This is close to my favorite bit of Waverley:
Tired of the attendance of Callum Beg, who, he thought, had some disposition to act as a spy on his motions, Waverley hired as a servant a simple Edinburgh swain, who had mounted the white cockade in a fit of spleen and jealousy, because Jenny Jop had danced a whole night with Corporal Bullock of the Fusileers. (Ch. 51)
The sneaky Callum Beg was a famous character for a while. “[M]ounted by white cockade” means “joined the rebellion.” So much of Scott has to be explained now. None of this is what I like, but rather that none of the last three characters in that sentence, the swain who becomes Waverley’s servant, Captain Bullock, or the high-spirited, fickle Jenny Jop are of any importance. The servant is at least mentioned a couple of times, leading Waverley’s horse and so on, but never with the life he is given when he is introduced here. A little touch of Nikolai Gogol; an entire little scene popping into existence, then popping like a bubble.
Most impressive is how little pedantry there is in the sentence, or in the other examples of Scott at his best. Pedantry is, unfortunately, a central technique for Scott. One of the secondary characters, the Baron Bradwardine, a good one in most ways, is marred by his comic flaw, his tedious multilingual pedantry, his explanations of genealogy and heraldry interspersed with Latin and French, translated in the endnotes if for some reason you want to bother. Or I should say he is marred by Scott’s insistence on taking the joke so far, always giving two paragraphs or pages of dull, mangled gibberish when one might still be funny.
Scott is not quite in on his own joke. Flora Mac-Ivor, super-patriot, super-woman, not remotely a comic character, is as much of an antiquarian as the Baron, specializing in “the music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders” (Ch. 21). Her brother, a paragon of obsolete and misguided but real heroism, is almost as bad. See their conversation in Chapter 23:
“A truce, dear Fergus! spare us those most tedious and insipid persons of all Arcadia. Do not, for Heaven's sake, bring down Coridon and Lindor upon us.”
“Nay, if you cannot relish la houlette et le chalumeau, have with you in heroic strains.”
And the author himself is worst of all. This is meant to be self-mocking:
But without further tyranny over my readers, or display of the extent of my own reading, I shall content myself with borrowing a single incident from the memorable hunting at Lude, commemorated in the ingenious Mr. Gunn's essay on the Caledonian Harp, and so proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me. (Ch. 24)
Scott’s third novel, written two years later, puts the argument in the title. The Antiquary (1816) is a self-critique, a justification of Scott’s method, a defense of the minutiae that compose culture. Scott saw his novels as a way to preserve what was lost, or destroyed. Few of his successors – few that we still read – had much interest in this idea. Few writers of historical novels are themselves antiquarians. Maybe this is one more obstacle in the way of reading Scott well, or at all. I think he gets it out of his system, though. I’ll reread Old Mortality for its bicentennial next year and see what I think. It’s a novel about religious fanaticism, a subject of continuing rather than antiquarian interest.