This week marks the bicentenary of Sir Walter Scott’s twelfth novel The Abbot, published in Edinburgh on 2 September 1820 and in London two days later. Alone among the Waverley Novels, it was presented not as a stand-alone narrative but as the sequel to an earlier volume, The Monastery, which had appeared just six months earlier. Set in the early years of the Scottish Reformation, The Monastery had sold well but had disappointed many readers and reviewers. Criticism was directed, in particular, at the pivotal role played by the ghostly White Lady, guardian spirit of the House of Avenel. Contrary to widespread belief, Scott rarely resorts to the supernatural, and his use of the White Lady struck many as an incongruous Gothic throwback.
Scott later hinted that the decision to set a second novel in the Reformation stemmed from frustration with the relative failure of The Monastery and a determination to show that the period provided fertile subject-matter. Accepted by most of his biographers, this account has been called into question by Christopher Johnson, editor of the recent Edinburgh Edition of The Abbot (2000). Johnson shows that the contract for a sequel was signed before the completion of The Monastery, and that Scott had simply found that he had enough narrative materials for two novels. The idea of depicting the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots at Loch Leven Castle—The Abbot’s central episode—had occurred to Scott as early as summer 1817.