What’s in a name? Waverley and The Sea of Books

waverley - or tis sixty years since

The protagonist of Sir Walter Scott’s 1814 historical novel, Waverley, comes from a wealthy family and has the good fortune to be brought up with access to an enormous collection of books:

The library at Waverley-Honour, a large Gothic room, with double arches and a gallery, contained such a miscellaneous and extensive collection of volumes as had been assembled together, during the course of two hundred years, by a family which had been always wealthy, and inclined, of course, as a mark of splendour, to furnish their shelves with the current literature of the day, without much scrutiny or nicety of discrimination. Throughout this ample realm Edward was permitted to roam at large.

Unfortunately, young Edward is left mostly to his own devices, and reads perhaps not wisely but too well.

With a desire of amusement, therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder. Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading, especially under such opportunities of gratifying it.

Edward reads only as much of each book as he feels like, and then abandons it, “like the epicure who only deigned to take a single morsel from the sunny side of a peach”.  Before getting bored and wandering off, however, he manages to give himself a reasonable education in Italian poetry, French memoirs and romances, Spanish “chivalric and romantic lore”, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Drayton, and “the usual authors” of classical literature, among others.

Although a young man of the 18th century might do a lot worse, Walter Scott is disparaging of his hero’s erudition, or lack thereof:

And yet, knowing much that is known but to few, Edward Waverley might justly be considered as ignorant, since he knew little of what adds dignity to man, and qualifies him to support and adorn an elevated situation in society.

Why take this as a motto for our blog?  Well, we here on the Nation, Genre and Gender project are a bit more sympathetic than Scott towards Waverley’s cheerfully slapdash reading habits.  Our project looks at characters, and the social networks they find themselves in, across a wide field of novels, looking at them from odd angles in the hopes that we might find out more about what makes them work, and why.  Diving into a sea of books, like Edward, and coming up with “much curious, though ill-arranged and miscellaneous information” – information that may never have seen the light of literary scholarship before – is what we do here! In the everyday course of examining networks and character data, we’ve also turned up many strange and entertaining new aspects of novels that we thought we knew well before we started.  Like Waverley’s eccentric Gothic library, then, this blog aims to provide a home for the odds and ends that we turn up along the way.


All quotes are taken from chapter 3 of Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, which you can read for free at Project Gutenberg.

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