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 first knowledge Jeanie Deans has that her sister Effie is in trouble comes just a few moments before officers of justice arrive at their cottage to arrest Effie for child murder. They tell Jeanie and her father, David Deans, that Effie bore a male child illegitimately and then killed him or caused him to be killed soon after he was born. Effie admits to the birth of the child but refuses to name her seducer, and she denies killing her baby, saying that she fell into a stupor after its birth and recovered to find that her midwife had disposed of the child in some unknown fashion. In the face of the evidence, however, she is convicted of child murder and sentenced to be hanged. Jeanie has a chance to save her sister, for the law says that if a prospective mother tells anyone of her condition she is not responsible for her baby’s death. Jeanie refuses to lie, however, even to save her sister’s life. Because Effie did not tell anyone her terrible secret, she has no defense, and she is placed in the Tolbooth prison to await execution.
Captain John Porteous is also in Tolbooth prison awaiting execution. Porteous was convicted of firing into a crowd that was attending the hanging of a smuggler named Andrew Wilson. Wilson’s accomplice, Geordie Robertson, had escaped, and the officers feared that Robertson might try to rescue Wilson. For that reason, Porteous and a company of soldiers had been sent to the site of the execution to guard against a possible rescue. Porteous fired into the crowd without provocation and killed several people. Porteous’s execution is stayed for a few weeks, but a mob headed by Robertson, who is disguised as a woman, breaks into the prison, seizes Porteous, and hangs him. Afterward, Robertson becomes a hunted man.
Although she refused to lie to save her sister, Jeanie Deans has not forsaken Effie. When she visits Effie in prison, she learns that it is Robertson who is the father of Effie’s child. He had left her in the care of old Meg Murdockson, whom many consider to be a witch, and it must have been Meg who killed or sold the baby. Meg’s daughter Madge was herself once seduced by Robertson, and she lost her mind for love of him. As a result, Meg swore revenge on any other woman Robertson might love. It is impossible, however, to prove the old woman’s guilt or Effie’s innocence, for Robertson has disappeared and Meg swears that she saw Effie coming back from the river after drowning the baby.
Determined to save her sister, Jeanie decides to walk to London to seek a pardon from the king and queen. She tells her plans to Reuben Butler, a minister to whom she has long been betrothed. Reuben has been unable to marry Jeanie, because he has no position other than that of an assistant schoolmaster and his salary is too small to support a wife. Although he objects to Jeanie’s plan, he helps her when he sees that she cannot be swayed from her purpose. Reuben’s grandfather once gave aid to an ancestor of the present duke of Argyle, and Reuben gives Jeanie a letter asking the duke’s help in presenting Jeanie to the king and queen.
The journey to London is long and dangerous. At one point, Jeanie is captured by Meg Murdockson, who tries to kill her to prevent her from saving Effie. Jeanie escapes from the old woman, however, and seeks refuge in the home of the Reverend Mr. Staunton. There, she meets the minister’s son, George Staunton, who...