The Heart of Mid-Lothian

Written by Walter Scott
Review by Sue Asher

First published in 1818, The Heart of Mid-Lothian is the story of the Deans sisters, daughters of a prosperous farmer of the Edinburgh countryside in the mid 1700s. While Jeanie follows the straight-and-narrow path, Effie lives a freer life and suffers the consequences when seduced by a young man who lives outside the law. Arrested for thievery, he is unable to marry Effie before their son is born. When the baby disappears, Effie is arrested for infanticide. While there is no proof the babe has been murdered, it can be proven Effie concealed her pregnancy, which, according to the law of the time, is enough to condemn her. Jeanie has the power to save her sister’s life if she will cast aside her scruples and bear false witness in court.

That is the bare-bones of the plot; however, the story is not so simple. The novel opens well before and ends well after Effie’s trial, using her conviction and that of John Porteus (a government official also accused of murder with extenuating circumstances) to illustrate the political, judicial, religious, and social issues of the time. The novel incorporates the life stories of the girls’ father, Jeanie’s betrothed, Effie’s seducer, and many other characters both intimately and peripherally involved. Taking into account the leisurely pace of the plot, the moralizing of the characters, and the heavy use of dialect (which made frequent recourse to the glossary necessary), this a difficult book to read (incl. notes on the text and a glossary). But no one picking up an early nineteenth century classic will be expecting light entertainment. The development of the characters and satisfying conclusion will reward the determined reader. I recommend the book to admirers of Scott and to those who, like me, have never read his work but always felt they should.