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A pair of lovers separated by political belief; a man driven to fight by oppressive laws; a developing country in the throes of modernity: Walter Scott’s Rob Roy is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. The central events in this intricate novel are set in rebellious eighteenth-century Scotland and northern England, as seen through the eyes of Frank Osbaldistone, a young Englishmen in search of adventure. In the north, Frank falls in love with the clever and beautiful Diana Vernon, and encounters the real-life Highland outlaw Rob Roy McGregor. Dreams of romance, however, give way to stark reality as Frank is drawn against his will and personal convictions into a plot to overthrow the British monarchy. Mysterious, dark, and emotionally complex, Rob Roy has long been enjoyed by readers as a thrilling story and is now identified by critics as a key narrative about the creation of modern Great Britain. The novel features some of Scott’s most memorable characters and is shot through with moments of sometimes startling comedy. As an instance of the historical novel, a genre largely invented by Scott, it also invites us to consider the relationship of past and present, particularly the effectsand painful costsof rapid economic change.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771, descended on both sides from families with strong links to the Scottish Borders. His father was a lawyer and his mother was the daughter of a professor of medicine, but, within living memory, his father’s family, the Scotts, had been “reivers,” or bandits, notorious for robbery and feuding. At age two, Scott suffered an attack of polio and was sent to recover on his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe. Here he was exposed to the still vital traditions of the Scottish countryside and heard ballads and folktales, as well as exciting stories about his own ancestors. Though his health continued to be indifferent, he recovered sufficiently to attend Edinburgh High School, where he entertained his fellow pupils with stories of battles and knights-errant. In 1786, he was apprenticed to his father’s law firm and, in that same year, was introduced to one of his father’s clients, the colorful Alexander Stewart of Invernahyde. Stewart had fought in the two Jacobite rebellions, in 1715 and 1745, that sought to replace Britain’s Hanoverian kings with the Stuart descendents of Charles II, and he had also survived a duel with Rob Roy. For Scott, this dramatic figure represented a vanishing type, “a noble specimen of the old Highlander, far descended, gallant, courteous, and brave, even to chivalry.”1 Another formative experience occurred in 1790, when Scott met and fell precipitously in love with Williamina Belsches. Belsches’s refusal of himand her early death at the age of thirty-fourwas emotionally devastating and, though his subsequent marriage to Charlotte Charpentier was happy, the memory of this early heartbreak never left him and may well tinge the portrayal of Diana Vernon in Rob Roy.
Scott’s admission to the bar in 1792 barely dampened his developing interests in literature. His first published works, translations of German poetry and drama, appeared in 1796 and were followed by a popular collection of ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott achieved still wider success with his own poetry. The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) was an instant hit with the British reading public and established the taste for all things Scottish and medieval that paved the way for such poems as Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810). In 1812, however, Lord Byron published the first two cantos of his innovative narrative poem Childe Harold, thus inspiring the literary cult of Byronmania that would seize Europe for decades. Ever market-conscious, Scott recognized the pointlessness of trying to compete with a talent like Byron’s and deftly switched from poetry to fiction. It was a fortuitously brilliant choice; Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), written within a month and published anonymously, was a triumph that dramatically widened the scope of English-language fiction. With its fascination for the history and customs of a Scotland construed as barbarous and exotic, Waverley laid claim to the new genre of the historical romance and established the narrative template for the string of novels that succeeded it, including Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1818), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Typically these works present some thematic combination of political drama, divided loyalties, obstructed love, and (with the exceptions of The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor) a journey north into dangerous territory. The figure of the male protagonist caught, like Edward Waverley, in historical events far beyond his control recurs so frequently in these narratives that it is popularly titled “the Waverley hero.” Other important aspects of the fictional model established by Waverley are the strong presentation of minor characters, the powerful evocation of landscape, the use of annotated historical details to ground fiction in fact, and finally, the elaborate and truly experimental attempt to render in the British novel the several languages of Scotland.
Though Scott did not acknowledge authorship of his fictional works until 1827, the identity of “Great Unknown” was an open secret that raised his social status. In 1813, he was offered (and declined) the honor of Poet Laureate. Five years later, he was made a baronet and in 1822, he played a central role in stage-managing the visit of George IV to Edinburghthe first visit of a Hanoverian monarch to Scotland. Nevertheless, at the same time, he was also developing chronic financial problems, largely as a result of his purchase, in 1811, of what would become the Abbotsford estate. By 1819, Scott realized that he had exhausted Scottish topics and turned to the English and European material featured in such works as Ivanhoe (1819), Kenilworth (1821), The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Quentin Durward (1823), and The Talisman (1825); only Redgauntlet (1824) returned to the earlier Scottish themes. Scott had always written quickly, but by now his debts were catching up with him. In 1826, his publisher, John Constable, and his printer, James Ballantyne, failed catastrophically. Scott, who had invested heavily in both, was ruined. He vowed to devote all profits from future publications to paying off his creditors and in his final years produced a string of novels generally agreed to be of inferior value. By 1831, the debt was virtually cleared, but Scott’s health was broken. He died at Abbotsford, aged sixty-one, on September 21, 1832.
