The Scottish Chiefs (1809) by Jane Porter (1776-1850) is one of the earliest historical novels and some scholars claim it to be the very first. It tells the story of Sir William Wallace and his efforts to restore Scotland’s freedom after King Edward I of England invaded the country and tried to suppress it to his rule. Porter grew up first in Durham and then in Edinburgh and from early childhood heard tales of Sir William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other Scottish heroes from a family nurse and many others in her neighborhood. The result was that in 1809, she penned her most famous novel The Scottish Chiefs. The novel would go on to be translated into numerous foreign languages and become a bestseller in Europe. It was so popular that Napoleon had it banned because of its message of revolt against an oppressive tyrant. It is said that US President Andrew Jackson was inspired by it when fighting the British in the War of 1812. It remained popular into the twentieth century, so popular that a comic book version was made of it: http://comicbooksonline.blogspot.com/2007/08/classics-illustrated-067-scottish.html and in 1921 Charles Scribner’s and Sons decided to produce a special illustrated edition of it, complete with a foreword by Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, one of the greatest illustrators of the time. A 1991 reprint of that edition is the copy I own and have read.
I first heard of The Scottish Chiefs in 1992 when I found the Scribner’s illustrated edition in a bookstore. I loved the illustrations and loved British literature so I bought and read it. I admit I found it rather dull, and as the years passed, I remembered little of it, but it did make me know the name of Sir William Wallace for the first time, before I traveled to Scotland in 1993 and before the film Braveheart made his name once again famous to a wider audience in 1995.
I recently decided to reread the novel after rewatching Braveheart. I knew the film was grossly historically inaccurate in many ways, and more so, it was a very different story from that which Jane Porter told. I also wanted to reread the novel because of my interest in Gothic and historical fiction and my having recently learned that Sir Walter Scott had known Porter. Scott is, of course, arguably the father of the modern historical novel, so I wondered whether Porter had influenced him. I was also interested in rereading the novel because I had a few years before read Porter’s other well-known novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and thought it quite interesting.
While Porter does not use Gothic elements in either of her two best-known works, she does rely upon the wanderer theme. Thaddeus of Warsaw is less a historical than contemporary novel since its events take place just over a decade before its publication. Its main character is a Polish refugee. The novel tells the story of how Poland was invaded and divided up between Russia and Prussia. Thaddeus befriends a British officer and also learns he is part-British. He then travels to England where, eventually, he meets his long-lost father. He also falls in love. Once Thaddeus is in England, the novel becomes largely a novel of manners. What is interesting to me as a student of the Gothic wanderer figure is that Porter repeatedly refers to Thaddeus as a wanderer in the novel because he is an exile from his native land.
Porter does not use the term wanderer in The Scottish Chiefs very often, but the novel is not without interest, and her prefaces do play on the wanderer theme. Unfortunately, Porter’s prefaces are hard to come by since they are not always reprinted in copies of the novel. The Scribner’s edition I own does not contain them, and the Wiggin introduction is more focused on how much Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister enjoyed the novel as children (this edition was, after all, being marketed to children so to have a famous children’s author introduce the novel was, apparently, a better marketing strategy than to have Jane Porter herself introduce it.) I did find the prefaces online at the University of Pennsylvania’s website: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/porter/chiefs/chiefs.html. In fact, it might be said that the prefaces are more interesting than the novel itself.
The 1831 preface contains a lot of insight into Porter’s interest in writing about Sir William Wallace. Porter describes her childhood hearing tales of Wallace from various people she knew, particularly an elderly neighbor named Luckie Forbes. Equally important, she heard from her sister’s nurse, Bel Johnston, about Bonnie Prince Charlie and how his cause was lost at the Battle of Culloden. Porter personally knew many of the widows of men who fought at Culloden. They were venerable old ladies in her childhood.
