Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Sir Walter Scott's Licentia Historica-The Historical Novel as a Displaced Romance

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Sir Walter Scott's Licentia Historica-The Historical Novel as a Displaced Romance

Article excerpt


The novelistic genre from its origin has functioned in between two discourses: fictional and factual. On the one hand it shares numerous characteristics with romance, from which it has striven to distance itself, on the other it emulated historical forms of writing in the attempt to borrow some of the credibility enjoyed by history. Novelists endeavoured to provide a realistic picture of reality, romance writers indulged in the flights of fancy. Novelists were the chroniclers of the mercantile world of the middle classes, romance writers glorified the chivalric deeds of knights. The distinction between the two types of narratives was none too obvious for the readers. The tension between romance and history is perhaps nowhere so conspicuous as in the historical novel, which by definition brings fiction and history together. Sir Walter Scott, considered as the originator of the genre, customarily thematizes the periods, where the pre-modern, feudal reality gives way to the modern, capitalist world. The aim of this paper is thus to demonstrate how the author shows the transformation of the social order in The Fair Maid of Perth, which entails the transformation of the romance conventions into the novelistic ones.


The historical novel created by Sir Walter Scott had for decades been regarded as a modern genre. It was modern because it anticipated the approach of the realist novel, that is a prose narrative, which liberated itself from the tyranny of the romance. It was modern also because it depicted the approach of the modern world, the recession of feudalism and the advent of capitalism. As Lukacs, one of the most influential theorists of the historical novel, explained in 1937, the aim of the new genre was to create "an artistically faithful image of a concrete historical epoch" and to describe "enormous political and social transformations" (Lukacs 1937 [1989]: 19, 32). The novel thus was to break with the flights of fancy of romance writers and to adopt the mode and subject of history writing: the faithful description of the past reality and of historical changes.

Scott, however, is hardly a realist novelist. As a true Romantic he looked back upon the medieval world of chivalry, which was more poetical than the capitalist world of traders, and recreated it with the help of romance conventions. This is not to say that the author was an unrestrained eulogist of the medieval culture. On the contrary, the nostalgia with which he depicted the bygone reality did not preclude him from exposing those aspects of the medieval order that led to its downfall. In this sense Scott's novels are like Malory's romances, which presented the decline of the chivalric world. The aim of this paper is to present Scott's reliance on romance formulas in his representations of historical transformations on the basis of one of Scott's medieval novels entitled The Fair Maid of Perth. The novel seems to provide a perfect commentary on social development since it portrays its three stages: the tribal, represented by Highlanders, the chivalric, symbolised by the Royal family and their retainers residing in Perth, and the capitalist, embodied by the burghers of Perth. By the combination of the historical concerns and romance formula the novel subjects to scrutiny the serviceability of the two genres in the portrayal of the past as well as the mutual interdependence of the two modes of writing.

The conflation of history and romance may have aroused controversies in Scott's own times, but it was a more natural state of affairs in the Middle Ages. Medieval histories were heavily indebted to literature and literary strategies. The oft-cited example of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Brittaniae is a good case in point. As Sweeney (2000) explains:

   Geoffrey's version of history has many hallmarks of a romance, such
   as the appearance of marvels and magicians; in addition, love is
   held to be an adequate motivator for immoral acts. … 
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