Generally considered one of the finest of Scott’s novels—though opinions vary widely—The Heart of Midlothian deals with the social and political difficulties in Scotland of the years after 1736. The 1707 Act of Union, decreeing a common parliamentary government for England and Scotland, was unpopular in the north. Furthermore, the exiled Stuart line, driven from the throne in 1688, continued to agitate for reinstatement. Rebellion broke out on several occasions, notably in 1715 and 1745, when formidable armies mustered, one even invading England.
Scott begins with another insurrection, the Porteous Riots of 1736, when a mob stormed the Edinburgh Tolbooth, the ancient city jail and guardhouse, to seize Captain John Porteous, commander of the Guard, sentenced to death for firing on a gathering. Although sentenced, Porteous had been reprieved, according to rumor, by Queen Caroline herself. The mob, led by an escapee, Geordie Robertson, carries along a young clergyman, Reuben Butler. While they ransack the Tolbooth, Butler observes Robertson trying to persuade Effie Deans, arrested for child murder, to escape. She refuses, as does a thief, Jem Ratcliffe. The mob tracks Porteous down and hangs him. In love with Jeanie, Effie’s sister, Butler tells her what he saw—perhaps Robertson knows about the missing infant. Old Deans, torn between love for his wayward daughter and abhorrence of her crime, refuses to see her. Jeanie vows to save her. She...
(The entire section is 471 words.)