In 2012 I read my first Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having found Scott less difficult to read than I’d expected, I decided to add another of his books to my Classics Club list and something drew me to this one – possibly memories of the Scottish football results being announced on the television on a Saturday afternoon (Heart of Midlothian is the name of an Edinburgh team).
The novel – which predates the football team, being published in 1818 – takes its title from the Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, which was in the heart of the county of Midlothian. Scott based his plot on two real historical events: the Porteous Riots of 1736 and the story of a young woman who walked all the way to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister who had been wrongly charged with infanticide. In Scott’s version, the young woman’s name is Jeanie Deans and she lives on a dairy farm at St Leonard’s Crags with her father, Davie, a strict Cameronian (a Presbyterian faction).
Jeanie’s younger sister, Euphemia – known as Effie – is in the Tolbooth facing the death penalty, having been accused of giving birth in secret and murdering her newborn child. Jeanie is sure Effie is innocent, but with no witnesses to the pregnancy or the birth and no way to prove what happened to the baby, she is guilty in the eyes of the law. If Jeanie would only tell the court that she had known her sister was pregnant, Effie could be freed, but she is unwilling to tell a lie and instead she decides to go to London to ask Queen Caroline for a pardon. Armed with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll and some money borrowed from an admirer, the Laird of Dumbiedikes, Jeanie sets off on foot to save her sister’s life.
The first half of the novel sets the scene, describing a riot that breaks out in Edinburgh during a protest over the hanging of two smugglers. When Captain John Porteous orders the city guard to fire into the crowd, causing the deaths of several people, he himself is imprisoned in the Tolbooth. The prison is then stormed by a mob and Porteous is lynched and killed. These events become entwined with Effie’s story and provide the historical backdrop for the novel. The second half of the book concentrates on Jeanie’s journey to London, which includes encounters with some characters we previously met in Scotland: George Robertson, the father of Effie’s child; and Meg Murdockson and her mentally ill daughter, Madge Wildfire, two women who could hold the key to the mystery of the missing baby.
Well, The Heart of Midlothian was not the relatively easy read that Ivanhoe was! I found it much more challenging, for several reasons. First, as the novel is set mainly in Scotland, the dialogue is written almost entirely in Scots. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with this, but added to the fact that the book was written in the early 1800s, it did slow down the pace of my reading quite a lot. I find that whenever a book uses a large amount of dialect – even one you’re familiar with – a little more effort is required to read it and that was definitely the case here. If you think you might struggle with the dialect, I would recommend choosing an edition of the book with a good glossary!
Also, unlike Ivanhoe, which is a medieval adventure story packed with sword fights, sieges, villainous knights and feuding noblemen, this is a very different type of novel. While Jeanie’s personal story was gripping, I have to admit I had very little interest in the long passages describing the religious situation in eighteenth century Scotland and the discussions between Jeanie’s father, Davie Deans, and his neighbours on their different moral beliefs. I also thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence, with Jeanie meeting people from her own small community in Scotland hundreds of miles away in England – and I felt that the final few chapters of the book were unnecessary as the story had already reached a more natural ending point.
I did enjoy parts of The Heart of Midlothian, though. Jeanie is a strong heroine who behaves with honesty and integrity throughout the novel, and although some of her choices were frustrating, I did like her. There is a romantic interest for Jeanie too – the schoolmaster, Reuben Butler – but this only forms a small part of the story. I was also interested in the descriptions of eighteenth century life and the relationship between Scotland and England in the years following the union of 1707. And there are plenty of memorable scenes, from the storming of the Tolbooth near the beginning to Jeanie’s meeting with Queen Caroline, wife of George II, towards the end.
I certainly didn’t love this book the way I loved Ivanhoe, but I’ll still read more of Scott’s novels and will hope that the next one I pick up is more to my taste than this one was!