The constructive criticism of Sir Walter Scott

Nobody likes a critic, but when the reviewer is one of the wold’s most celebrated authors not only can it be hard to take offence but also prove to be a major promotional coup.

 Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn

Sir Walter Scott, writer of Waverley, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and many more besides, may haven been Victorian Scotland’s favourite author but he was also a celebrated reviewer of other people’s work.

Unafraid to voice an opinion, he once anonymously reviewed his own 1816 novel Tales of My Landlord and gave himself his worst ever critique, Scott routinely past judgement on the work of fellow famous authors.

A new exhibition celebrating the golden age of the literary review tells the fascinating story of Scott’s engagement and interaction with some of the greatest names in early 19th century literature – Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and Lord Byron.

The collaborative showcase between the National Library of Scotland and Abbotsford, the historic home of Sir Walter Scott explains the influential role Scott had as a reviewer of other authors’ works, and also of his own writing.

Rave Reviewer: Scott on Frankenstein, Emma and Childe Harolde at Abbotsford is on display at the writer’s Borders’ mansion until November and brings together important manuscripts and books, many of which are able to be seen together for the first time.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

The early 19th century was a golden age for literary criticism, often with many more people reading reviews than the original works themselves.

Highlights of the exhibition include Scott’s copy of Frankenstein, one of only 500 first edition copies printed. Visitors will also be able to see original documents in the hand of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, which provide an insight into the intricacies of getting a book published, reviewed and promoted in 19th century Britain.

David McClay, Curator of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland said: “The National Library of Scotland is delighted with this opportunity to bring some of the rare and unique national treasures to the home of Sir Walter Scott.

“The story they tell about Scott and the reviewing culture of his time is fascinating, not least because it involves some of the greatest literary geniuses of all time.”

Scott, who played a major role in the launch of the literary magazine John Murray’s Quarterly Review, played a key role in the development of the way books are reviewed today.

“We are delighted to tell this fascinating story about a community of readers and writers shaping the present, and indeed future, impact of what we now consider to be classic works of literature,” said Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager for the Abbotsford Trust.

“Novels such as Frankenstein did not fare well with the reviewing community as a whole and Scott’s acknowledgement of Shelley’s genius ran very much against the grain. This exhibition is a wonderful platform to show that Scott was just as capable of looking to the future as he was to the past.”