Pious Perjury in Scott's The Heart of Midlothian
SUBVERSION AND SYMPATHY: GENDER, LAW, AND THE BRITISH NOVEL IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES, Alison LaCroix & Martha Nussbaum, eds., Oxford University Press, 2013
42 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2011 Last revised: 11 Jan 2013
Date Written: March 7, 2011
Lying in court was a practice routinely used in the eighteenth century justice system to mitigate the severity of its criminal laws. Dubbed “pious perjury” by Blackstone, witnesses and juries often violated their oaths in order to avoid imposition of the death penalty. The practice was so common that it formed a central piece of the argument for law reform during the period when Scott was writing The Heart of Midlothian. Reformers argued that the laws were being grossly under-enforced because so many juries were mitigating sentences or freeing defendants through pious perjury. True to this practice, the men surrounding Scott’s heroine, Jeanie Deans urge her to perjure herself to save her sister, who has been wrongly accused of infanticide. Her sister, Effie, will be acquitted if Jeanie swears that Effie told her of her pregnancy. Jeanie’s refusal to lie forms the dramatic core of the novel. By creating a heroine whose major strength is her truthfulness in a public realm, Scott intervenes both in the novelistic tradition of female heroism and in the contemporary discourse on law reform.
Keywords: perjury, law & literature, gender, lying
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