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.
When Scott finished writing The Monastery in March 1820, pressing social commitments prevented him from beginning work on the sequel immediately. He first travelled to London to be knighted as a reward for discovering the lost Regalia (Crown Jewels) of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle. Then April saw the marriage of Scott’s daughter Sophia to his future biographer John Lockhart Gibson. This enforced break permitted Scott to gauge the broadly negative reaction to The Monastery and to rethink his plans for The Abbot. He now envisaged a more self-contained, independent narrative and resolved, in particular, to do away with the White Lady.
In his ‘Introductory Epistle’ to The Abbot, Scott states that it is the continuation of the Benedictine manuscript from which he purported to have drawn The Monastery, but this time he has subjected his source materials to ‘numerous retrenchments and alterations’. He has ‘struck out, for example, the whole machinery of the White Lady’, having found that ‘public taste gives little encouragement to those legendary superstitions, which formed alternately the delight and the terror of our predecessors’. Disarmingly, Scott also confesses that the chosen title of The Abbot is no longer ‘suitable to the Work’, as he has extensively pruned the role of the titular hero, Edward Glendinning, Abbot of Kennaquhair The true protagonist of the novel is the orphaned Roland Graeme who serves as page to the imprisoned Queen Mary. This comes, in fact, as little surprise to experienced readers of Scott who are used to his titular heroes (Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Rob Roy) playing a disconcertingly secondary role in the narrative. Scott was in the habit of supplying his publishers with a title at an early stage of a novel’s evolution, then finding that he was bound to it, even when his ideas had gone in quite a different direction.
The Abbot takes place between July 1567 and May 1568, spanning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots at Loch Leven, her enforced abdication, escape from the Castle, defeat at the Battle of Langside and subsequent flight to England. The events portrayed seal the triumph of the Protestant, pro-English party in Scotland and ultimately pave the way to the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns under a Protestant monarch. The hero, Roland Graeme, is a fictional character, but his theft of the keys of Loch Leven Castle, and his role in freeing the Queen, are based on the actions of Willie Douglas, an orphan belonging to the Loch Leven household, who remained a faithful servant of Mary until her death.
Unlike Douglas, Scott’s Roland Graeme is initially sent to spy on Mary by the Regent Murray. However, his sense of honour, his loyalty to the Queen, and, above all, his love for Mary’s attendant Catherine Seyton, prevent him from acting out this role. After facilitating Mary’s escape, he remains with her until she leaves Scotland. At the novel’s conclusion, he learns that he is not a penniless bastard but the legitimate heir to the House of Avenel. Pardoned by the Regent Murray, he marries Catherine Seyton.
The Abbot fully restored Scott’s critical and commercial reputation, encouraging him to stay with the 16th century for his next novel Kenilworth, where he portrays Mary’s arch-enemy, Elizabeth I of England. The Abbot played a vital role in the Romantic rehabilitation of Mary Stuart, who had had hitherto been portrayed in much Scottish historiography as a fanatical and manipulative would-be tyrant. Scott’s treatment of the Reformation is characteristically even-handed. While his Protestant sympathies are never in doubt, he deplores the desecration of the Border abbeys. He endows his Catholic characters with qualities of humour, imagination, playfulness, and exuberance that throw into relief the stiffness and self-interest of their Protestant rivals. If he celebrates the defeat of Catholic ‘superstition’, he nonetheless regrets that the Reformers’ victory came at the expense of Scotland’s independence.
As shown by the many engravings in Edinburgh University’s Corson Collection of Walter Scott Materials, The Abbot was one of Scott’s most successful novels with visual artists, attracting illustrators of the calibre of George Cruickshank Edwin Landseer, David Roberts, and J. M. W. Turner.
The novel was successfully adopted for the stage by Scott’s friend Daniel Terry as Mary Queen of Scots, or, Loch-Leven Castle.
The Abbot also enjoyed considerable success in Europe, where Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play Maria Stuart had already established Mary Queen of Scots as a Romantic heroine. By 1830, Scott’s novel had appeared in French, German, Danish, Italian, and Russian translation. Such was its vogue that Abbot-inspired costumes were worn at balls in Vienna (1826) and Paris (1829).
At home, The Abbot proved a further spur to Scotland’s tourist industry. Just as The Lady of the Lake had brought streams of visitors to Loch Katrine, The Abbot put Loch Leven and its castle firmly on the tourist map.
For more information on The Abbot, see:
Walter Scott Digital Archive
For more engravings and artworks from Edinburgh University’s Corson Collection, see:
Walter Scott Image Collection
For recent articles on The Abbot, see:
Articles and Chapters on Sir Walter Scott
Paul Barnaby, Acquisition and Scottish Literary Collections Curator