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200 years on, Scott's Waverley is a must-read

Two hundred years ago today, the novel Waverley was published, at the price of a guinea.

The book came out anonymously, and yet it was an instant sensation, the first 1000 copies selling so quickly that by the end of the month a second edition was required. By November, it had gone into its fourth edition.

This was the stuff of a novelist's wildest dreams yet Sir Walter Scott told only his closest friends it was his work. Nevertheless, so distinctive was its style that his authorship was easily guessed, no less a rival than Jane Austen remarking that "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones... I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it - but fear I must".

Already acclaimed as a poet for epics such as The Lady Of The Lake and Marmion, Scott did not publicly admit authorship until 1827, by which time he had written a further 24 novels and was labouring to clear a crushing burden of debt, thanks to the bankruptcy of his printing partners.

On July 7, 1814, however, when Waverley first appeared, all that was in the future. It is hard to imagine how original and exciting this novel must have felt. Today, when bookshop shelves groan under the weight of historical fiction, it's easy to think the past was always a place where novelists roamed, plundering the juiciest periods for their often overheated plots.

Not so in Scott's time. In the first chapter of Waverley he pokes fun at writers who used the past as a lurid backdrop for their gothic tales, but what he went on to do was revolutionary.

Waverley is the story of a dreamy English soldier who, sent as part of the Redcoat army to Scotland, finds himself embroiled in the Jacobite Rebellion. Falling in love with a feisty Highlander he joins their side, only escaping charges of treason thanks to a colonel whose life he saved at the Battle of Prestonpans.

A ditherer and switherer, a reader and romantic, Edward Waverley is an unlikely hero. That his name graces Edinburgh's main railway station, a New York street, a pricey pen and much more besides is testimony to Scott's remarkable powers as a novelist. Waverley is not only the first historical novel but the first political novel, pitting pre-enlightenment Jacobite society against the so-called rational regime of the Georgian court in London. As such, it set the reading public alight.

A literary giant in his own day, how does the Wizard of the North's reputation stand two centuries on? Literati seem constantly to bemoan his neglect, teachers wouldn't dream of putting him on the curriculum for fear of a riot, and one has less chance of finding someone nose deep in Waverley on the bus than of winning the EuroMillions.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. As Professor Murray Pittock of Glasgow University told me, those who perpetuate the myth that Scott is one of the Great Unread "should look at the evidence". The Edinburgh Edition of Scott's novels have sold more than 100,000 copies which, when compared to the hardback sales of other 19th-century novelists, "is more than competitive". Ditto paperbacks.

Meanwhile, Professor David Hewitt of Aberdeen University, editor-in-chief of that edition, says the literary climate has changed radically since the 1960s, when nobody read Scott, and he was told it would not be wise to study him.

In recent years, numbers reading his novels have been steadily increasing, notably in North America. Students arriving at university these days have not read him but that, he believes, is a good thing, Scott being an "adult read". Best of all, his readership is by no means confined to universities.

One can see why. The man who sat in Abbotsford house and worked himself to death was for too long the victim of his own success, consigned to the dread mausoleum of the classics.

Yet to read a single page of Waverley is to meet the wit, passion and sheer narrative genius of a novelist whose imagination ran wilder than knotweed, whose fascination in human nature was deeper than the Tweed.

The best way to mark the birthday of this book, and of the historical novel itself, is to pick up Waverley and hear how alive Scott's voice still is.

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