Pious Perjury in Scott's <i>The Heart of Midlothian</i>

Julia Simon-Kerr

in Subversion and Sympathy

Published in print January 2013 | ISBN: 9780199812042
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199315888 | DOI:
Pious Perjury in Scott's The Heart of Midlothian

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This chapter examines a legal norm that appears to empower women, arguing that in reality it imposes its own constricting demand for conformity: a woman may manifest strength and agency by refusing its alleged help. Scott's novel concerns a young Scotswoman who refuses to lie on the stand to save the life of her sister, who is accused (wrongly) of child murder, under a (historically real) law that allows acquittal, when a woman has delivered a child and no living child can be found, only if the accused can show that she told someone else about her pregnancy. (She didn't, but she didn't murder the child either.) Refusing to lie, Jeanie then walks barefoot to London to seek clemency for her sister from Queen Caroline. The novel has often been read as a story of female conformity to strict moral norms. Instead, the chapter shows that the novel is a story of female moral agency defying conventional male norms. It investigates the phenomenon that Blackstone dubs “pious perjury,” a practice related to jury nullification, in which people lie to prevent convictions under laws thought unduly harsh. It shows that the reigning norm was that this was a good thing to do. Jeanie, by contrast, asserts her agency and individuality by her determination to tell the truth. Connecting Jeanie's intransigence to Kant's famous essay on lying to the murderer at the door, the chapter investigates its problematic, as well as heroic, aspects. It then connects the phenomenon to contemporary debates over jury nullification and police perjury.

Keywords: pious perjury; women; conformity; female moral agency; legal norms; lying; jury nullification; police perjury

Chapter.  11989 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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