But the most striking point made in the introduction is when Porter relates how, as a child, she and her siblings were playing outside when a poor gentleman came to their home. The children begged him to come inside and rest, but he refused. He was an elderly man who explained that he had suffered from fighting with Prince Charles. Porter’s mother convinced him to come inside and let her give him something to eat once she explained that war had also made her a widow. He informs her then that he “received a wound worse than death: I shall never recover from it!” and then goes on to say, “I cannot go back…. I ought never to have come back anywhere. Sin should always be an outcast!” Porter’s mother tries to comfort him by saying Prince Charles’ followers were unfortunate, but “their fidelity could not be a sin!” What we have here is a Gothic wanderer figure—someone haunted by the past and past wrongs who has consequently become an outcast. All these widows and those who supported Prince Charles were outcasts in Porter’s childhood, some forty years after the Battle of Culloden, so Porter was very familiar with the outcast theme. Her desire later to write of Scottish history reminds me of Margaret Mitchell’s childhood being raised on stories of the Old South that eventually led to her writing Gone With the Wind (1936)—the Confederate cause was a lost one just like that of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Later, this old soldier leaves the Porter family and is referred to as “wandering along the fields towards the town.”
But what makes this particular soldier even more fascinating is that eventually it is revealed that he is really a she. Porter relates how later the soldier had an accident. Upon a doctor examining him, it’s revealed that not only is a limb fractured but also two ribs broken, and that the soldier is a woman. Knowing she’ll die from her wound, the woman says that if her relatives are contacted, they will “come to lay in a decent grave the last remains of an unhappy wanderer….” Eventually, the woman dies but her relatives reveal her identity as that of Jeannie Cameron, a woman who fought with Prince Charles as if she were a man. Many people considered Jeannie Cameron as possibly Prince Charles’ lover, and in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749), she is referenced as such. Readers can easily find out more about Jeannie Cameron, although the truth about her age and her role in Prince Charles’ service are somewhat confused. Visit Wikipedia for more information on her, including the fact that she was likely possibly a mix of several women whose identities were confused and melded together: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanie_(Jenny)_Cameron
If Jeannie Cameron is not a historical person, or not the person legend claims she was, it is surprising that Porter mentions her as if she were a real person whom Porter knew personally. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Porter to say whether she is being honest here, or just using what would become a standard device in historical fiction—the revelation of a stranger’s identity as being that of someone famous. (See my blog on James Malcolm Rymer’s The Black Monk, in which King Richard I keeps his identity secret; King Richard does the same thing in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), posing as the Black Knight.) What I do know is that cross-dressing happens twice in The Scottish Chiefs where women put on men’s clothing, and I suspect these instances were inspired by Jeannie Cameron’s story, whether or not Porter ever really met her.
Sadly, a full-length biography of Porter has never been written, nor do there seem to be many scholarly articles about her. Thomas McLean, a scholar in New Zealand, has written a few articles about her and is working on a project about her and her sister and brother. Her sister Anna Marie Porter was also an author and her brother Sir Robert Ker Porter was a noted painter. Porter’s relationship with Sir Walter Scott especially needs more discussion. We know Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor to the Porters’ home when they lived in Edinburgh. Scott, however, never acknowledged Porter as a source of influence upon his writing historical fiction, but instead said he was influenced by Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent (1800) is also a contender for the first historical novel. In her article “Transporting Genres: Jane Porter Delivers the Historical Novel to the Victorians,” (published in Victorian Traffic: Identity, Exchange, Performance, edited by Sue Thomas), Peta Beasley discusses how Scott never acknowledged Porter’s influence on him and even wrote a scathing comment about her portrayal of Wallace in a letter to his friend James Hogg. Beasley also discusses the possible date for the commencement of Scott’s first historical novel, Waverley (1814). Scott said he began it in 1805 but then mislaid the manuscript so he did not appear to resume it until 1810 or later (by which time he had no doubt read The Scottish Chiefs). In any case, it is a shame that more isn’t known about Porter and I believe it’s time for a full-length biography of her, including a more thorough discussion of her relationship with Scott.
It’s also time for a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs. In her prefaces, Porter insists that she has sources for almost all the incidents in the novel and only a few characters are fictional. (She never says who those fictional characters are). She does have a few notes in her novel but they are meager and just simply tell us what she is writing is true. For example, the most interesting woman in the novel is Joanna, the Countess of Mar. After Wallace rescues her and her husband, she falls madly in love with Wallace and becomes extremely jealous of her stepdaughter Helen, whom she suspects Wallace loves. Joanna professes her love to Wallace, who instantly rejects her, knowing it isn’t honorable since she is a married woman and also he is obviously not attracted to her. Regardless, Joanna persists in believing he can love her, and she dreams and manipulates behind the scenes so that Wallace, rather than Bruce, will be offered the crown and then she can marry him and become a queen. However, even after her husband, Donald, Earl of Mar, dies, Joanna is rejected by Wallace. At one point, she even dresses in men’s clothing so that she can get close to Wallace, but when he rejects her again, she threatens him. At the end of the novel, partially through her treachery, Wallace is captured by the English. When Joanna learns he has been killed, she blames herself and goes mad. Joanna is a true Gothic wanderer figure in the moment she goes mad, finally feeling guilt for her sinful actions.
