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Crossing and Transgressing Borders in The Heart of Midlothian

  • Céline Sabiron

…plus d’informations

The Heart of Midlothian opens on a closed door, the hefty “iron-bound portals” (I, 6: 54) of the eponymous prison of Edinburgh. The entry into the text is thus immediately blocked by a substantial entryway made “of double oak planks, clenched both end-long and athwart with iron, studded besides with broad-headed nails” [1]. The alliteration of stop consonants constitutes a phonetic obstacle mirroring and reinforcing the physical barrier materialized by the massive jail door and the high impassable walls. The latter acts as a boundary, i.e. a real and tangible line of division between the “world within” and the “world without” (I, 1: 14), but also as an imaginary, immaterial breaking point separating the righteous and the corrupt. Therefore, if a border primarily refers to a geographical sphere, that is a line separating two countries, states or areas, it is also endowed with a more abstract meaning, thus being synonymous with boundary.

The tolbooth stands all the more as the epitome of the border since it lies at the heart of a series of concentric rings. First it is located in Edinburgh, a capital city “surrounded by a high [boundary] wall” (I, 6: 49). Then, on a larger scale it is set in the county of Midlothian neighbouring the Scottish Borders, or Marches. This wide buffer zone stretching over a distance of about eighty miles from Edinburgh to northern England is composed of a “boundary of mountains” (I, 8: 64) barring the entrance into Scotland. Thus, if a border ― referring both to a physical and mental line of division ― can be represented on a map by a well-defined line delimiting two specific lands, it can also be more extensive, becoming a border territory. Situated on the fringe of a settled and developed area, the latter is also a frontier in a North American sense, i.e. a margin characterized by its untamed wilderness and disregard for any type of authority and rule.

This string of embedded boundaries — be they concrete or abstract, national or local — is subject to a meticulous literal and metaphorical mapping in Walter Scott’s novel. Marches and marks are indeed etymologically linked so that boundaries are imprinted on the diegetical map. Therefore, I would like to examine the link between concrete borders outlined on geographical charts and abstract boundaries drawn on metaphorical maps, and question the symbolical meaning of crossing a physical border. If crossing etymologically means transgressing, from Latin transgradi, that is stepping (-gradi) across (trans-) a limit or a boundary, does it also mean transgressing in its figurative sense, which is violating a moral command or a law? Is crossing more than just trespassing? Conversely, does crossing always involve transgressing? To answer these questions, I will closely analyse the various types of borders scarring the map of the novel on different scales, and study the way they are constantly crossed. This physical crossing of concrete borders usually goes with the mental crossing of abstract barriers, so that crossing can amount to transgressing. External material boundaries also often embody more internal divisions ― be they social, gender, religious, or political ― and serve to map borders of the mind. Crossing can therefore lead to connecting and unifying.

First of all, diegetic space is criss-crossed by a series of tangible natural barriers reinforcing abstract national boundaries. Various foreign countries located outside the bounds of Great Britain are mentioned, such as Ireland (IV, 13: 443) over the Irish Sea, France (I, 12: 104) across the English Channel, the Netherlands (II, 1: 134) and its provinces ― South Holland and Utrecht (I, 5: 42) ― beyond the North Sea, or even the continent of America (IV, 2: 353) on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. These maritime frontiers are highlighted, for they serve to materialize the intangible political borders separating the nations.

Corporeal barriers do not only skirt around foreign lands, they can also be present within a single country. Great Britain is itself split by a series of embedded political borders, as it is divided into England, Scotland, and Wales. Despite the recent merging of the first two nations through the 1707 Act of Union, the wounds have not been fully stitched up yet: “Scotland […] was indeed united to England, but the cement had not had time to acquire consistence” the narrator explains (III, 10: 317). The metaphor of the “cement”, a substance made from lime and clay, brings out the corporeal aspect of the boundary permanently scarring the two “sisters” [2]. These Siamese twins are imperfectly welded, insofar as three natural topographical boundaries ― the Cheviot Hills, the river Tweed, and the Solway Firth ― clearly draw a natural, but not less material, line of division between England and Scotland. A similar dichotomy can be noticed within the Scottish territory which is split by an internal boundary between Highlands and Lowlands. The partition is brought out by the alternative structure “either in the Highlands or Lowlands” (III, 10: 322 my emphasis) employed by the Duke of Argyle’s grandfather in his posthumous epistolary piece. If the coordinating conjunction “or” is used to materialize the disjunction, the stylistic boundary is even further stressed by a corporeal geographical obstacle, the Highland Boundary Fault. This “natural bar, which is drawn along the mouth of the Firth […]” (IV, 5: 374) severs the land into two different physiographic regions: the Highlands, identified by their wild mountainous landscape, and the Lowlands, characterized by their flatter domesticated topography.

