Although the antiquarian notes and editorial apparatus of Scott's fictions make a claim for historical accuracy, Scott was quite open about the need to modernise the matter of history in presenting it to the reading public, and quite obviously ready to mix fact and fantasy. His turn to history was driven in part by a concern to encourage acquiescence in the political status quo and a moderate view of progress. His view of progress was informed not only by assumptions about its benefits, but also by anxieties about its costs – anxieties influenced by the enlightenment heritage itself, and by the turbulent events of contemporary history. The historical perspective of Scott's fiction allowed an imaginative engagement with key material and cultural changes entailed in the process of modernisation: an examination of the role of Christianity in the development of the modern nation state and in the civilised identity of the European; a testing of the claim to cultural superiority entailed in the project of empire and in the notion of 'civilised' war; an examination of the grounds of collective identification within the modern nation; and an exploration of the moral bases of modern commercial society in relation to such spectres as fundamentalism and alienation.
These issues are usually 'contained' in Scott's fiction by the notional separation of the present from the past upon which the progressive historical perspective depends, and by what I have referred to as the romance of disinterested virtue. Romance and enlightenment scepticism exist in a complementary relationship in his works: the threat of disorder, haunting the very basis upon which the narrator's civilised authority is supposed to rest – the legal, moral, and cultural foundations – is met by an appeal to transcendent good nature, humanitarian compassion, a willingness to identify sympathetically with the proffered, if fragile and imperfect, image of virtue. Scott conceived of his own relationship with the reading public (whether as named poet or anonymous