Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: The Heart of Midlothian

So I took a little break from the Internet - and, in fact, the computer! - over the Easter break (something my Script Frenzy script is now punishing me for) and spent a bit of time reading a bunch of books I've been meaning to finish for a long, long time. One of these was The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott, which has been sitting on my night desk for about three months. No kidding. But I finally finished it and I wanted to post a review on it, seeing as I haven't posted for a while. Plus the fact that I finally finished the book made me want to celebrate a bit. I thought it was a waste to read the book for three months and then just put it back on my shelf. So, with that in mind....

How far would you go to save a sister's life? Would you tell a lie? How much would you sacrifice?

The Heart of Midlothian is a simple story which probably could have been several times shorter than it actually was; it essentially centres around a young woman called Jeanie Deans, whose half-sister is accused of child-murder and sentenced to death. Jeanie, unable to lie in a court of law to save her sister's life (a point which didn't quite sit with me, but more on that later), heads down the long road to London to try and get a pardon for her sister from the King.

As always with Scott, however, a simple story is never just that. The novel opens on the infamous Porteous Riots in Edinburgh and Scott describes a wide range of characters and events which, though at times remotely linked to Jeanie Deans and her journey, aren't necessarily related. I'll admit, the first few chapters are interesting, but once the dust settles on Edinburgh the story begins to slow down to the point where you begin to wonder what the whole book is actually, in essence, about. I admire the scope of the novel's interest. There's a thorough examination of recent history on Scott's part, and court scenes described in tediously exact detail. Yet I'd be a liar if I didn't say that by spreading himself too far, Scott created a story and a host of characters I cared very little about, detracting from the story about a young woman who treks to London to try and save her sister's life. As a reader, there is too much description and discussion of the mundane, unimportant things. Perhaps it's just me; I'm the sort of person who would have liked to read the story of Jeanie Deans' personal struggle and journey to London; every heart-wrenching, breathless, torturous step and thought that crosses her mind. To a person interested in Scottish history, however, it may just be one of the most brilliant and useful books of the period.

The Porteous Riots. Source.
The Heart of Midlothian has no shortage of characters who are all, in some miraculous way, interconnected, even across the span of the British Isles. But my biggest problem was with the character of Jeanie Deans. Perhaps it was her religious nature. It's a difficult thing to relate to nowadays, but Jeanie Deans' entire life is shaped by her religious belief. I could understand why Scott believed that Jeanie couldn't risk lying in a court of law, even to save her sister's life (her religion taught her it was wrong) yet I couldn't help thinking that sisters (even half-sisters as Jeanie and Effie are) wouldn't stop at such things to protect each other. Many people believe Jeanie Deans' strength comes from her religious devotion. To me it made her less human. I may, of course, be blinded by my own personal beliefs when it comes to the relationships between sisters. I've always been attached to my own sister, yet this part of the novel made me think. I'm not personally religious; I don't believe in any sort of retribution, and I don't believe in 'sin'. Yet I still believe that, in principle, it's wrong to lie. But to ensure justice is carried out? To me, this was the biggest conflict of the whole novel. It was certainly the issue that influenced me the most personally. I believe that, when placed in that sort of situation, we would do anything to protect the people we love, no matter how hard they've disappointed us. Yet we see Jeanie Deans, who is faced with the possibility of saving the woman she - for all intents and purposes - raised rather like a mother. I think Scott points out that it's not as easy as we think it is; we all have some sort of moral compass that starts going haywire, especially when we're faced with a situation where we've sworn to tell the truth. And so Jeanie Deans cannot lie, and her sister is condemned to death. With this in mind I had to read her journey to London as a kind of penance; a way of eradicating the guilt she felt as she condemned her sister to death through her own refusal to lie. 

Effie Deans in a portrait by John Everett Millais. Source.
The female characters, though at times showing great strength, are on the whole unrealistic, or at least they were to my mind. Effie is punished, apparently 'justly' at the end of the novel, because although she was wholly innocent of child-murder she had still committed a 'sin' in her relationship with a man who was not her husband. It was difficult, furthermore, to sympathise with Jeanie Deans; I wanted her to succeed in London only because I wanted her sister to be freed. As for Jeanie herself, I was very much neutral towards her. I felt the most strongly, perhaps, for the madwoman Madge Wildfire, and her mother. This is a woman presented as wholly evil, and yet I couldn't help but feel sorry for the way she was treated by everyone around her. Her daughter is likewise shunned for her madness and she makes for a tragic figure throughout the novel. But Scott clearly wants us, at the end of the day, to take Jeanie Deans as a figure of admiration.

All in all, Scott took a tale which could have been both riveting and simplistic and built up the context surrounding the sisters. Though the novel is rich and detailed, through this Scott sacrifices some of the humanity of his characters, making them appear less believable and likable. Perhaps we aren't meant to like any of the characters in this novel, not even Jeanie Deans; but to me it seems much more likely that Scott wanted us to see how nothing can ever really be taken out of its historical and political context completely. Jeanie Deans' story takes shape because of her religious, cultural and political context, without which it might have turned out very differently. It's an interesting novel; at times difficult and tedious to read, but in the end something I'm glad I had the patience to finish.

Three out of Five Stars.

Source for cover image.

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