Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 22 October 2012

Cut Down to Size

Confession time – a shocking one for a Scot, and a writer at that, to make – but I admit I have not read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. I did try many years ago but found them such heavy going, I gave up.

I may try again now that Professor David Purdie has reduced Scott’s novel Ivanhoe from almost 180,000 words to 95,000. Professor Purdie, who is the chairman of Edinburgh’s Sir Walter Scott Club, believes by cutting much of the “excessive description and extraneous punctuation” will attract modern readers who have turned their backs on Scott’s work. The new book will also be published as an e-book.

Sir Walter Scott is often described as the ‘father of the historical novel’ and Ivanhoe, perhaps his best known novel about 12th-century knight, Wilfred of Ivanhoe received international recognition. Goethe said Scott had invented a “wholly new art”. However, and that was then, in the 19th century and readers’ tastes have changed.

Professor Purdie sums it up in an article in The Herald by saying: “The paradox of Sir Walter Scott is he remains much admired, but little read. The collected works of Scotland's greatest novelist adorned the bookshelves of our grandparents, the attics of our parents and the pulp mills of today. That is a pity.”

He is apparently bracing himself for criticism from the purists who disapprove of such tinkering with the master’s work, regardless of motive. “Whatever the motive, no-one adjusts the text, or the score, or the brushwork of a master and escapes with impunity, 'scaithless' as Scott himself would say,” he says.

Many classics are abridged for children and directors often cut bits out of Shakespeare’s plays. Television adaptation play fast and loose with Dickens’ texts even to the extent of dispensing with characters, so what Prof Purdie has done is not totally revolutionary – and I might have another go at reading it.

What do others think? Is it a good idea which will attract readers to Scott’s work or should it be kept exactly as he write it?

Which books do you think would benefit from some judicious pruning?

13 comments:

  1. Great post, Mary. Must admit I've only ever read bits and pieces of Scott and never a complete novel! I have no objection to this idea, as long as the original is still available for those who prefer it unabridged.

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    1. I agree, Rosemary. Reading a more accessible version might lead people to read other novels by Scott.

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  2. What a brilliant idea! I read The Talisman as a child and loved it, and remember writing an essay on Waverley at uni, and loving that too - but 'm not sure I'd have the patience to read one today. Times change, tastes change - if cutting makes them accessible, do it, I say! Geeks can always read the full thing.

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    1. I think, Jenny,that is what Prof Purdie is hoping - that people might read the shortened version and be drawn to read the original work.

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  3. Have to admit to having read quite a few Scott's. I particularly enjoyed 'Heart of Midlothian' and remember a lengthy argument with my husband whilst on holiday a few years ago when we were both reading it simultaneously and whether we could justify mutilating the book by ripping it in half to prevent further disagreements (we didn't).

    So I suppose I'm a bit cautious about the idea of abbrviations. It depends on what you are reading the book for - the plot, the characters, the whole atmosphere?

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    1. Glad to hear your decided against mutilation - dreadful thing to do to a book, Gill. I like the idea of reading Scott's work but right now life seems to be too short so I'd be more likely to try a shortened version.

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  4. I think it is a good idea and there is no reason for being shocked; the original version is still there anyway. As a non-native speaker of English and as a translator, it is a good chance for me to get closer to Scot.

    The same has been done with Cervantes' classics, as he also "remains much admired, but little read".

    If I were one of these writers, I would be very happy and proud to be abridged, read and admired (or not).

    Thank you for the reflection!

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    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Emilia, and you make a very good point. It is interesting that the first of Scott's novels Professor Purdie has chosen to abbreviate is set in England and doesn't have the Scots language that the Scottish novels have. I think they would be more difficult to shorten.

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  6. Gwen Kirkwood23 October 2012 11:44

    I think publishers today would cut out a lot of Scott and Dickens descriptions or rambling passages but they wrote in the syle of their time. I have no objection to simpler versions being made available if it gets people reading them. Having said that I remember enjoying Ivanhoe and have never forgotten "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive". My husband often quoted from Scott's poetry and I have used some of them in my own books. "Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land." and "Land of brown heath and shaggy woods...." Sorry,getting carried away.
    There is a whole set of books for primary schools with simplified versions of Shakespeare.

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    1. Gwen, I didn't even know that quote about the tangled web came from Ivanhoe. It's a quote I have used quite often, too.
      I'm sure a lot of Dickens' descriptive passages would be cut today but when he was writing people would have enjoyed those vivid descriptions as they would have no other way of 'seeing' where he was writing about.

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  7. I think most writers write for the times in which they live.....and I think that transfers over if they write historicals or fantasy or chick lit or any other genre, really.
    But if I have to choose something that should be cut....then I will choose every single Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean, there aren't that many ways to describe you know what.....are there?

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    1. You are probably quite right, Linda, about people writing for the times in which they live - which makes me wonder how people will write 100 years from now. Will people still be writing books? They will, I'm sure, still be telling stories in one way or another.

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