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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Sir Walter Scott | Biography


Born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771, Sir Walter Scott studied at the University of Edinburgh with every intention of taking up his father's profession—the law. But his love of history and literature got the better of him. He was particularly fascinated by medieval and Renaissance romances, not only in English but also in European languages. Even while working in the courts, he wrote books about poets, founded a literary journal and a theater, translated German literature, and wrote ballads and narrative poetry. (In fact he wrote his first poem at age 11.) However, when he finally turned his pen to fiction in 1814, Scott—already in his 40s—published his work anonymously. Waverley and his next eight novels focused on Scottish history and established their author as the inventor of the historical novel. Reviews of Waverley were largely positive, and 1,000 copies of the first edition sold in the first two days. With regard to the novel, English novelist Jane Austen wrote to her niece Anna:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths.

With his 10th novel, Ivanhoe, Scott looked south of the border to 12th-century England for his subject matter; he published this book under the pen name Laurence Templeton.

When Scott wrote Ivanhoe, he departed from his earlier works in two important ways. The first was its English subject matter. The second was its lack of fidelity to history. Whereas in the Scottish novels he had sought to be highly historically accurate, in Ivanhoe storytelling took precedence over accuracy. He collapsed time periods and salted the book with anachronisms regarding costumes and weapons, for example. He also claimed historical roles for fictional characters; some of these inaccuracies also stem from Scott's use of literature as source material. Historical inaccuracy didn't bother the critics or the public, though. The book was an immediate success, and the first printing of 10,000 books sold out in less than two weeks. The critics of the day called it a work of "at least as much genius as any of those with which it must now be numbered" and "a performance of unequalled excellence." Although later critics were less impressed, especially with its historical inaccuracies, Ivanhoe remains one of the most popular novels ever written.

Scott was plagued by ill health throughout his life, starting when he contracted polio at 18 months, which left him lame. Throughout his life he also suffered from recurrent severe gallstone disease. In addition to poor health, he endured a series of financial setbacks. In order to stave off ruin in the mid-1820s, Scott began frantically writing new works and simultaneously editing his early novels. In 1827 he finally admitted his authorship of Waverley and its successors. By 1832 Scott had paid off more than half of his debts, but the stress and frantic pace had taken its toll on him. After a series of strokes, Scott died on September 21, 1832, on his Abbotsford estate south of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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