In The Heart of Midlothian corporeal borders fit into one another like a nest of dolls. Natural barriers are intermixed with artificial boundaries as it can be analysed through a pragmatics of enclosure and partition. If the English landscape is hardly divided by any natural boundaries, it has been gradually bristled with man-made obstacles, such as gates and surrounding walls, from the fourteenth century onwards, this process gaining momentum in the middle eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries during the agrarian revolution when many commons north of the capital were enclosed and turned into private lands. The house of Rector Staunton, situated in “merry England” (III, 6: 279), and more precisely in Willingham, is surrounded by a land “covered with small enclosures, or closes” (III, 7: 287). This process of limitation is not finished in 1736 at the time of the story. During her solitary peregrination to London, Jeanie Deans discovers the fields still open in eastern England, in Lincolnshire [3]. Yet, the narrator points at their impending enclosure thanks to a retrospective comment which draws a comparison between the narrated time [4] and the narrating time: “[t]he extensive commons of the north road, most of which are now enclosed […]” (258). The adverb “now” highlights the progressive fencing of the English territory. The enclosure does not take place in Scotland, which is why David Deans’s second home in Saint Leonard’s Crags is depicted as adjoining an “extensive sheep pasture […]” (I, 9: 81), an “open pasturage” (I, 11, 95), which the old man rents to house his milk-cows [5]. Scotland also partly escapes the fencing of private estates by means of gates or walls, for the Highlanders are a nomadic people organized in clans and hostile to the notion of ownership. Conversely, in the Lowlands the settled population resorts to artificial boundaries to mark the border in-between properties. For instance, Lord Dumbiedikes’s mansion is surrounded by a “court-yard wall” (III, 1: 230) so that when the Deans impart their decision to move out, the lord is depicted as “spinning round the whole bounds of his little property” like the index of a watch (I, 9: 82). The running metaphor of the watch insists on the rigid frame circling the estate. Likewise, in England the Rector’s house is skirted by a wall closed by “a handsome gate-way” (III, 7: 287), and the Queen’s park is bounded by a “high brick wall” shut by a postern-door” (III, 12: 330). Therefore, English and Lowland properties are often delimited by boundary walls.

Lastly, on a large-scale map family homes are also subdivided by many a partition. When Jeanie Deans visits Lord Dumbiedikes, she is faced with a never-ending series of doors: “she ventured to open one door; — […]. She tried another — […]. A third door […]. Jeanie went on opening doors […]” (III, 1: 230-231). The absence of article and the use of the plural “doors” after the numerals “one” and “third” suggest that the attempt at counting has failed. Besides, the anaphoric repetition of the same grammatical structure [subject-verb-noun “door”] conveys the impression of an endless multiplication of obstacles, which are all the more corporeal as they are materialized by a hyphen.

Artificial domestic boundaries can take on a more symbolical meaning. Once the protagonist “lift[s] the latch of her paternal mansion” and steps across the threshold “to leave it on so wild an expedition”, “she f[inds] herself abroad and in the open fields […]” (II, 1: 134). The gate surrounding the garden of David Deans’s cottage takes the shape of a border separating the homeland (“paternal mansion”) from a foreign territory, the image of which is conveyed by the very strong adverb “abroad”. Staying within the confines of the fatherland is synonymous with righteousness and safety, whereas going beyond the bounds is tantamount to immorality and danger; hence the twofold meaning of the adjective “wild”. The characters fear the “open fields”, the “open ground” (II, 4: 156), the undefined and unstable in-between ground lying between the ramparts of the civilized city of Edinburgh and the reassuring gates of home, as if confinement were preferable to openness. That is why doors, by symbolically enabling the passage from one land to the other (or from morality to immorality), are key elements in The Heart of Midlothian. After her encounter with the devilish Robertson and his confederate Ratcliffe in the moor, Jeanie hurries back home and bustles about to “lift the latch — to enter — to shut, bolt, and double bolt the door —” (II, 5: 163). Each turn of the screw is materialized by a monosyllabic verb “lift”, “shut”, and “bolt” listed in a ternary rhythm, while the dry clinking noise of the fastening is reproduced thanks to the bilabial [b] and the dentals [d] and [t]. Similarly, at the outset of the novel the rioters’ first action is to secure the city gates, which are “regularly shut at night” (I, 6: 49) to prevent any transference from the outside into the inside, like in communicating vessels.

The physical crossing of concrete borders often goes with the mental crossing of abstract barriers. Overstepping a physical boundary can thus lead to transgressing, that is violating a moral command or a law. In the Scottish Borders “many an outlaw, and border-rider of both kingdoms, had wavered in the wind during the wars, and scarce less hostile truces, between the two countries. […] These frontier provinces remained long unsettled, and even at the time of which I write, were ruder than those in the centre of England”, Walter Scott reminds us through the voice of one of his personae, the narrator Peter Pattieson (IV, 3: 360). The comparative of greater degree “ruder” stresses the discrepancy between the centre and the periphery, while emphasizing the link between fraud and fringe. Assessing the situation over a span of five hundred years from the Wars of Independence in the Middle Ages (“during the wars”) to the relative peace in the early nineteenth century (“at the time of which I write”), the author concludes that illegality and immorality are permanent features of border territories. Border-riders are border-transgressors so that crossing the corporeal limits between two nations often amounts to trespassing on the incorporeal boundary between the lawful and the illicit. The “border effect” can be felt as far as the Midlands, an extended border territory, since Ratcliffe, a former thief turned into a “turnkey” at the jail of Edinburgh, warns Jeanie Deans that on her journey to London she “may meet wi’ rough customers on the Border, or in the Midlands” (II, 26: 225). The rascal’s words prove premonitory and the young protagonist is arrested in the East Midlands region south of Newark by two ruffians asking for her money or her life (III, 4: 259). While the Scottish Borders and the Midlands are the scenes of wrongful and violent transactions, the borderland between the Lowlands and the Highlands is also affected: “after the breaking out and suppression of the rebellion in 1745, the peace of the country, adjacent to the Highlands, was considerably disturbed. Marauders, or men that had been driven to that desperate mode of life, quartered themselves in the fastnesses nearest to the Lowlands, which were their scene of plunder” (IV, 12: 426). The adverbial phrases of place “adjacent to the Highlands” and “nearest to the Lowlands” draw the geographical borderline between the two Scottish regions. Besides, the lexicon on crime (“disturbed”, “marauders”, “desperate mode of life”, “plunder”) serve to associate corporeal borders with incorporeal boundaries. Other marchlands, like the natural peninsula of Fife [6], epitomize the relationship between physical and ethical frontiers:

“The county of Fife, bounded by two firths on the south and north, and by the sea on the east, […] was long famed for maintaining successfully a contraband trade; and, as there were many seafaring men there, who had been pirates and buccaneers in their youth, there were not wanting a sufficient number of daring men to carry it on”.

I, 2: 22

Therefore, an organic link is suggested between the nature of the landscape and the nature of the dealings taking place in it [7]. “[T]he sequestred and broken character of the ground rendered it a fit theatre for duels and rencontres”, insists the narrator in (II, 1: 134). This meaningful sentence introduces the following pages (135; 137) which focus on the description of the place and heavily emphasize both its sinister and iniquitous aspect [8]. The doublet “ominous and unhallowed”, which comes back like a leitmotiv, illustrates the inextricable link [9] between geographical place and human act: the adjective “ominous” refers to the threatening aspect of the surroundings, while the qualifier “unhallowed” alludes to its unholy and transgressive character. Robbers and assassins hide in the “bowels of the earth” (II, 1: 135), in the “recesses of mountains, in caverns, and in morasses” (135), or they lurk on the outskirts of Edinburgh (II, 3: 143) and London. Even though Walter Scott draws real boundaries, they are sometimes endowed with topographical symbolism, so that they are often corporeal marks of more incorporeal boundaries. The landscape can be seen as a reflector, a mirror of more internal divisions. Overpassing these porous partitions can thus lead to progressing towards a less fragmented society.

In The Heart of Midlothian the metaphorical crossing of social, gender, religious or political borders brings about coherence and unity. Numerous invisible social barriers are raised, insofar as the characters are constantly classified according to their rank. The novel abounds in binary phrases composed of the word “rank”, such as “of decent rank and condition” (I, 4: 36), “differences of rank and education” (III, 8: 299/ IV, 1:346), “rank and fashion” (III, 12: 330), or even “distinctions of rank and situation” (IV, 1: 346). Comparatives of greater or lesser degrees [10] are very often used to segment and label the population. Adjectives, like “high and low” (III, 11: 325), “inferior” and “superior” [11], or adverbs of position, such as “below”, “under” and “above” [12], are employed to locate the various rungs on the social ladder. The boundary between the aristocracy and the working class is clearly marked by the linkword “but” in the following sentence:  “[i]n the higher classes, a damsel […] is still under the dominion of etiquette, and subject to the surveillance of mammas and chaperons ; but the country girl […] is under no such guardianship, or restraint” (I, 10: 89). The discrepancy between the two opposite layers of society is even further emphasized by the etymology of the noun “damsel” (Latin) and the substantive “country girl” (Anglo-Saxon origin). In volume 3, chapter 3 the dividing line between rich and poor is materialised by a dash: “the rich — the poor” (249). The split in the grammatical structure mirrors the societal disjunction. This Manichean division between the wealthy and the destitute conceals many a ramification. The use of the superlative in such expressions as “the lowest class” (I, 4: 36) or “the highest rank” (I, 6: 52) suggests an endless fragmentation in the British society. The different watertight compartments are even visually represented through a theatre-like layout of the “assembled spectators, of all degrees” (I, 4: 35) attending Captain Porteous’s execution. The “groundlings”, that is the rioters and the populace, are indeed described as standing in the “pit” or on the ground, while “the persons of decent rank and condition” are sitting on balconies “looking out at windows at the scene” (35).

And yet, these dividing lines are crossed after the postponement of Porteous’s death sentence. The separate groups assembled for the occasion merge together to react as one “body” (36) and “blend […]” their “stifled mutterings […] into one deep and hoarse murmur” (35) of displeasure. The use of the determiner “one” and the suggestive shift from the plural “mutterings” to the singular “murmur” emphasize the unity of the burghers moved by a “cause […] common to all ranks” (36) after the fatal fire opened on the inhabitants of all classes by the Captain’s soldiers.

The obsessive and frenetic urge to label and grade knows no bound in the eighteenth-century society, and people are further divided according to their gender. “‘But I am a woman and you are a man — it may be different wi’ you —’” (I, 12: 108), argues Jeanie Deans to her suitor Butler, using the gap between the sexes as a sufficient argument accounting for their different reactions. Similarly, David Deans evaluates the discrepancy between his daughter’s behaviour and his own in terms of gender: “she, a woman” and “he, a man” (II, 7: 181). The structural parallelism and the use of the italics on the personal pronouns “she” and “he” reinforce the opposition. The novel thus stresses the intangible chasm between the sexes to point at the institutionalized sexism within the eighteenth-century British society. Women are denigrated and despised for being gossipy [13] and ignorant: “‘Woman’, said Saddletree, assuming an elevated tone, ‘desist, — I say forbear from intromitting with affairs thou can’st not understand’” (I, 5: 42). If Mr. Saddletree appears as the embodiment of misogyny, Mr. Sharpitlaw is presented as another “great calomnier of the fair sex” (II, 5: 164): “one woman is enough to dark the fairest ploy that ever was planned” (164). In the trial of Effie Deans, the King’s Counsel reminds the jury for the crown, the lawyers, and the audience that “it was females who possessed the world’s good report, and […] who were most strongly tempted […] to the crime of infanticide” (II, 2: 213). A cleft sentence is thus used to highlight the extracted and framed word “females” and oppose it to “males”. Women are chained to their role which hinges round domestic tasks. Mrs Saddletree is in charge of “the domestic and commercial departments which [her husband] abandoned to her” (I, 4: 38), while Jeanie Deans is praised for her household skills: “[s]he did not pretend to understand his expositions of divinity; but no minister of the presbytery had his humble dinner so well arranged, his clothes and linen in equal good order, his fire-side so neatly swept, his parlour so clean, and his books so well dusted” (IV, 10: 412 my emphasis). The repetition of the adverb of intensity “so” stresses her high quality as a housewife. The eighteenth-century English and Scottish society is grounded on a vertical ranking, a rigid social and gender hierarchy, which divides rich and poor, men and women.

And yet, the protagonist Jeanie Deans is made “the female hero” [14] of a novel which keeps men in the background. Reuben Butler and Georges Staunton are ill, confined to bed, and thus unable to take part in Effie’s rescue. King George II, “absent […] on the continent” (I, 4: 35), is only the supporting actor in a regal play where his wife, Queen Caroline, has the leading role.

Women not only act, but also look like men and vice versa in a fiction which abounds in cases of gender crossing. The Queen is said to “possess […] the masculine soul of the other sex” (III, 12: 331), while Madge Wildfire has her “hair clubbed like that of a man” and “features [looking] […] coarse and masculine” (II, 3: 148). Besides, Georges Robertson appears dressed up as the female Madge during the riot (I, 7: 59).

The British nation, and thus the characters of Scott’s novel, is also internally split by political and religious boundaries which are obliquely superimposed to the two other frontiers. The body politic is psychologically torn apart between two political parties, Whigs and Tories, and two royal allegiances [15]. Two kings fight and assert their rights de facto or de jure to the throne; hence David Daiches’s remark about the “conflicting claims of the two worlds” [16]The Heart of Midlothian refers to this state of division when it alludes to “the civil war” (IV, 12: 426), or “the breaking out and suppression of the rebellion in 1745” (426), that is to say the Second Jacobite Rising [17].

