The Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott - A synopsis and review
"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive", seems to be a phrase that has been embedded in my mind since childhood. Inherited, I suppose from previous generations, it has had a profound effect on my approach to life and been a valuable mantra in the struggle to keep to the straight and narrow. Somehow I gained the impression that it had its origin in early comic pantomime songs heard at the Hippodrome in the fifties or in one of the tongue twisting songs of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas and never questioned these thoughts. More recently though, and quite by accident, I have become aware that it is a quote from the pen of Sir Walter Scott, and from his epic poem Marmion, a discovery which aroused my interest in this well known and respected author and to investigate further with a view to acquainting myself with his novels.
Since then I have come to realise just how many references there have been over the years to this great man, who has obviously been a great influence, both inside the literary world and elsewhere. Being a frequent visitor to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, whilst walking from Oxford Road railway station we tend to take the route which passes an extraordinary looking and distinctive pub called the Peveril of the Peak. Perhaps named after the ruined landmark castle in Derbyshire or could it be another nod to the Walter Scott novel of the same name. Which inspired which, is probably open to some speculation, but for the moment this novel eludes me, it seems to be out of print. I'm in no hurry though, I will read it in due course.
Having been a member of a local choir for many years I have become quite familiar with classical music especially opera choruses. Quite a big fan of a particular tenor soloist, I was always pleased when he included "The Serenade", an aria from Bizet's opera "The Fair Maid of Perth" in his programme, it never failed to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I didn't know at the time but again, this opera is based on a book by Scott and was intrigued to investigate the storyline. Finding a copy wasn't easy, but determination paid off and after reading just a few chapters I was completely hooked. The first book was quickly followed by Ivanhoe, Guy Mannering, Waverley, Rob Roy and more recently The Heart of Midlothian. All of them fantastic stories told in a variety of voices, bringing the characters to life in his own distinctive style, and of course keeping the reader on the edge of their seat to the very end. This author's use of language is masterful and although some of the Scottish dialect can be somewhat impenetrable, he distinguishes individual characters with their own unique voice, painting colourful pictures in the imagination with his wonderful prose.
Watching television the other night and having just completed the latter mentioned book, I spotted a steamship called "Jeanie Deans" in an old black and white documentary about leisure activities on the Clyde in the middle of the last century. Providing summer pleasure trips from Craigendoran for holiday makers and the people of the Clyde valley between 1931 and 1964, apparently the company had a policy of naming their ships after Scott's novels. Jeanie Deans is of course the heroine of "The Heart of Midlothian", a novel I cannot recommend highly enough, it is truly a good read as are all the others I'm sure, and although I will fail to do this book adequate justice, what follows is a brief synopsis.
The Main Characters
David Deans - A strict Presbyterian farmer with strong religious views
Jeanie Deans - The eldest of his two daughters
Euphemia (Effie) Deans - His youngest daughter
Reuben Butler - A young aspiring teacher and minister
George Robertson - A wayward rebellious youngster (alias George Staunton)
Meg Murdockson - An eccentric witch type character, a follower of the outlaws
Madge Murdockson - Alias Madge Wildfire, Meg’s mentally disturbed daughter
Donacha Dhu - A villainous outlaw and smuggler
Whistler - His son and fellow outlaw
Laird of Dumbiedikes - A rich shy and eccentric landowner friend of the Deans
Set in Edinburgh in the early 18th century in a Scotland now united with England in an uneasy period of unrest and criminality, where the rule of law is only partially effective and only then mainly within the large centres of population. In the face of perceived injustice the Edinburgh mob take the law into their own hands and rebel leader George Robertson goes on the run after the lynching of Captain Porteous during riots following his over-zealous action resulting in the killing of innocent civilians.
David Dean's two daughters Jeanie and Effie couldn't be more different in character. Jeanie the elder, serious minded and responsible, the younger Effie more adventurous and impulsive. Jeanie has a fondness for Reuben Butler the son of a neighbouring family, but also has a secret admirer in the eccentric, shy and retiring Laird Dumbiedikes who calls around regularly. Effie is having a secret affair with rebel leader George Robertson and becomes pregnant whilst he is on the run. Disowned by her very religious father, Effie is entrusted into the care of the unpredictable Meg Murdockson by Robertson. Whilst the mother is incapacitated after the birth, the baby disappears in mysterious circumstances and Effie is taken into custody accused of infanticide. Robertson begs Jeanie to lie to clear her sister's name. She refuses to compromise her strict moral principles and decides the only way to save her sister is to petition the King to grant a pardon. Dumbiedikes generously finances her travel to London completed mainly on foot, and after some nerve wracking moments on the way finally arrives at a relative's home and place of business in the capital. She has been recommended to keep the real purpose of her visit secret from her curious host and to seek the assistance of the Duke of Argyle. She succeeds in persuading the Duke to act on her behalf and he arranges a meeting with the Queen, the only voice with influence over the King. Happily the intervention works and Effie is restored to her family, and the Duke, impressed with Jeanie's faith and conduct as a determined advocate on her sister's behalf, offers the family a home and work on his estate where, now reunited they take up residence. It's not long however before Effie absconds with Robertson now identified as George Staunton the rebellious son of an English clergyman. Because of the enduring fear of discovery the unhappy couple go into exile abroad, whilst Jeanie and Reuben settle down to married life in the local manse where he is installed as minister.
