Scott was the most popular author of the nineteenth century, loved by the English people from Queen Victoria down the social and economic hierarchies. Ivanhoe is perhaps his best-known and most-loved novel, dealing as it does with the glory days of Richard the Lion Heart and Robin Hood. Scott painted a picture of an England full of nobility and ruled by the laws of chivalry, where there was a clear divide between the good (King Richard, the Saxons) and the bad (King John and the Normans). Scott was writing the novel during a troubled time in English history. Under the government of Lord Liverpool - the longest-reigning English Prime Minister - the nation came closer to revolution than at any time since Cromwell. After the Napoleonic wars, there was a huge influx of soldiers returning to a country which they felt owed them a debt of gratitude, but which could actually offer them neither employment nor accommodation. Perhaps it was the picture of these returning soldiers that prompted Scott, already on his deathbed, to write of the returning crusaders. Furthermore, the dawning of the industrial age and the rise of the mercantile classes caused a confusion of values amongst the English ruling classes. New money and the rise of the Northern industrial towns meant that power began to be focused away from its traditional foundations: the aristocracy and London. In Ivanhoe, Scott portrays a world free of such semiotic fuzziness. Note the tone and measured 'Englishness' of the opening paragraph, and remember that this was the Scottish author's first novel to be set in England:
"In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the River Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song."
Scott is the greatest of the Romantic writers. He is masterful in his storytelling, interjecting as author with an authoritarian tone, telling the reader exactly what to think of each of his characters, allowing no flux in the fabric of the story, constructing the plot as solidly as the castle of Front-de-Boeuf. One can either see Scott's power as a remarkable skill: intermingling different storylines to come up with a final unified whole; or as a sign of all that is wrong with the Romantic movement: allowing no freedom of experience for the reader; being overly didactic and stylistically non-ambitious. When Virginia Woolf attempted to rewrite the English novel in the early twentieth century, Scott exemplified everything that she was writing against: the paternalistic voice which underlined the power of male-dominated authority. It is no coincidence that Leslie Stephen, Virginia's father with whom she had a difficult relationship, was a great admirer of Scott, seeing him as representative of an age of idealism and style.
Scott invented the historical novel: a story which interwove truth and fiction to create a parallel world of possibilities. Ivanhoe did not exist, but because the historical background in the novel is so accurate and well researched, the reader believes that someone very like Ivanhoe could have existed. "He [Scott] possessed the true enchanter's wand, the historic imagination" (Henry Beers). Scott used many sources for his novel, Chaucer and Shakespeare being the most obvious influences. He also drew from a huge knowledge of British history, his friends confirming that he consumed historical works with an unrivalled voracity. The historic novel is today commonplace, but it was something truly exciting in the early nineteenth century, enlivening dull history lessons for schoolchildren and allowing the English to gain a fresh view of their nation, with every ruined castle representing a scene of past heroism. Moreover, the novelty of the form made it seem genuinely authoritative and authentic in spite of its fictional basis. Scott is said to have invented Romanticism in his poetry, and in Ivanhoe he gives it its most convincing prose voice, creating a world of chivalry and valour to enchant readers and hark back to an England of brave knights and courageous deeds. The historical content is always accurate, and usually fascinating:
"A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph,
while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand."