Scotland's image-maker Sir Walter Scott 'invented English legends'
Author claims unfashionable novelist first wrote some of the famous exploits of Robin Hood and Sir Walter RaleighThe novels of Sir Walter Scott are now in England, at least almost unread. It is hard to imagine an author simultaneously so famous and so unfashionable, his novels frequently written off as prolix and unbearably dense.However, according to one writer and critic, the author of Ivanhoe and the Waverley novels was not only crucial in creating the idea of Scotland as it persists today, but also "invented England".Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Stuart Kelly argued that Scott invented a raft of English national stereotypes. That quintessentially English hero, Robin Hood, for example, owes some of his most famous exploits to the author.The notion of Robin's arrow splitting that of the Sheriff of Nottingham which appears in the Disney cartoon comes direct from Ivanhoe, in which Scott's character Wilfrid performs the deed. The detail, said Kelly, was then incorporated into later versions of the Robin Hood story.Scott was also, said Kelly, the first person to coin the phrase "the Wars of the Roses" to describe the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster, while the incident in which Sir Walter Raleigh laid his cloak before Elizabeth I to protect the royal footstep from a muddy puddle comes from Scott's novel Kenilworth.He was key in making "medievalism the centre of English experience", said Kelly. Without Scott, "there would probably have been a neo-classical houses of parliament rather than a neo-gothic houses of parliament".Scott, by way of novels such as Ivanhoe, popularised the notion of the centrality of the medieval period to the extent that its architecture was adopted as "the national style" when the new Palace of Westminster came to be built in 1835.Kelly also pointed out that the former prime minister Tony Blair chose Ivanhoe as his favourite novel when he appeared on the radio show Desert Island Discs in 1996. According to Kelly, in his new book Scotland: The Man Who Invented A Nation: "It was a canny choice. Blair chose a novel that ostentatiously lauded a national unity. It featured a leader committed to progressive reconciliation in its synthesis of Norman, Saxon and even Jewish elements as an allegory of a multicultural Britain."In terms of his effect on the reputation of his native Scotland, Kelly said Scott "invented a great simulacrum of Scotland; he invented the image of the country". Eighteenth-century accounts of the Highlands characterised them as "treacherous, poor, a hotbed of villains, and barren". Samuel Johnson's A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland 1775 was "an anthropological exercise to see what backwardness looked like". By contrast, post-Scott the Highlands were seen as "picturesque, romantic, loyal and a hive of industry and inventiveness," said Kelly.Scott's novels were the "fulcrum" around which Scotland's reputation turned: "The fact that we still have a national identity of any kind is down to Scott."Scott organised the visit to Edinburgh of George IV in 1822 the first visit to Scotland by a royal who was not arriving at the head of an army since James I. The king wore a kilt and silk stockings, sparking off a rage for tartan that has lasted to this day.Scott is also, said Kelly, "vastly underrated as a novelist. He is self-aware, exuberant and experimental." He described Scott as postmodern, and even put up an argument for his being an inventor of "cyber-literature". He said: "In the preface to The Betrothed he imagines a steam-powered novel engine producing books by machinery rather than inspiration."Although he wrote some "hasty things" and some "mad things", Scott's books "incarnate a deeply humane vision of the world", said Kelly. "None of his lower-class characters is a caricature. To that extent, he makes Dickens seem regressive. He also creates some of the earliest sympathetic portraits of Jewish and Hindu characters. It should be celebrated as a cosmopolitan, enlightened and humane writer. His Toryism was so close to Fabianism you can't put a credit card between them."No one else tried to deal in fiction with the entirety of a country its geography, politics, class structure, religion not Eliot, and not Dickens. Had he been alive today I think he would have taken on the new multicultural Scotland. He believed you were not necessarily born Scottish, but could become Scottish as does Edward Waverley."The writer Joan McAlpine argued that Scott's influence was far from wholly benign. As an arch-conservative, stolidly pro-union, he "perverted and emasculated" the image of Scotland, she said.Edinburgh international book festivalBritish identity and societyCharlotte Higginsguardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds