The Heart of Midlothian
by Sir Walter Scott
‘On the day when the unhappy Porteous was expected to suffer the sentence of the law, the place of execution, extensive as it is, was crowded almost to suffocation.’
Edinburgh 1737: Captain John Porteous, King’s officer, is confined in the Tolbooth prison for firing on a crowd at a demonstration. Sentenced by the court to hang for his crime, he receives a royal pardon and is awaiting release when a vengeful crowd storm the prison, set fire to the outer door, drag Porteous out and lynch him. Taking advantage of their opportunity, several other prisoners flee the gaol. One who does not is Effie Deans, a young woman charged with child murder. Effie is quite innocent of any crime but Scots law being what it was, in the absence of testimony (and of the newborn infant) to the contrary, there is a presumption of guilt, and Effie too faces the death penalty.
Jeanie Deans, Effie’s sister and heroine of The Heart of Midlothian is required to give evidence. Unable to square the giving of false testimony with her conscience, even to save Effie’s life, she is unable to prevent a guilty verdict. Resolved however to save Effie at all costs, Jeanie embarks on a journey to London to beg the King and Queen for a pardon. She borrows money from Laird Dumbiedikes, one of her admirers, and with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll from Reuben Butler, her “intended”, sets out from Edinburgh on foot. In Lincolnshire, she falls in with the villainous Meg Murdockson and her mentally disturbed daughter Madge, whom we learn are somehow involved in the mystery surrounding Effie and her child.
Jeanie is rescued from Madge’s clutches and, in what seems a remarkable coincidence, finds herself in the house of George Staunton, her sister’s seducer, the man hunted in Scotland, though under a different name, for leading the Porteous riot. With the help of Staunton’s father, she travels in greater comfort to London, where her case is taken up by Argyll and she gets to meet Queen Caroline (wife of George II). Her mission accomplished, Jeanie returns to Scotland under Argyll’s protection.
Jeanie’s marriage and new life with Butler, what happens to Staunton and Effie after her release. and the resolution to the mystery surrounding their missing child all take up the last quarter of the novel.
‘… the sermon pronounced on this occasion had the good fortune to please even the critical David Deans, though it was only an hour and a quarter long, which David termed a short allowance of spiritual provender.’
Walter Scott is not everyone’s cup of tea. He does “go on a bit.” He often meanders from his plotline into non-essential historical anecdote and diverts the modern reader with what seems too much like moral preaching. Whether he is truly preaching or simply entertaining us with his dry Scots wit is not always clear. Sometimes, I fear it is both. The Heart of Midlothian has undoubtedly an overt moral message, and we can take it or leave it as we choose.
Published in 1818, more than fifty years after the story ends, the novel deals with events – many of them true history – that happened before the author was born. However, Scott would have known and conversed with men and women to whom the Porteous riots were a childhood (perhaps even an adult) memory. He understood the rather bleak Presbyterian morality of the age and as a solicitor himself, he knew the law. And both Presbyterianism and law are important and essental elements in The Heart of Midlothian, as are the aforesaid rigid morality, rough justice and indomitable female courage. Jeanie Deans is in her own way as feisty a heroine as any in 21st century literature, more so perhaps as women in 1737 were not expected (or usually allowed) to behave in such a way.
A word of warning: The Heart of Midlothian is a slow read; about 90% of the dialogue (at a guess) is written in the old Scots language, reflecting both place and time of the setting. Without the glossary, some of it is unintelligible to a modern English reader (even to one like myself with a Scottish upbringing). But if we allow for that, and for Scott’s over-descriptive narrative, his diversions and his pseudo-preaching, the The Heart of Midlothian is a cracking good story and without doubt one of the author’s best.