This series of combinations between Whigs, Tories, Hanoverians, and Jacobites is further complicated by different religious beliefs. Church, or kirk, and state are indeed intrinsically linked. The minister Reuben Butler hints at the “various debates between the churches” (IV, 14: 454), while his interlocutor, George Staunton, focuses on the doctrinal limits between “the two churches of England and Scotland” (454). The intangible religious boundary between Anglicans or Episcopalians and Puritans is clearly established in the novel. David Deans, a doctrinaire theologian and short-sighted Puritan, depicts Anglican England as “a land of prelatic deadness and schismatic heresy” (IV, 5: 375), and congratulates himself on seeing his older daughter Jeanie “delivered from the dangers of the way, and the lions that were on her path” (375) after her peregrinations through England. The “roaring lion” is the biblical emblem of the devil [18] so that David Deans conveys a satanic image of Scotland’s neighbouring country. Internally torn apart, the Calvinist protagonist is reluctant to cross the threshold of the parish church seen as a “forbidden place of assembly” and attend an Anglican service, as she is led to overstep a spiritual boundary: “Jeanie was too faithful to the directory of the Presbyterian kirk to have entered a prelatic place of worship”, it is stated (III, 6: 282). Not only does she cross the line and enter the Anglican Church, but she even adopts the postures of the most fervent believers: “it was her sensible resolution, in this dilemma, to imitate as nearly as she could what was done around her” (III, 6: 284). Her mimicry proves so accurate that she would have passed for an Anglican, but for her vocabulary mistake emphasized through the staging of a dialogue with the beadle of the parish church: “‘[i]s that the minister, said Jeanie, who preached ’— ‘The minister? Lord help thee! What kind o’ presbyterian art thou? — Why, ‘tis the Rector’”, Mr. Stubbs explains (III, 7: 287). If the substantives “minister” and “rector” are both employed to refer to a priest, the former is only used in Puritanism, whereas the latter is typical of Anglicanism.

The Manichean vision, based on a simplistic dichotomy between Puritanism and Anglicanism, is gradually questioned, insofar as each religion is subdivided into numerous branches. The verbal jousting caused by a “theological controversy” (IV, 10: 414) between the two Presbyterians, Reuben Butler and David Deans, exemplifies the split within one religious movement [19]. Even though Walter Scott’s fiction displays many invisible barriers erected between social positions, genders, political and religious beliefs, it gradually crosses the borders to turn boundaries into bonds.

As I have shown, national, regional and local boundaries, be they natural or artificial, divide up the diegetic map in concentric circles. Acting as bearings, landmarks, these corporeal boundaries can take on a more abstract and symbolic meaning since they also materialize the frontier between good and evil. Crossing a corporeal boundary can thus lead to transgressing, that is breaking a law or moral rule, but it can also result in bridging various societal discrepancies. Indeed, if the chart is further criss-crossed by incorporeal vertical lines marking social and gender divisions, and oblique strokes pointing at political and religious boundaries, it gradually becomes blurred. Far from displaying a fixed map with a set pattern, the novel presents a constant to and fro motion between the corporeal and the incorporeal, the divided and the undivided. Boundaries are constantly mapped and re-mapped so that the text is a palimpsest of shifting borders.

The Heart of Midlothian operates an ultimate crossing, which is that of time. If the events are revivified through the retrospective narration, they are also seen through the thick curtain of time which shrouds them in mist. Crossing the time barrier contributes to both rekindling and blurring them. These parallel opposite movements are best exemplified by the description of the Edinburgh City Guards. They are first depicted as a “venerable corps” (I, 3 27), a strong “body of about one hundred and twenty soldiers” (27) all “armed, clothed, and embodied” (27). The ponderous and substantial quality of the squad is emphasized by the use of the word “embodied” which is etymologically composed of the root “body” and therefore insists on the physical, the corporeal. Besides, the past participle is very much stressed by its position at the end of the ternary rhythm and its two-syllable structure contrasting with the first two monosyllabic qualifiers “armed” and “clothed”. And yet, the time barrier turns this very tangible body of soldiers into “spectre[s]”, phantom[s] of former days […] gliding around the door of the guard-house” (I, 3: 28). Both embodied and disembodied, close and distant, they very well typify Walter Scott’s fictional world brought to life by a non-static writing which skilfully blends epochs, but also genres, styles and languages.

Parties annexes