We can begin to see the relevance of Scott to our own age if we consider some of the consequences of the abrupt regime changes that have occurred across the globe in the last few decades. From Eastern Europe to Latin America, from Asia to the Middle East, as governments have fallen, nations have seen themselves, or been seen by others, as emerging from oppressive regimes into more liberal or more modern ones. Where sudden political change gets linked to ideas of modernisation, liberalisation, even civilisation, historical accountability comes to be seen as a key test of legitimacy. This helps to explain both the current popularity of truth commissions (at least twenty-one since 1974) and the spectacular growth of 'social memory' as a field of study – a field in which the 'truth' about the past tends to be seen as inseparable from the political interests and material needs of particular groups in the present.1 The rapid demise of so many authoritarian regimes has led to a rekindling of debate about the inevitability of progress towards liberal forms of government, accompanied by the resurrection of traditional ideas about the human cost of liberalisation (as in Francis Fukuyama's account of the loss of thymos – self-esteem, or 'spiritedness').2 These responses to the experience of change give new form to preoccupations that began to emerge in the enlightenment and gained increased urgency in the wake of the French revolution. To generations of nineteenthcentury readers, these preoccupations found their most resonant fictional expression in the works of Walter Scott.
Scott's first readers had lived through an age of violent revolutions and great wars, in which huge armies had been mobilised, governments dramatically overthrown, populations displaced. The conflicts involving European powers spread far beyond Europe, and did not – as is sometimes supposed – end completely on the field of Waterloo. They continued in parts of Europe, in South America, in the Middle East, India, Burma, Africa.3 The violence also continued sporadically in mainland