Scott's Waverley Novels and their Midwest Legacy

Waverley-Honour, Edward Waverley's childhood home

"Waverley-Honour.--A Retrospect," Waverley (1814)


Meg Merrilies, chapter 52, Guy Mannering

Meg Merrilies, Guy Mannering (1815)


In his first novel, Scott links the name Waverley to the concept of honor through the protagonist’s hereditary estate, Waverley-Honour (hyphenated, to signal the connection), and Waverley's loyalty to his family and the principled people he meets. Reared in England, primarily by his pro-Jacobite uncle but by birth son to a Hanoverian Member of Parliament, Edward Waverley travels north through the Lowlands and then Highlands of Scotland and becomes entangled in political intrigue as the final Jacobite rebellion begins. Although he wavers between Hanoverian and Jacobite allegiance as he fulfills his romantic longing for authentic Scottish experiences, Waverley always seeks to act honorably. He also remains steadfast in his loyalty to family and friends, regardless of their political beliefs. They, in turn, stay loyal to him and reinforce his ideas of honor. For example, the English Colonel Talbot (whose life Waverley saves) advises and protects Waverley in a father-like manner, despite their partisan views. Talbot instructs both Waverley and the reader that “[i]f the path of gratitude and honour were always smooth and easy, there would be little merit in following it” (260). Far from home during most of his difficult journey, Waverley relies upon his pedigree of honor, significantly rooted in place.

Emblematic characters in other Waverley novels likewise embrace honor and show notable integrity, many undertaking selfless actions in order to benefit those they love. Two of my favorites include Meg Merrilies, in Guy Mannering, and Jeanie Deans, in The Heart of Midlothian. Six-feet tall and with elf-locks “like the snakes of a gorgon” (14), the fortune-telling Meg Merrilies capers into the narrative with a formidable presence that belies the altruistic role she plays. Meg proves her fidelity to those she loves, saving a life and helping to restore a rightful inheritance (I don't want to be a plot spoiler, thus the lack of detail). Jeanie Deans undertakes a very different but equally compelling role in The Heart of Midlothian. She refuses to compromise her own integrity by perjuring herself when her sister Effie is accused of infanticide. Instead, Jeanie walks from Edinburgh to London to gain the King’s pardon, in order to save her sister’s life. A theme of honor runs throughout these and other novels, marking characters with distinction.    

Americans could have been attracted to an idea of honor that is both rooted in place, such as a town called Waverly, yet freely relatable across different traditions and beliefs. Genevieve Bean and Mary Cheville suggest this possibility when they explain that William Harmon founded and named Waverly, Iowa (incorporated 1859) after Scott’s novels, with the hope its denizens would embody the “honor, courtesy, and generosity” Scott’s novels espouse (7). After reading Waverleyone student also wondered if Scott might be showing “that there is honor in understanding your opponent and in accepting other cultures” (Murtagh), since Waverley remains loyal to both family and new friends, which in turn gets him out of crises he encounters. Perhaps a naïve yet honorable character such as Waverley encourages readers to learn about and accept individuals who otherwise might merit suspicion, simple due to cultural differences. 

"A New Map of Scotland," 1845, by I. Slater

"A New Map of Scotland," 1845, by I. Slater

Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

Colton's railroad & township map, western states compiled from the United States surveys

"Colton's Railroad & Township Map, Western States," 1853

Border Crossings

While Scott’s novels explore dissimilar political, religious, and class experiences, they revel in the dynamic nature of national identity as characters move across borders and even reside, at times, in Debatable Lands, a name used for three hundred years to describe a portion of the English-Scottish borders. Scott was fascinated with the instability of the Scottish Borders, illustrated most poignantly in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3), the three-volume work that launched his literary career. In his novel The Monastery (1820), for example, Scott underscores personal, religious, and national conflicts unfolding in the sixteenth-century Borders, after they have been devastated by Henry the VIII’s attempts to enforce marriage between the infant Mary Queen of Scots and his own heir. Encompassing a larger area and positioned between northern England and the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish Lowlands also commanded Scott’s attention. Lowland settings range from the Galloway coast in Guy Mannering—rife with astrological predictions, ballads, smugglers, and featuring the nomadic Meg Merrilies—to East Lothian, in The Bride of Lammermoor; Loch Lomond, in Rob Roy; a little village “not above thirty miles distant from the English frontier,” in St. Ronan’s Well; and the urban center of Edinburgh, in The Heart of Midlothian. Other stories emphasize national and international border crossings, such as IvanhoeThe TalismanAnne of Geierstein, and Count Robert of Paris, among others. Almost all of Scott’s novels feature characters whose travel enables them to understand and find meaning in their own and other cultures they encounter, particularly as they move into unfamiliar regions. Borders, Scott seems to suggest, provide space for negotiation between cultures and seemingly irreconcilable differences. 

