Review: The Heart of Midlothian

Sir Walter Scott (1818)

This book read more quickly than it should have, considering a good 40-percent of it was in regional dialect, that being 18th-century Edinburghese. A book that comes with two introductions, two sets of footnotes, and a glossary can’t be an easy read. And it wasn’t.

On top of the dialect, a good deal of this book is concerned with the political and religious history of Scotland: Catholicism vs. Presbyterianism, kings and cardinals, covenanters and Jacobites, and heaps of jargon and history that I plain didn’t get. This historical background was very important to Sir Walter Scott and no doubt germane to the story but it sailed right over the head of this 21st-century American reader.

The plot? Ah yes, there’s a plot which is what hooked me into reading this book in the first place and kept me wading through to the end. The Heart of Midlothian is set in Edinburgh 1736 and opens with the historical event known as the Porteus riots. During the hanging of a convicted criminal, the Captain of the Guards reacts to the mob by firing into the crowd, sparking gunfire by his men and the deaths of innocent people.

Captain Porteus is found guilty but when his hanging is commuted, an incensed mob storms the jail to carry out the original sentence. A fellow inmate of Porteus’ is Effie Deans, a young woman accused of infanticide. Effie’s sister Jeanie is commanded to testify on her behalf. Jeannie, a devoutly religious woman, is given the difficult choice of whether or not to commit a mortal sin by lying to save her sister. Instead, Jeanie tells the truth, ensuring that her sister will hang.

Ignoring the judges assurances that Effie has no chance at a pardon, Jeanie decides to save her sister the only way this morally upstanding person knows how—by walking hundreds of miles to London to petition the king. Naïve but filled with determination, Jeanie ventures far from home and the people who love her to plead her sister’s case before time runs out.

The Heart of Midlothian (the title refers to the prison where Effie is held) gains momentum when Jeanie sets her course for London. It’s a momentous undertaking for a farmer’s daughter made even more dangerous by evildoers who seek to keep Jeanie from her goal for nefarious reasons of their own. Jeanie’s journey and the characters she meets along the way are the most colorful and exciting portion of the book.

Once Jeanie returns to Edinburgh, the major thrust of the story has ended. Just as the beginning of the book feels padded with a couple hundred pages of historical background and blah-blah-blah, the final hundred or so pages feel like an extended and anticlimactic epilog that goes well beyond the natural, more satisfying ending.

In the middle of this 500-page historical novel is an entertaining story about a plucky Scottish heroine who follows her heart to do what she deems right. The drama begins with a scene of riveting courtroom drama and continues with Jeanie’s race against time. Scott has created some memorable characters and conjures up another time and place. The trouble is, to get there you have to whack through all the prose that buries The Heart of Midlothian.

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