address issues crucial to their lives. Scott’s impact on Victorian fiction was immense. Writers like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray built upon Scott’s legacy to transform the historical novel into a central part of Victorian literary life.


In 1822, George IV made the first state visit to Scotland since the Act of Union of 1707. Scott was involved in organizing the event, which was intended to promote Scottish and British unity. It indicated just how far Scott had become a part of the establishment that he could take such an important role in the occasion. The writer of historical romance had become a towering figure at the heart of 19th-century British culture.


Scott Becomes a Global Bestseller

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Rebecca and the Wounded Ivanhoe by Eugène Delacroix, 1823, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In Europe, Scott’s novels swept across the continent, gathering near-universal praise and admiration. They proved particularly popular in France. Given the country’s recent turbulent history during the Napoleonic Wars and political uncertainty in the early decades of the century, French readers embraced the historical novel as envisioned by Scott. As was the case in Victorian Britain, Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction proved useful as entertainment as well as demonstrating how history could inform the present.


National identity was a growing concern throughout Europe. Nation states from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains were in the throws of growth and development. Scott’s translations drew qualified praise from Tolstoy in Russia and Manzoni in Italy, each of whom saw the historical novel as a vehicle for socially persuasive narrative. These writers believed that historical narratives could be used for political purposes.


In the decades following Scott’s death in 1832, historical romance became France’s dominant form of fiction. Alexandre Dumas turned away from writing theatrical drama and seized the opportunity to use history for fiction. The Three Musketeers and many other tales established the ambitious Dumas as the preeminent French author of historical romance. Dumas mined the rich vein of French history, producing vast quantities of fiction and enjoying huge financial rewards. Other significant French writers praised Scott for his achievements. In 1838, Balzac claimed that the “whole world has posed before the creative genius of Scott and has there, so to speak, beheld itself.”


Scott Crosses the Atlantic 

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The Last of the Mohicans: The Death of Cora by Thomas Cole, ca. 1827, via University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


Scott’s fame was not confined to the European continent. He was the first globally successful author, with his novels reaching all parts of the British Empire and beyond. From India to Brazil, from Africa to America, Scott was widely translated and read.


In America, James Fenimore Cooper, who had briefly met Scott while in Paris, understood what Scott had achieved and set out to apply what he had learned to his own writing. Like Waverley, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was a narrative that took place just over half a century before it was written. And like the Scottish Highlander and the wilderness he inhabited, Cooper’s protagonists struggled against forces vying to shape a nation, in this case, that of colonial America. Cooper took from Sir Walter Scott a powerful idea of location, emphasizing the romantic nature of the landscape and the notion that social pressures could shape the sensibilities and destinies of its characters. Out of the wilderness, Cooper portrayed the struggles of disordered societies, which Scott had also placed at the heart of his own work.


Artist Thomas Cole memorably depicted scenes from Cooper’s novel. However, not everyone in America looked favorably upon Scott. Mark Twain went so far as to blame Scott’s novel Ivanhoe for creating a fascination with chivalry in the South and, consequently, sowing the seeds for the American Civil War.


Taking a more measured view in 1864, the novelist Henry James praised Scott’s art, especially his creation of memorable characters. For James, the Scottish writer was simply a “born storyteller.”


The Wizard’s Powers Begin to Wane

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The Facade of Abbotsford, the Home of Sir Walter Scott, seen through the Entrance Gate by Sir William Allan, 1832, via National Galleries of Scotland


As his reputation spread around the globe, Sir Walter Scott’s life in Scotland took a tragic turn. A financial crisis in Britain in 1825 eventually caused the downfall of Scott’s publisher. Due to the complexity of Scott’s financial affairs, as he pursued the wealth to enable him to build his grand Scottish Baronial-style residence at Abbotsford, he found himself deeply in debt. Faced with various options, including bankruptcy, Scott chose to repay, in full, all his creditors. The sum of money involved was colossal, amounting to what would be millions of pounds in today’s currency.


For the remaining seven years of his life, Scott devoted himself to the task of repaying every penny he owed by writing as much as he could. For him, repayment of the debt was a matter of honor. Eventually, his exertions took their toll on his health, and Scott died in 1832. Before he died, he created a definitive collected edition of his works, the “Magnum Opus” as it came to be known. Some years after his passing, mainly due to the income from the collected edition and sale of copyrights, his debts were entirely paid off. He was buried in nearby Dryburgh Abbey alongside his wife, Charlotte.


Sir Walter Scott’s Reputation & Legacy

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Dryburgh Abbey by Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1832, via Tate Museum, London


A century after Scott’s passing, the critic G.K. Chesterton observed that “continental poets, like Goethe and Victor Hugo, would hardly have been themselves without Scott.” This assessment went against the grain of prevailing opinion about Scott.


As the 19th century passed, Scott’s works were judged harshly, especially by Scottish critics eager to deconstruct what they believed to be a flawed image of Scotland. Scott’s style was deemed to be long-winded and pedestrian. The veracity of his portrayal of historical events was called into question. In the eyes of some critics, Scott could no longer be counted among the greats of British literature.


However, critics have been hard at work renewing our view of Scott. They have come to realize that Scott’s contribution to world literature was as significant as those European writers of his generation considered it to be. Scott had transformed the novel, granting it new life and fresh possibilities. He had granted writers who came after him the permission to use history in ways that transcended mere entertainment. Scott’s true legacy was the renewal of the novel, increasing its potential. Completing his own assessment in the early part of the 20th century, Chesterton went further, placing the enormity of Sir Walter Scott’s true achievement in a broader context: “Scott made Scottish Romances, but he made European Romance.”

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By Michael GouckBA English Literature (Honours), MA Victorian StudiesMichael has a BA (Honours) in English Literature and an MA in Victorian Studies from the University of London. He currently writes historical fiction full-time and has a deep and continuing fascination with every aspect of nineteenth-century Victorian society.