Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Scott? Who reads Scott?

The novels of Sir Walter Scott were so familiar and important to the educator Charlotte Mason that she not only included them in term programs as a matter of course, but referred to them frequently in her own writings. The second part of her book Ourselves is loaded with illustrations from Scott (as well as from Dickens, George Eliot, Plutarch, and other writers with whom she assumed teenagers would be familiar!).
I can hardly conceive a better moral education than is to be had out of Scott and Shakespeare. I put Scott first as so much the more easy and obvious; but both recognise that the Will is the man....Both Shakespeare and Scott use, as it were, a dividing line, putting on the one side the wilful, wayward, the weak and the strong; and on the other, persons who will.--Charlotte Mason, Ourselves
Unfortunately, most of us didn't grow up reading Scott, and although we might have a vague idea of what Ivanhoe or Rob Roy are about, or might have heard about some of his poetry, many of the other books are strangers to us. Scott's books aren't even on a lot of best-books-you-must-read lists any more, except again maybe for Ivanhoe, and some people don't even count that really as one of his best books. I read one discussion of "classics" (I've forgotten what it was now) that simply lumped Scott with "writers who are no longer read," implying that there was good reason for that. The books are long, the first chapters are usually boring, they're extremely politically incorrect in all kinds of ways, and there are said to be lots of historical inaccuracies in them.

But if you want to do some exploring of what made Scott so vital to the Victorian mind, or if you want to get some idea of the plots of the novels, the Walter Scott Digital Archive is a good place to start. If you click on Works, you get a page for each book, with plot summaries; and the site has lots more Scott stuff as well. There's also a complete list of the books, if you want to see the "Waverley Novels" all in order.

A bit of Scott trivia to end with: did you know that those were the books that kept Laura sane during a difficult pregnancy in The First Four Years?
And now the four walls of the close, overheated house opened wide, and Laura wandered with brave knights and ladies fair beside the lakes and streams of Scotland or in castles and towers, in noble halls or lady's bower, all through the enchanting pages of Sir Walter Scott's novels.

She forgot to feel ill at the sight or smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book. When the books were all read and Laura came back to reality, she found herself feeling much better. (The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, pages 107-108)
I hope this helps anyone who's interested in Charlotte Mason but is as bewildered by all the references to Scott as I first was.

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