Narrated retrospectively by Frank Osbaldistone, Rob Roy is set in the volatile period after the 1707 Act of Union, which bound Scotland and England within the United Kingdom, and before the attempted coup d’état of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. In the early pages of the novel, Frank recalls his wastrel youth in southern England and tells how he is disinherited by his businessman father and sent north to live with a Jacobite-sympathizing branch of the family on the Scottish-English border. In Osbaldistone Hall, Frank is repelled by his cousins, especially the conniving and dislikable Rashleigh, but also enchanted by the courage and wit of his uncle’s ward, Diana Vernon. Diana, however, refuses his advances as she has been destined since birth for either the convent or marriage with one of Rashleigh’s doltish brothers. Frank’s distress increases when he learns that Rashleigh is actively plotting to destroy his father’s business and steal its assets to fund the Jacobite cause. To save the family fortune, Frank must travel into the Highlands and enter the lawless territory of Rob Roy and the MacGregor clan, a people cruelly persecuted by the British government. In this task he receives the assistance of Baillie Nicol Jarvie, a canny Glasgow merchant, and the more ambiguous help of Rob Roy himself (at one point, the outlaw’s ferocious wife, Helen, almost murders Frank). The further north Frank travels, however, the further he seems from Dianaand the more deeply he is drawn into the antigovernment conspiracy she supports.
Scott began Rob Roy in May 1817 and completed and published it some eight months later. It was an immediate best seller and its first print run of 10,000 copies sold out within two weeks to a public so enthusiastic that Nassau Senior was only half joking when he complained that in discussing Scott, the “praise or blame [of critics] cannot well be heard among the voices of a whole nation.”2 Typically, however, critics aligned themselves with the popular view and their praise far outweighed their blame. Even William Hazlitt, who was bitterly opposed to Scott’s Tory politics, found grounds for celebration: “His words (taken together) are almost like a new edition of human nature. This is indeed to be an author!”3 The highest praise of most commentators was reserved for Scott’s skill in characterization, and comparisons to Shakespeare were commonplace. “Although we opened these volumes with strong anticipations of pleasure,” an anonymous reviewer in the European Magazine reported, “we did not calculate upon reading it twice; first, because we could not help it; and secondly, because having satisfied the childish impatience excited by the fable, we wished to examine at our leisure the dramatis personae.”4 Readers relished the fast pace of Rob Roy, as well as its moments of earthy comedy. Favorite characters included Baillie Nicol Jarvie, Rashleigh, Rob Roy, and especially the free-spirited “Die” Vernon, a new kind of heroine in fiction. Accustomed to heroes that control the plot, however, critics were disturbed by Frank Osbaldistone’s apparent passivity. “[H]e is made the blind or involuntary instrument of another’s purposes,” J. L. Adolphus complained, “the attendant of another’s will, and the sport of events over which he exercises no control.”5 Equally troublesome for these contemporary judges was Scott’s complicated plot construction. Though critics consistently found Rob Roy an exciting read, some found the logical connections between narrative events to be occluded. In spite of these elements, Rob Roy exerted a strong appeal throughout the nineteenth century. Scott’s broad influence on James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson is well known and aspects of Rob Roy can be traced in novelists as different as Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy. More specifically, the novel was praised by Goethe for its truthful detail and by John Ruskin for its innovative use of Scots dialect.
The long shadow of Romanticism ensured Scott’s continuing popularity up to the 1890s, when the emergence of Modernismwith its visceral rejection of the pathos and drama of Romantic literaturespelled a prolonged dip in Scott’s critical fortunes. Nevertheless, in recent years, interest in Rob Roy has seen a pronounced revival. Noting the novel’s appeal to generations of readers, Jane Millgate has asked whether the very problems identified by critics “deserve consideration as possibly intrinsic to the meaning of the novel.”6 For Millgate, Frank’s deficiencies as a hero allow readers to explore ideas and feelings inaccessible in more conventional narratives. In Fiona Robertson’s opinion, Rob Roy is a novel of “individual psychology” and the hero’s inability to fully control events betrays the fear that “the mind may not always be able to [assert] control.”7 Other critics detect in the complexities of plot an increasingly fraught relation between the separate demands of history and romance, and find Scott’s portrayal of the Highlands more realistic than sentimental. “The best of Rob Roy,” David Brown argues, “results from Scott’s abandonment of artificial form in favor of greater truth in reflecting basic historical reality.”8 John Lauber concurs, admiring a heightened level of historical realism in the work. The most recent scholarly studies of Rob Roy see its discussion of economic change as a covert exploration of Scotland’s role within the British Empire.
