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ClassicsOnline Home » HOGG, J.: Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (The) (Unabridged)
A psychological thriller before its time, James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, takes us back to the world of 18th-century Scotland, into a mind haunted by religious obsession, and driven to commit murder. The events are told from several different viewpoints, so that truth and reality appear to dissolve in this disturbing story of the dark legacy of Calvinist doctrine, and the madness to which it led one man. Misunderstood and neglected for more than a century, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is now regarded as a classic of the supernatural, comparable with Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Dracula.
James Hogg (1770–1835)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Hogg’s Confessions is one of a small group of nineteenth-century supernatural novels which were radical and innovative in their time, and which have survived to become classics. The other books in this group would include Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Dracula. Clearly related to the fashion for Gothic fiction which had reached its height in the 1790s, these few books have outlived those other works because they each went beyond lurid theatrical horror, and tapped into a genuine sense of psychological fear and mystery within the minds of their creators and their readers. On its first appearance in 1824, Hogg’s book was the least successful of this group, for it is a complex story told in a deliberately complex way. It is partly a historical novel set in the years 1700–1720; it is partly a regional novel, with a strong portrait of Scottish rural life and speech, together with a certain level of humour; it is partly an intellectual novel which explores the corrupting effect of strict Calvinist theories of predestination; but running through all this is a psychological thriller that takes us deep inside a disturbed criminal mind.
James Hogg (1770–1835), always known as ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, was indeed a shepherd throughout most of his life in the border district of Ettrick, near Selkirk. He was intelligent, self-motivated and self-educated, and turned to literature early in his life, consciously modelling himself on the already famous Robert Burns. He wrote poetry which was published to wide acclaim, and established himself in Edinburgh literary society, wrote for Blackwood’s magazine, made friends with Walter Scott, and was admired by Wordsworth, who would write an elegy for him when he died. Hogg was to some extent fêted and patronised as a naïve genius, a peasant poet, as Burns had been. He accepted the role of ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’ knowing that it brought him success and status as a writer, but his mind and his work soon began to move in other directions, towards the visionary and the supernatural. He wrote an unforgettable poem called ‘Kilmeny’, about a country girl who vanishes for a time and is presumed dead, but she returns having been in some transcendent realm which she cannot describe, and her beauties are succeeded by an apocalyptic vision. Wordsworth admired the poem, and recognised in it the spirit of Coleridge. Hogg began to write prose stories, some of them touching on supernatural themes, and full-length historical novels not unlike those of Scott. Nevertheless no one could have predicted that Hogg would produce The Confessions, or perhaps predicted that anyone else would produce it either, so singular and unclassifiable it is.
The essential background to the book lies in the stern Calvinist religion of Scotland and its doctrine of election: the belief that the salvation or damnation of every individual soul was predestined by God, and that it was possible to know by spiritual signs who was of the elect and who was not. The corrupting effect of this doctrine was its temptation to antinomianism—the conviction that the saved can do no wrong, that their actions are above all moral law. Hogg’s book tells of the tortuous working-out of this doctrine in the lives of a handful of people. The narrative is divided into two sections, the first purporting to be the story of the troubled and finally tragic Colwan family, as told one hundred years later by an editor. This editor is never named, nor is it clear what his sources are for his intimate knowledge of this family. The story he tells is that of two brothers: George Colwan, easy, high-spirited, gregarious and pleasure-loving, and his younger brother Robert, who is solitary, severe, pious, and vindictive. Robert, it seems, inherits Calvinist arrogance and cruelty from his religious mother and from Wringhim, her spiritual adviser, and he persecutes George.
In modern terms, Robert is a serial-killer, clearly a psychopath and perhaps a schizophrenic, but Hogg’s great achievement is to show this man not as an irrational monster, but to take us inside the complex processes of his mind, to show how his malice has grown, and to relate that malice to deep cultural forces within his society.
Hogg’s narrative, with its ambiguities and multiple viewpoints, causes objective reality to dissolve, suggesting perhaps that we cannot approach any final truth, especially of mysterious events like these. For this reason the novel has been much studied and admired as anticipating the techniques of modern fiction. The great supernatural classic from the end of the century, Dracula, would exploit this multiple-voiced ‘uncertainty-technique’ to an even higher degree.
The Confessions has affinities with other Gothic or supernatural fictions, especially those that use the Faust-like theme of a pact with the devil, or those in which a mysterious companion, often a double (the German Dopplegänger) appears. Charles Maturin’s sensational Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) comes to mind, and the German works of ETA Hoffmann, especially The Devil’s Elixir, which was published by Blackwood of Edinburgh in the very same year as The Confessions, and which Hogg may have known about, if not read, before publication. But Hogg’s book, with its Scottish setting, its religious and cultural dimensions, and the way that its fractured narrative mirrors a fractured mind, is unique, a psychological thriller before its time.
Notes by Peter Whitfield
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