In time the fugitives reappear as Sir George and Lady Staunton, having had a tremendous change of fortune and status, and although much changed in appearance and with a new identity, there is still a remote chance that previous fellow outlaw associates still involved in criminal activity in the area will recognise Sir George and expose him. Nevertheless there is the outstanding mystery of the disappearing baby and deep suspicion that the boy is still alive and that Meg Murdockson and her deranged daughter know the truth of what happened to him. Desperate to resolve the mystery, Sir George instigates investigations which will hopefully lead to their son’s present identity, whereabouts and recovery. To add to the tensions the investigations are leading to the outlaw fraternity via a convoluted series of twists and turns. The story finishes in an unexpected fashion, whilst hot on the trail of the long lost son, by a dramatic confrontation with the local villains intent on robbery. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the success or failure of the quest for answers, suffice it to say to elaborate further would surely spoil it for other readers.
EXTRACT - Jeanie seeks the help of the Laird of Dumbiedikes but is confronted in the yard by his housekeeper Mrs Balchristie.
"Jeanie Deans!!" said the termagant, in accents affecting the utmost astonishment; then, taking two strides nearer to her, she peered into her face with a stare of curiosity, equally scornful and malignant - "I say Jeanie Deans indeed - Jeanie Deevil, they had better hae ca'd ye! - A bonnie spot o' wark your tittie and you hae made out, murdering ae puir wean, and your light limmer of a sister to be hangit for't, as weel she deserves! - And the like o' you to come to ony honest man's house, and want to be into a decent bachelor gentleman's room at this time in the morning, and him in his bed? - gae wa', gae wa'."
Jeanie was struck mute with shame at the unfeeling brutality of this accusation, and could not even find words to justify herself from the vile construction put upon her visit, when Mrs Balchristie, seeing her advantage, continued in the same tone, "Come, come, bundle up your pipes and tramp awa wi' ye! - ye may be seeking a father to another wean for ony thing I ken. If it waurna that your father, auld David Deans, had been a tenant on our land, I would cry up the men-folk, and hae ye dookit in the burn for your impudence."
Jeanie had already turned her back, and was walking towards the door of the court-yard, so that Mrs Balchristie, to make her last threat impressively audible to her, had raised her stentorian voice to its utmost pitch. But, like many a general, she lost the engagement by pressing her advantage too far.
The Laird had been disturbed in his morning slumbers by the tones of Mrs Balchristie's objurgation, sounds in themselves by no means uncommon, but very remarkable, in respect to the early hour at which they were now heard. He turned himself on the other side, however, in hopes the squall would blow by, when, in the course of Mrs Balchristie's second explosion of wrath, the name of Deans distinctly struck the tympanum of his ear. As he was, in some degree, aware of the small portion of benevolence with which his housekeeper regarded the family at Saint Leonard's, he instantly conceived that some message from thence was the cause of this untimely ire, and getting out of bed, he slipt as speedily as possible into an old brocaded night-gown, and some other necessary integuments, clapped on his head his father's gold-laced hat, (for though he was seldom seen without it, yet it is proper to contradict the popular report, that he slept in it, as Don Quixote did in his helmet), and opening the window of his bed-room, beheld, to his great astonishment, the well-known figure of Jeanie Deans herself retreating from his gate; while his housekeeper, with arms akimbo, fist clenched and extended, body erect, and head shaking with rage, sent after her a volley of Billingsgate oaths. His choler rose in proportion to the surprise, and perhaps, to the disturbance of his repose. "Hark ye" he exclaimed from the window, "ye auld limb of Satan - wha the deil gies you commission to guide an honest man's daughter that gate?"
Mrs Balchristie was completely caught in the manner. She was aware, from the unusual warmth with which the Laird expressed himself, that he was quite serious in this matter, and she knew that, with all his indolence of nature, there were points on which he might be provoked, and that, being provoked he had in him something dangerous, which her wisdom taught her to fear accordingly.
Palfreyman April 2020