Waverley – the first global blockbuster

Posted on 11/09/2014 by


Move over Da Vinci Code, step aside Harry Potter … the world’s original best-seller is on display in the National Library!


Two hundred years ago, an anonymously published novel sold out within two days and went on to become a global bestseller …

The original manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, the first novel in his series of global bestsellers, is now display at the National Library of Scotland – 200 years after it was first published.

The ground-breaking book tells the story of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and is widely regarded as inventing the modern historical novel. The first edition of 1,000 copies sold out within two days of publication in 1814. Within months, a fourth edition was being printed.

The National Library of Scotland (NLS), which has one of the best collections of Scott material in the world, is celebrating this literary landmark with a display of rare books and manuscripts which explore what lay behind the novel, how it was published and what people thought of it.

When ‘Waverley’ was published 200 years ago, very few people knew who had written it. Scott had made his name as a poet and decided to publish his first attempt at fiction anonymously, perhaps uncertain of the impact it might have on his reputation. Fiction was also seen as a lesser literary form in the early 19th century with the result that almost half of all novels were published anonymously or under a pseudonym.

On display at NLS will be items which show how Scott (pictured below) was identified by many people as the likely author and his dramatic public outing over a decade later. Scott seemed to enjoy the intrigue he had created and resisted the advice of friends in the know who urged him to own up to his authorship.

sir-walter-scottAt the heart of the display is the original manuscript, showing Scott editing his novel as he went along. Letters written by Scott, his friends and publishers illustrate how the book developed, with its roots in the stories of 1745 Scott heard as a boy, and reveal that not everyone was convinced that the novel would be a great success. Also on display are the volumes of the first edition from 1814, contemporary advertisements and reviews, and a rich selection of the books which Scott used in researching the period.

Helen Vincent, Head of Rare Books and Music, at NLS said: ‘”Waverley” is an exciting book to read because in it you can see Scott inventing a new way of writing historical fiction. It is a novel full of drama and adventure, but Scott also had a serious purpose in writing it, wanting to capture the past as it was on the brink of slipping out of living memory. Scott’s skill as a storyteller and painter with words meant that his books appealed to readers around the world — and created an image of Scotland that still holds strong today.

‘We are delighted to be able to display some of the treasures from our Scott collections which tell the story of one of the most influential books in the English language.’

‘Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley: Voices from the archives’ is on at NLS on George 1V Bridge until 2 November. Entry is free.