Tips for Reading The Original Historical Novel for the First Time

To the left, the Jacobite Monument at Loch Shiel Lake. To the right, picture of Sir Walter Scott in his study. Created with Canva.

It naturally occurred to me that the ancient traditions and high spirits of a people who, living in a civilized age and country, retained so strong a tincture of manners belonging to an early period of society, just afford a subject favorable for romance.

Sir Walter Scott

Reading Waverly isn’t something you can do on the weekend. Even a long weekend with nothing else to do. It’s long-winded in places. In others, you will want to actually familiarize yourself with a little historical fact before attempting to unravel what’s being said. 

The key to enjoying Sir Walter Scott is focusing on the plot itself, and not being afraid to look a few things up as you’re reading it.

So, I’m going to give you an overview of the story itself, but also some of the historical events that had an influence on the novel’s events. Personally, I think one of the most entertaining aspects of Waverly is the story of how it came to be published. Those who are keen fishers will appreciate this one! 

The story behind the story is just as entertaining, if not more so. 

Imagine this: you write about seven chapters of a novel, give it to a friend to review, and get told that it’s a load of crap. In a fit of sheer frustration, with perhaps a little bit of indigence, you thrust what you’ve written into a drawer and try to forget the whole thing. 

Which you do for a few years until, one day, you find you want some fishing tackle. You remember an old desk in which you used to keep a few bits of tackle and seek it out. There’s just one problem. 

The desk was moved up to an attic a while back and now has a bunch of other things in front of it. So, you wade through boxes of Christmas decorations, furniture, that dusty collection of china from your grandma’s house, and childhood mementos, and nearly bang your head on a few beams until you finally reach your destination. 

The desk! Eagerly, you rummage through, anticipating a long, lazy afternoon by a stream, breathing the air, feeling the sun, and listening to the breezes and birds. Never mind that you’re covered in dust in this point and probably feel slightly grimy. 

But what’s this? You open a drawer and find a bunch of pages stuffed in there. You read everything through and recognize the pages as the story you gave to your friend and were told it was crap. You read it again. 

It’s FANTASTIC! Your afternoon fishing expedition forgotten for the moment, you immediately sit down and start writing again. 

When it’s all done, a couple of months later, you decide to publish it anonymously. What if you think it’s fantastic, but everyone else also thinks it’s crap? You have a reputation, after all! 

It turns into an international bestseller and sells out within a couple of days. 

Everyone is rapturous and clamoring for more. 

That, in a nutshell, is how Sir Walter Scott came to write and publish Waverly. Scholars now dispute his account of events and insist he had to have continued working on it in the interim between when he says he first started writing and when he rediscovered the pages in his old desk. 

But, scholars have been wrong before. Also, you do have to do something to get tenure, after all. Even if it is to make silly claims that don’t really matter in the broad scheme of things, anyway. 

Besides, it makes a good story, doesn’t it? I can just imagine Scott sitting in the attic at his old desk, writing away while everyone else in the house wondered where he’d disappeared to when he was supposed to be fishing. Forget the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, let’s have a novel of the writer in the attic searching for fishing tackle and finding a novel! 

Photo by Anna Urlapova on

The novel is mostly a coming-of-age story where romance and fantasy are put in their proper places in the real world. 

The sum of the story is something a little like Don Quixote meets Northanger Abbey

Edward Waverly is the last of a long line of aristocrats through his father’s family who lives a very sheltered life with his old aunt and uncle in the country. His father, the younger son of the family, is more concerned with his own political career and, in a fit of pique, gets Edward a commission in the army to try to “toughen” him up. 

Edward, to this point, has been mostly a bookworm. He doesn’t like the world outside because he feels he doesn’t fit in with it and it doesn’t fit in with his romantic ideals. But, he looks forward to his new commission, even though it’s not without trepidation, because he feels that at last he’ll get to be like one of the chivalric knights of old. 

He goes off on a military campaign in Scotland and that is where all the trouble befalls him. Having read a prodigious number of medieval romances, he falls in love with the more rustic and robust character of native Scots and thinks it’s more in line with what he feels the world should be. Unfortunately, this leads him to fall in with Jacobite rebels. 

The reality turns out to be very different indeed and after he gets into serious trouble, the likes of which could have caused him to lose his head, he returns home, marries a sensible girl he met whilst in Scotland, and lives happily ever after. 

