ACW (acw) wrote,

Project Gutenberg etext #82: Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe has for decades been traditional high-school literature for Anglophones, and has picked up a reputation as "chore reading" as a result. In my adult reading, I find that most of these high-school reading chores are perfectly pleasant when not poisoned with pedagogical purpose, but with few exceptions, not particularly "great". Ivanhoe is not among the exceptions.

Because Sir Walter Scott's life completely brackets Jane Austen's, it's tempting to call him a contemporary of hers, but his novel-writing career continues for another decade after Austen's death, and he feels like a later writer. Washington Irving was a transatlantic contemporary, and the two successful authors were certainly aware of each other.

Scott already had a reputation as a Scottish poet when he started writing novels, and because he felt that novels were less high-class, he tried to protect that reputation by publishing his novels anonymously. The secret got out early, though Scott continued to maintain the anonymous front for a long time.

With Ivanhoe the attributional tangle got even more muddled. Scott's earlier novels were all on Scottish themes; Ivanhoe switches to 12th-century England, and Scott wanted to avoid limiting himself to an audience interested only in Scotland, so he created, at least for the first edition, another authorial persona, "Lawrence Templeton". All the endnotes of Ivanhoe are signed, "L.T.". But soon, in subsequent editions, Scott confesses that Templeton is in fact "the Author of Waverley".

The story itself is a mostly-historically-plausible knightly romance involving King Richard's return from the Crusades; it's the milieu familiar to Robin Hood fans, and Robin Hood's band plays a large part in the plot. Prince John maneuvers for the throne in his brother's absence, and the plot is a sequence of reasonably exciting knightly battles, abductions, and rescues.

A Jewish maiden, Rebecca, is an important character, and the novel can be praised for being slightly less anti-Semitic than might be expected for the time. (Its racism, however, is exactly what one would expect.)

My anonymous commenter "GK" read Ivanhoe along with me, but finished in about half the time. Perhaps GK will have some further comments on the novel.

Next for me is etext #83, an omnibus edition of Jules Verne's two Moon-voyage novels. I last read them as a kid, and I'm wondering what they're really like.
Tags: literature
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