Rob Roy is sometimes read as a darker version of Waverley and, indeed, both novels are organized around the adventures of a callow young Englishman who travels north to the Scottish Highlands, where he encounters both passionate love and extreme danger. Both works also feature political uprisings and create narrative tension by playing off pairs of contrasting opposites. In Rob Roy, “North Britain” (Scotland and that part of England that borders it) is associated with charisma and romance: it is also Catholic, Jacobite, and liable to revolt. The English south, where Frank is raised, is pragmatic and law-abiding and embraces the Protestant Hanoverian line of succession. This north/south division is replicated within Scotland itself in the distinct differences between the Lowlands and the Highlands, and again in the contrast between those distant blood-relatives Nicol Jarvie and Rob Roy. In the down-to-earth Jarvie, a native of the industrial boom town of Glasgow, Scott clearly sketches his country’s future as urban, mercantile, and absorbed within the Union of Great Britain; Rob Roy, by contrast, represents the claims of a way of life rapidly dying out in the nineteenth century with the tragic and, as Scott saw it, inevitable decline of Gaelic Scotland. Consequently, one important subtext in Rob Roy concerns the financial benefits and human costs of economic improvement in an underdeveloped but quickly changing corner of the world. The same Highland landscape that for Frank is “a scene of natural romance and beauty” represents for Jarvie the “future advantages” of a promising investment. For Rob Roy and the MacGregors, however, it’s a homeland from which they are being starved and driven.
Frank’s journey, then, is highly symbolic. As the narrator of Rob Roy, Frank is implicitly required to explain and negotiate differences between “north” and “south,” as well as past and present, and it may well be that the demands of this task are reflected in the gaps and incongruities critics see in the novel’s plot. The theme of mystery also, however, attends the central love story. Frank’s pursuit of Die Vernonwhose very name summons conflicting associations with death and springis accompanied by emotions of frustration and longing of a remarkable intensity. Faced with the possibility of being permanently separated from Die, Frank reports that the “surprisethe sorrow, almost stupefied me” and, indeed, through most of the story, the vibrant girl of Frank’s first experience of the north seems to perpetually recede before him, with an aura of haunting melancholy. Generally, Scott resolves the historical pressures his stories raise by simply marrying off the hero and heroine: the union of divided lovers metaphorically performs the Union of modern Britain. Rob Roy’s solution to those pressures is more complex and troubling though, and the emotions raised by this haunting work are barely dissipated by its abrupt ending. As the aging Frank, recalling the vivid experiences of his youth, warns his reader in the first words of Rob Roy: “The recollection of those adventures, as you are pleased to term them, has indeed left upon my mind a chequered and varied feeling of pleasure and pain .”
Scott’s achievement in Rob Roy was to create a novel that at once entices and challenges readers. In doing so, it advances beyond the formula of Waverley, bringing a fresh and satisfying complexity to the form of the historical romance. Though the passions and politics of early eighteenth-century Scotland are now distant, Rob Roy’s concern with what we now recognize as the early pangs of globalization resonates across the centuries. Innovative and traditional, thrilling and conflicted, Rob Roy brings the shape of the past into sharp relief with concerns that couldn’t be more current.
Fiona Wilson is a graduate of the University of Glasgow and New York University, and has written extensively on Scottish literature. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fordham University.
1 Walter Scott, “Introduction” (1829), Waverley. (New York: Penguin, 1985). p. 569.
2 Nassau Senior, unsigned review of Rob Roy and other Scott novels. Quarterly Review (No. 26, October 1821). In Scott: The Critical Heritage, ed. John O. Hayden. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970, p. 215.
3 William Hazlitt, “Sir Walter Scott,” in The Spirit of the Age. London: Collins, 1969, p. 107.
4 Unsigned review, European Magazine (No. 73, February 1818). In Scott: The Critical Heritage, p. 146.
5 J. L. Adolphus, from anonymous Letters to Richard Heber, Esq. M.P. (1822). In Scott: The Critical Heritage, p. 210.
6 Jane Millgate, Walter Scott: The Making of the Novelist. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, p. 134.
7 Fiona Robertson, Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, pp. 178, 187.
8 David Brown, Sir Walter Scott and the Historical Imagination. London:: Routledge, & Kegan Paul, 1979, p. 111.