“The story of Waverley has the potential to excite and inspire, whether one tends to the Hanoverian or to the Jacobite side during that sad and turbulent period in which the novel is set.
It is a potential never fully realised. The plot, like its central character, wanders aimlessly through the land of Great Britain without a central driving theme. It is a love story of a sort but a sluggish one; as an historical epic, it lacks the fire, drama and tragedy that events of 1745 could so easily have provided. The novel is cluttered with classical references and with Latin, French, Gaelic and ‘Scots’ English dialogue, all of which slow the pace as, unless one is proficient in these languages, continual reference to the notes is essential. Though brought up in Scotland, I found the last of these at times almost incomprehensible.
The main characters (with the possible exception of the Baron of Bradwardine, notwithstanding his Latin obsession) are pale shadows of Scott’s later heroes and heroines. Edward Waverley is no Ivanhoe; neither Rose nor Flora has the appeal of Rebecca or Jeanie Deans. Charles Edward Stuart sparkles for a short while but too soon disappears into the mists of history. McIvor, for me, is unconvincing as a warlike Highland chieftain. The theme of friendship and love across the political and religious divide is handled much better three quarters of a century later by Stevenson in his portrayal of David Balfour, Alan Breck and Catriona.
That Waverley is a ‘bad’ novel does not mean that it is bad writing. There are many descriptive passages worthy of Scott, the master storyteller, at his best. The evening of wine and Scotch at the Baron’s castle, followed by the obligatory alcoholic romp into the nearby village is surely an example of binge drinking to vie with any such in the twenty-first century. The mustering of the clans too is as colourful in print as it must have been in reality. There are flashes throughout of Scott’s unique dry humour, and moments when one feels, at last, that the narrative is about to take off. It never does.
The problem is that it does not hang together in the way that, say, The Heart of Midlothian, Ivanhoe and Kenilworth do. These three, for me, are among the greatest novels ever written in the English language. Although, in Kenilworth, we know that Amy Robsart is to be murdered, the pace, suspense and emotion of the writing have us believing, for a space of time, that history will be defeated and she will be saved. In Waverley, I detect none of that. It seems as if the author tires occasionally of his task and, instead of spiking it with new emotion or drama, lets the momentum tail away.
For all its faults, Waverley is worth reading for a foretaste of the much greater Scott works to come. However, of all the novels that are classed in the Waverley series, it is one that should most definitely not be read first.