Scott’s exploration of borders may have enhanced his novels’ appeal to Midwesterners, who stood in a fluctuating frontier space or buffer zone between east and west, north and south, especially in the mid-nineteenth century, as Waverlys were being founded.  Less stable than contemporary British borders, the constantly shifting periphery of the United States during the nineteenth century must have intensified a sense of “borderness” in unprecedented ways as Americans pressed west. Note the regions featured on "Colton’s Railroad & Township Map," published in 1853. Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848) had only gained statehood in the previous seven years, and between 1850 and 1890, fourteen more states had joined the United States. Boundaries mattered to these land-locked citizens as they decided political allegiances and organized governance, but borders also united Americans as they structured and helped manage disparate populations and environments (Everett 3). As many Midwesterners discovered, in fact, homogeneity was less significant than the strength of cooperative and tolerant communities, a concept they may have felt illustrated collectively in the Waverley novels. As Andrew Cayton suggests, historical novels “constituted a space in which authors, characters, and readers together contemplated the unfolding of relationships over time. Borders existed, to be sure, but fiction encouraged people everywhere to imagine the value of crossing or ignoring them” (10). In addition, as narratives of travel and discovery—personal, regional, and national—the Waverley novels link history to geography and exploration, a distinct reality to which Americans could relate as they moved through or settled in the Midwest. 

Knights at deadly combat, Ivanhoe, chapter 9

Knights at deadly combat, Ivanhoe (1820)

Cultural Clashes

Specific cultural clashes that unfold during crucial historical moments remain central to Scott's work, yet his historical fiction also resonates with modern appeal. While Waverley develops during the cataclysmic events of the disastrous Jacobite uprising of 1745-6, Scott alludes to a more universal and timeless relevance as he throws “the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors;--those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day” (5), all periods he explores in subsequent novels. Readers encountering Waverley in 1814 would also have reflected upon their own contemporary national struggles and political uncertainties. At the time Waverley was published (July 1814), Napoleon had only recently been exiled to Elba, after years at war with Great Britain, and the United States was still engaged with Great Britain in what we now call the War of 1812. Neither Great Britain nor America were at peace until 1815. 

Ivanhoe, perhaps one of the best known Waverley novel to many 21st-century readers, provides a memorable example of how Scott negotiates and resolves national and ethnic conflicts to which contemporary readers might relate. First, the story breaks away from a primary focus on Scotland to explore a broader national, even international stage: Norman-Saxon enmity after William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, as well as Jewish persecution and Middle Eastern conflict, once the Crusaders return from the East. Second, the novel concludes by symbolizing “future peace and harmony betwixt two races” (498) and creates “a new historical romance of English origins” (Duncan xiii). As Ian Duncan points out, “Ivanhoe represents a politically divided (rather than organically harmonious) medieval England in order to draw the dynamics of compromise,” at a time post-war Britain was facing agitation for Radical reform and governmental repression (xiv-xv). Scott’s tendency to advocate for flexibility and conciliation during crucial transitional moments in history held strong emotional appeal for readers.   

Likewise, other Waverley novels highlight particular cultures while suggesting connections amongst more universal human experiences. In The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move, her persuasive study of the interplay between memory-making and modernization, Ann Rigney argues that Scott’s novels “helped specifically in stimulating identification across existing social and ethnic borders, in a way that was well matched to an age where people were migrating, mixing, and evermore connected through media” (4). Scott did this, she suggests, by showcasing the past in order “to provide the imaginative conditions for taking leave of it: he defused its capacity to disrupt the present by turning it into an object of display” (4).  Historical in content yet modern in conception, in other words, Scott’s stories and characters provided American readers an imaginative way to remember the past, articulate contemporary values, and define their identities in new settings. As the interstitial borderland between north and south, east and west, the Midwest, Midlands, or Middle Land (Schwieder)—as the central portion of the United States is variously known—served as a geo-political area of negotiation where different ideologies naturally collided in the nineteenth century as heterogeneous populations intermingled at an increasingly accelerated pace. Ultimately, Midwesterners benefitted from the richly layered engagement that unfolded in the region, and Scott's emphasis on conciliation may well have suited their tastes.