The Young Person's Sir Walter: Scott and the Nineteenth-Century Child Reader

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract / Description of output

This essay charts how, in the decades preceding the First World War, Scott was repackaged as a writer ideally suited for childhood reading. It focuses on school editions of Scott’s works, biographies of Scott for children or young adults, and adaptations of Scott for home reading.

It opens with a survey of Scott’s reception by child readers pre-1870, covering evidence for the popularity of Scott’s ‘adult’ works with children in his own lifetime, and the first children’s editions of Scott: prize books (1830s) and Cadell’s Readings for the Young from Sir Walter Scott (1840s). It then examines prominent mid-century advocates for Scott as childhood reading, including William Spalding for whom Scott teaches ‘broad and manly and practical views’ and ‘cheerful and correct’ sentiments, and Gladstone who extolls Scott’s civilizing and spiritualizing power.

Such views prove influential following the Education Act of 1870 and Education (Scotland) of 1872, when Scott rapidly becomes a classroom staple via editions supplied by predominantly Scottish publishers. These volumes simultaneously address two distinct audiences, the public school gentleman-in-the-making, and the working-class boy who is encouraged to see a commercially expansive empire as a means to self-realization. Thus, on one hand, they stress chivalry, muscular Christianity, and noblesse oblige, and, on the other, the penniless heroes of Quentin Durward and The Talisman seeking fortune abroad.

Educationalists struggle, however, to identify an entirely positive model among Scott’s protagonists and instead propose Scott himself as the hero of his own works. Scholastic prefaces often consist of a potted biography, and discrete child’s biographies of Scott are increasingly published for both school and home reading. These again address a dual public school and working-class audience. For the first, Scott embodies the code of chivalry: courteous, liberal, cheerful in the face of adversity, publicly minded, a friend to all classes, a father to his dependants, a lover of children and animals, a sportsman devoted to manly pursuits and the great outdoors. For the latter, Scott is the epitome of industry, energy, and self-abnegation.

The essay ends with two questions. Firstly, Victorian and Edwardian educationalists present Scott as exclusively a writer for boys, yet contemporary surveys of child reading indicate that he was equally, if not more, popular with girl readers. What evidence is there of how he was read by girls? Secondly, do educationalists miss the true nature of Scott’s original appeal to children? Perhaps what appealed is the very powerlessness and passivity of Scott’s heroes, buffeted between rival representatives of an older generation. The Waverley hero is essentially a child.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Land of Story-Books
Subtitle of host publicationScottish Children's Literature in the Nineteenth Century
EditorsSarah Dunnigan, Shu-Fang Lai
Place of PublicationGlasgow
PublisherAssociation for Scottish Literary Studies
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781908980298
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019
Event'Walter Scott: Sheriff and Outlaw', 9th Quadrennial International Scott Conference - Laramie, Wyoming, United States
Duration: 5 Jul 20119 Jul 2011

Publication series

NameOccasional Papers


Conference'Walter Scott: Sheriff and Outlaw', 9th Quadrennial International Scott Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityLaramie, Wyoming

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Walter Scott
  • Scottish Literature
  • Children's Literature


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