Sir Walter Scott: Being A Child Of History.

“To thine own self be true” said windbag platitudinous Polonious until Hamlet abruptly burst the balloon. Notwithstanding the source it might seem good advice. Until perhaps we ask the question “Which self should I be true to?” We don’t really like fixed selves too much these days. The emphasis is that for instance something once thought an unalterable part of selfhood: our sex, is made fluid by gender. In which case are we true to the sex we were born into or the gender we decided we want to be.

Which is all a long way from Sir Walter Scott whose problem was somewhat different. Which self he should be true to was a question of where he belonged historically. With his Edinburgh Law- educated self he belonged to the rational society of Enlightened Edinburgh New Town; but in reaction to this self there was his romantic self that looked to his ancestors’ connections with the Borders and the Border ballads and a romantic identification with the Jacobites of sixty years ago. Which was his deeper self? Which was the self to which he most aspired? With these contrasting options how was he to sort himself out? It was not a private matter of fulfilment. To adapt a well known modern phrase the personal is historical.

Fortunately Scott found his way as a writer of dealing with the question and through his novel-writing in particular he invites his reader to participate in the question “Which Scotland?” This is actively explored in his first novel Waverley and continues as a preoccupation of much of his fiction.

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