Walter Scott, the Original Number One

Roger Moore as Ivanhoe in a 1958 television adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel.
Roger Moore as Ivanhoe in a 1958 television adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel.

THAT SIR WALTER SCOTT was the first best-selling author is indisputable. His first major poem was so successful that the publisher offered the world’s first advance for the rights to his next work, sight unseen. Waverley (1814), his anonymously published debut novel, had sold more than fifty thousand copies by the time the “collected” edition of his works appeared. Even this figure must be an underestimate, since it excludes the pirated versions that appeared in Dublin, Boston, Philadelphia, and Calcutta and the translations into most major European languages. Even a relatively minor novel, The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), sold out its initial printing before 10:30 AM on the day of publication. Scott’s popularity, both commercially and critically, was unprecedented. But why he became the first best seller is a more problematic question.

The stereotype of the best seller is of a formulaic kind of writing; a genre that delivers exactly what the reader expects, as unchangingly as McDonald’s burgers. It is striking that Scott was aware throughout his career of the dangers of acquiring “the character of a mannerist.” There are broad consistencies across his novels that did, in time, ossify into cliché. There will usually be two heroines: a dangerous brunette (for example, Rebecca in Ivanhoe [1819] or Flora in Waverley) and a homely blonde (Rowena, Rose Bradwardine). The action will take place against a backdrop of a major political clash (Jacobites and Hanoverians, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Normans and Saxons), leading to a synthesis of the best elements of each faction. The principal antagonist will have shape-shifting characteristics, appearing across the narrative in various guises. In the later novels, Scott begins to indulge in conspiracy-theory versions of history, most notably in Anne of Geierstein (1829), which invokes the mysterious “Vehmic Courts,” a precursor of the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Knights Templar so beloved of contemporary best sellers.

Reading the novels sequentially, however, makes it evident that what he changes is far more striking than what remains constant. The opening of Waverley is a surprisingly tentative, self-reflexive piece of writing, where the anonymous author toys with different subtitles and their connotations (before deciding on ’Tis Sixty Years Since). The next two novels are less and less historical: Guy Mannering (1815) is a gothic yarn, with gypsies and smugglers, and The Antiquary (1816) is almost a modern comedy of manners. Scott, keen to preserve his anonymity, launched the next series as Tales of My Landlord and omitted the phrase “by the author of Waverley.” The decision to write Ivanhoe was prompted by a simple realization: Before Scott’s books were the Waverley Novels, the press referred to them as the Scottish Novels. He wrote: “It was plain, however, that frequent publication must finally wear out the public favor, unless some mode could be devised to give an appearance of novelty to subsequent productions.”

Scott clearly had a canny sense of what his readers wanted: But who were they? We have ample testimony from the likes of Austen, Byron, and Hazlitt, as well as a wealth of data in private memoirs and correspondence from less literary figures. Other pieces of evidence are as telling. Scott kept a “fan letter” from a Scottish shepherd praising his use of Scots dialect; another enthusiast from America wrote to ask that his name be included in some future work. The magisterial bibliography by William B. Todd and Ann Bowden cites eleven “derivatives” of Waverley—dramas, chapbooks, and suchlike—and nine extracts in anthologies before 1832. Scott was reaching readers who did not buy his books. It was, in modern parlance, multiplatform delivery. For the literati, the constant game of anonymity provided an ongoing pas de deux with the author. One, Sarah Green, even wrote an entire novel, Scotch Novel Reading, transposing Quixote’s symptoms to a London lass. It led to various “unlicensed” Waverley novels. When Scott did not write a novel, between 1824 and mid-1825, Thomas De Quincey translated a German counterfeit, Walladmor, which he called “the most complete literary hoax.” It is not hard to see a modern parallel in the Chinese “Hali Bote” imitations of J. K. Rowling.

The remainder of Scott’s career formed a pattern of feints and changes of topic, a constant itch of experimentalism: There are farces, epistolary novels, foreign settings, a counterfactual novel about a historical event that never happened, and a half-reasoning and vengeful orangutan, preempting “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Scott was quite self-conscious about the temptation to become mechanical, and in the most astonishing piece he wrote—the introduction to his first Tales of the Crusaders—he imagines a general meeting of the various authors of Waverley to form a joint-stock company. Their concern is that their line of business might be undermined by the invention of a steam-powered novel-writing loom:

It is to be premised, that this mechanical operation can only apply to those parts of the narrative which are at present composed out of common-places, such as the love-speeches of the hero, the description of the heroine’s person, the moral observations of all sorts, and the distribution of happiness at the conclusion of the piece. Mr. Dousterswivel has sent me some drawings, which go far to show, that by placing the words and phrases technically employed on these subjects in a sort of frame work, like that of the sage of Laputa, and changing them by such a mechanical process as that by which weavers of damask alter their patterns, many new and happy combinations cannot fail to occur, while the author, tired of pumping his own brains, may have an agreeable relaxation in the use of his fingers.

Scott did not merely invent the best seller—he preempted our anxieties about them.

Stuart Kelly is an editor at The Scotsman.