Once Wallace is in prison in London and sentenced to death, Joanna’s stepdaughter, Helen Mar, travels to be with him. She disguises herself as a man so she can get inside the prison. There she and Wallace are married just before he dies.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, however, is Edwin Ruthven. He is a young boy of fifteen and a relative to Helen. He is completely enamored with Wallace and hero-worships him. Wallace treats him like a little brother, taking him under his wing. Edwin is no coward and repeatedly does brave things to the point where the English he is fighting are amazed that a boy is so strong and brave. All that said, modern readers cannot help but think Edwin is homosexual in the way he is portrayed, constantly professing his devotion to Wallace. At one point, Wallace and he are sleeping and Edwin is resting his head on Wallace’s bosom. In this scene, they are attacked and Wallace is taken prisoner, but not before Edwin tries to protect him by taking an arrow through the heart for him.
Of course, there is a fine line between a boy who worships his hero and being gay, and since Jane Porter, a female author, is writing the novel, she may have oversentimentalized the relationship between two men. Certainly, also, homophobia was not as rampant in 1809 as it has been in more recent years and the definitions of masculinity have changed since Porter’s time. Still, I suspect Porter was doing some literary crossdressing herself, projecting herself into the character of Edwin a bit too much in his speaking his admiration for Wallace. She likely projected herself into Helen as well, but in a more acceptable way because Helen’s romantic feelings for Wallace are heterosexual.
I have been unable to find information online about most of these characters in the novel. While obviously Wallace and Robert the Bruce are historical, as is Donald, Earl of Mar, I could not find anything about Joanna Mar or Helen Mar. Helen’s sister Isabella Mar would marry Robert the Bruce so she is historical as well. Joanna’s mother was reputedly a princess of Norway so she must be historical and Porter says she was. As for Edwin, I could find nothing about him either. It is for these reasons that I think a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs is long overdue so we can get a better sense of where Porter romanticized and where she drew from historical facts or at least from the ballads and stories she heard growing up about Sir William Wallace. Certainly, the Wallace depicted in this novel is a far cry from the one portrayed in Braveheart.
I will admit, despite my interest in the novel, that it is rather dull reading at times. I continually found my thoughts drifting away. I think the primary reason is because the characters are never fully fleshed out. They are more shadows than real people. Porter never really lets us into their minds but stands back and presents them through her sentimental and hero-worship lens. The only ones who really seem to live are Joanna, Helen, and Edwin. The rest show no real emotion. Wallace himself is one of the less memorable characters in the novel. His best scene is when he travels to England and visits Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel. At one point, Queen Margaret is rumored to have had an affair with him, but Wallace writes a letter to King Edward declaring she is virtuous, for which he is later thanked by her brother, the King of France when Wallace goes to France for support in Scotland’s cause. Wallace’s death scene is quickly brushed over—there are no explicit and gruesome details as there are in Braveheart.
One final interesting part of the novel is that the action begins with a box containing a secret that comes into Wallace’s possession and that he protects throughout the novel. In the end, it’s revealed that the regalia of Scotland is contained in the box. One wonders whether this mystery in the novel had any influence on Sir Walter Scott’s desire to find the regalia of Scotland, which he later located hidden away in Edinburgh Castle.
Ultimately, I have read a lot of Sir Walter Scott and I can well believe The Scottish Chiefs inspired him, but it is often as dull as James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and it reminded me a great deal of The Last of the Mohicans—especially in the scene where Helen is abducted and later rescued and led through the forest, including a dangerous journey over a bridge. One has to wonder how our ancestors could have been so taken by this novel, or even those of Scott and Cooper, but historical fiction was new then, and they had no movies to watch and no better historical novelists to read. These authors were pioneers of their time, and while I doubt anyone but literary historians are interested in them now (supposedly The Scottish Chiefs remains popular among Scottish children, but I doubt it’s any more popular than other books like Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans which are also often published in children’s classics editions, but remain largely unread and not enjoyed if read. I read them as a child and found them dull and still do.) Nevertheless, Porter deserves a higher place in the history of historical fiction than she has so far been granted.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.