Eilean Donan Castle, left. Jacobite Line at Culloden, right. Created with Canva.

Brush up your historical knowledge! 

Waverly takes place during the very difficult early years of the House of Hanover. This is the line of Georges that not only saw the Prime Minister basically taking over matters of government but a long war with France through territorial disputes in North America and losing the American colonies. 

Busy years, eh? So, in no particular order, I’ve listed a few of the points you may want to keep in mind below. 

The Jacobite Uprisings were a combination of political and cultural struggles over Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom. 

The Jacobite Uprisings are a highly romanticized chapter of Scottish history and an important one not only for some of the discussions which still take place regarding Scottish independence, but also for Americans whose ancestors came from Scotland. 

Mostly, they were a dynastic struggle between the House of Stuart and the House of Orange/Hanover. The reason? The old struggle between Protestants and Catholics. Parliament didn’t want a monarch who was “too Catholic” on the throne and the Stuarts, having taken refuge in France, had become very Catholic indeed. 

But what about when the Stuarts were no longer kings of England? Didn’t that mean they should return to just ruling Scotland? 

Apparently not.

The state of the monarchy from the Tudors onward is an important backdrop to the historical literature of the early 19th century. 

When the Tudor dynasty ascended the English throne, it took over for a dynasty that had been in place since 1154. It did not ascend peacefully. England had once again shrunk. Under the Plantagenets, it had extended to rule over most of what we now know as France. By the time the dynasty ended, England was once again just one small country on one island. 

Why go back as far as the Tudors? It’s specifically because of Henry VII and Henry VIII’s attitude towards other potential claimants to the throne. 

The Plantagenets were very careful to keep the male line controlled. Women, they could always marry off and form alliances. Never mind that the women could still control things behind the scenes. 

The Tudors, however, hunted down and eradicated all potential lines to the throne. The only way the Plantagenets as a royal line were allowed to live on was through the Tudors. Undoubtedly, there were a few who got away, otherwise Richard III’s remains wouldn’t have been identified back in 2012.

Why is this important? It’s important because it’s why the House of Hanover got involved. There was no viable candidate closer to home except for the House of Stuart. 

Which brings us to another important piece of history. 

The murder of Charles I and the so-called Protectorate

Charles I’s beheading may have been met with rejoicing for some, but it was very short-lived. And it also plays a role in the background history for Waverly. The men who signed the death order for their king either ended up regretting it, or Charles II made sure they regretted it. 

Cromwell may have been a good administrator as things go, but that no one wanted to try republican rule again after the House of Stuart was deposed a second time says a lot. 

But, at the same time, it opened Pandora’s box. When Charles I was beheaded, it was suddenly all too easy to just make and unmake kings on a whim. And it’s precisely what happened. 

Much like when Lady Jane Grey was made queen for nine days centuries before. 

Every work designed for mere amusement must be expressed in language easily comprehended. 

Parts to skim during your first read-through. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Waverly was written in an age when people had more time and patience to read long sentences and imagine romantic scenes in the Scottish countryside. And while Sir Walter Scott’s language was easily understood in 1815, it’s not so easy in 2023. 

Also, some of the background information can get tedious. Remember, 18th and 19th-century authors didn’t use the “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling. That’s a more modern invention. 

So, in no particular order, here’s what I recommend you skim: 

  1. Description of Edward’s education (or lack thereof). It’s useful background information, but you probably won’t recognize any of the things Scott talks about. 
  2. Scenic descriptions of any kind. Skim these. We have pictures, and there are thousands of reels on Instagram with pictures of the Scottish landscape. 
  3. Parts of the sentence that are there just as decoration. It’s very common in Scott’s novels to have clauses that are there to make it more “conversational.” It may be conversational to an 1815 audience but language does change. 
  4. Anything that has nothing to do with the basic storyline. You have lots of dialogue discussing ideology, cultural issues, and political theory. Read them if you wish, but if you’re just trying to get to the meat of the storyline. Skim through. 

If you still find yourself at a loss, read my other tips for reading 18th and 19th-century novels

Ultimately, if Waverly doesn’t interest you, it doesn’t interest you. Don’t force yourself to read it. I doubt even Scott would have wanted that. 

But that story about how Sir Walter Scott discovered the manuscript when looking for fishing tackle is pretty good, isn’t it? 

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