Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book 140, Scotland: "Waverley" by Walter Scott

And ther's a hand, my trusty fiere, 
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll tak' a right good willie-waught,
For auld lang syne... 

A Happy New Year and a joyous Hogmanay to you all! And verily, 'tis a shame that I'm not doing Robert Burns's poems - read out a good portion of Tam O'Shanter to my partner at the Fengshan Centre hawker stalls, though.

Instead, I chose to get ahead with my readings for my Novel History class at UEA by reading what's arguably the world's first ever historical novel - a work by an author so worshipped in his native land that they built the world's largest literary monument to him; a novel so successful that it launched an entire line of Scots-themed novels and a flood of English tourism to the previously deserted Scottish highlands and an entire genre of tartan-wrapped myth-making Hibernomania that's culminated in Mel Gibson and Pixar movies; a novel so influential that the Edinburgh railway station is named after it!

Yessir, I'm talking about Waverley, that colossal and no-longer-very-popular novel in two volumes that's now overshadowed by Scott's other works like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, the latter of which is generally considered to be the most readable of his novels, despite not being about Scotland at all.

And indeed, there's something not very Scottish about Waverley itself. Sure enough, the story's set in Scotland - the entire first volume is basically a travelogue: an excursion from lowlands to highlands, with scenic views of peasants and robber barons and lairds and lords on the way, with commentaries on the hearty nature of Scottish breakfasts (mostly based on an abundance of oatcakes, from what I gathered). The second volume even follows the fate of the Jacobite Rebellion, wherein the Bonnie Prince Charlie, descendant of the Scots-descended Stuart throne overthrown by the Hanovers in the Glorious Revolution, battles to regain kingship of the United Kingdom, reinforced by his Scots allies.

But here's the thing: the eponymous character of the book, Edward Waverley of Waverley-Honour, is English. He's the son of the Lord of Waverley, and a captain in the army of King George, posted to Dundee, only wandering off to explore the countryside and encountering its colourful, kilt-arrayed inhabitants while on leave. Of course, due to some mixups, he's accused of desertion (this only happens at the end of Book One, as the plot takes a helluva long time to develop) and ends up in the care of the fiery laird Fergus MacIvor, allied to the Young Pretender (i.e. Prince Charlie), so that he's able to show his valour in the battles against his own army, on the side of the Scotsmen, all the while feeling guilty and conflicted but knowing that the men he's fighting for are stout-hearted and noble and true...

Honestly? This is exotica. We've seen the same tropes in Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar. TV Tropes calls it Going Native; I call it the insertion of a white (or more ethnonormative) protagonist into a non-white (non-ethnonormative) cultural struggle in order to make that conflict relatable to an audience that's been trained to only identify with white guys on screen. Despite its apparent intentions of expanding empathy, it supports a racist cultural status quo which white guys are always cast as the heroes, even when they're battling against the system their people established.

Waverley himself is a colourless everyman - said to be handsome and charming and invincible in battle only when he's swapped out his trousers for a kilt patterned with the Glennaquoich colours, but romantic and absent-minded otherwise, not unlike your prototypical English reader. He's young and moral and pure and not very rich until the end, Meanwhile, the Scots are foolish or impetuous and proud and wild, especially in their feminine apotheosis as the raven-haired, fiercely patriotic Flora MacIvor, whom we see early on in the novel reciting translations of Gaelic poetry to our hero while accompanying herself on the harp in the mountains, making his poor heart ache...

[SPOILER ALERT!!!] He doesn't get this girl, surprisingly, but does end up boffing another Scots noblewoman, the more subdued and innocent and tender-hearted Rose Bradwardine, who, like the conquered Scots territory, may be tamed and educated and improved until she's as sweet and noble as an English rose.[SPOILERS END.]

Didn't realise I'd do quite as postcolonial a reading on this as I did, but it's bleeding obvious. Still, it's  honestly a little reassuring to realise that the game of Orientalism goes back two hundred years (exactly!!!), when the colonial game was really only starting to get properly into its stride. And sure, Walter Scott was Scottish himself - a lowlander, not a highlander, though - and he was really just trying to inspire appreciation for his nation's romantic history. But the idea that this is what you have to do as a good ambassador for your country is hella creepy - that if you love your motherland, you've gotta pimp it.

Gah. But this wasn't actually a bad read, given that I could skim the Project Gutenberg e-book (there were even pictures!), and I was expecting far worse given the bad press that the Edinburgh Book Lovers Tour guide gave it. One less political note I should supply is that it sounded very Austen-esque at times. Shouldn't have been a surprise, given that she was Scott's contemporary, but the bad Latin and French-spouting numbskull Baron of Bradwardine and the way Flora turns down love with the supremest of rational logic had me definitely thinking of Pride and Sense and Prejudice and Sensibility and Persuasion and Lady Emma Susan Mansfield Northanger Park Abbey.

And thus ends my tour of the British Isles! Can't believe it's taken more than a whole semester to explore. Btw, I'd actually considered doing another previously completed item of coursework for Scotland - an example of tartan noir from my crime fiction class. Despite that omission, I'd still thoroughly recommend Denise Mina's The End of the Wasp Season. This country's got a lot of good writing in it.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: While, plunged in the sad reflections which the scene excited, he was looking around for some one who might explain the fate of the inhabitants, he heard a voice from the interior of the building singing, in well-remembered accents, an old Scottish song:—

They came upon us in the night,
And brake my bower and slew my knight;
My servants a' for life did flee,
And left us in extremitie.

They slew my knight, to me sae dear;
They slew my knight, and drave his gear;
The moon may set, the sun may rise,
But a deadly sleep has closed his eyes.

Next book: Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, from Denmark.

No comments: