|Genre||Psychological mystery, philosophical novel, satire|
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor is a novel by the Scottish author James Hogg, published anonymously in 1824.
The plot concerns Robert Wringhim, a staunch Calvinist who, under the influence of the mysterious Gil-Martin, believes he is guaranteed Salvation and justified in killing those he believes are already damned by God. The novel has been classified among many genres, including gothic novel, psychological mystery, metafiction, satire and the study of totalitarian thought; it can also be thought of as an early example of modern crime fiction in which the story is told, for the most part, from the point of view of its criminal anti-hero. The action of the novel is located in a historically definable Scotland with accurately observed settings, and simultaneously implies a quasi-Christian world of angels, devils, and demonic possession. The narrative is set against the antinomian societal structure flourishing in the borders of Scotland in Hogg's day.
The first edition sold very poorly and the novel suffered from a period of critical neglect, especially in the nineteenth century. However, since the latter part of the twentieth century it has won greater critical interest and attention. It was praised by André Gide in an introduction to the 1947 reissue and described by the critic Walter Allen as 'the most convincing representation of the power of evil in our literature'. It has also been seen as a study of religious fanaticism through its deeply critical portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination. It is written in English, with some sections of Scots that appear in dialogue. The demonic character Gil-Martin may be a reference to the Gaelic word gille-Màrtainn ("fox").
There is no detailed information on the planning, composition, and printing of the Confessions. It was perhaps being contemplated in August 1823 when Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine included Hogg's article on 'A Scots Mummy', most of which was to be incorporated in the novel. More definitely, on 25 October Owen Rees of Longmans wrote: 'We will with pleasure undertake the publication of "Memoirs of a Suiside [sic]" on the same plan as we have done your other works': Longmans had recently brought out The Three Perils of Man and The Three Perils of Woman. A further Longmans letter suggests that the manuscript may have been ready by 12 December. Negotiations over the exact title continued into early 1824, and printing was complete by early June.
There was only one edition of The Confessions in Hogg's lifetime. It was published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green in London on 12 July 1824 and in Edinburgh three days later. The print run was 1000, and the cost 10s 6d (52½p). Publication was anonymous. Sales were poor: of the 900 or so copies sent from the printers in Edinburgh to London little more than a third had been sold by June 1825. Hogg was apparently prompted to suggest a relaunch in the summer of 1828 after an enthusiastic expression of appreciation of the work by Mrs Mary Anne Hughes, and left-over sheets of the first edition were re-issued in Edinburgh as The Suicide's Grave; or, Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner. Edited by J. Hogg.
Hogg may have had an input into the text of the edition of the Confessions that appeared posthumously in 1837 in Volume 5 of Tales & Sketches by the Ettrick Shepherd, but the extensive bowdlerization and theological censorship in particular suggest publisher's timidity. It was not until 1895 that the original version was basically reinstated.
The standard critical text is that edited by P. D. Garside in 2001 as Volume 9 of The Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg.
Having analyzed various editions, Dr. Jaix Chaix insists that the original 1824 edition must be read due to the extraordinary compositional significance and intersemiotic complementarity found only in the original edition. For example, Dr. Chaix pointed out that the word "seventeen" is a rather strange hapax legomenon: it appears only once in the entire book and precisely on page 17. These and other meaningful aspects are only found in the original edition.
Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; first by the 'editor', who gives his account of the facts as he understands them to be, and then in the words of the 'sinner' himself.
The story starts in 1687 with the marriage of Rabina Orde to the much older George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle. Rabina despises her new husband because he falls short of her extreme religious beliefs, his love of dancing and penchant for drinking alcohol. She initially flees him but her father forces her back, and they live separately in the one house. Rabina gives birth to two sons. The first, George, is indisputably the son of the Laird, but it is strongly implied – though never confirmed – that her second son, Robert, was fathered by the Reverend Wringhim, Rabina's spiritual adviser and close confidant.
George, raised by the Laird, becomes a popular young man who enjoys sport and the company of his friends. Robert, educated by his mother and adoptive father Wringhim, is brought up to follow Wringhim's radical antinomian sect of Calvinism, which holds that only certain elect people are predestined to be saved by God. These chosen few will have a heavenly reward regardless of how their lives are lived.
The two brothers meet, as young men, in Edinburgh where Robert starts following George through the town, mocking and provoking him and disrupting his life. He appears to have the ability of appearing wherever George is. When on a hill-top, George sees a vision of his brother in the sky and turns to find him behind him, preparing to throw him off a cliff. Robert rejects any friendly or placatory advances from his brother.
Finally, George is murdered by being stabbed in the back, apparently during a duel with one of his drinking acquaintances. The only witnesses to the murder were a prostitute and her despicable client, who claim that the culprit was Robert, aided by what appears to be the double of George's friend. Before Robert can be arrested, he disappears.
The second part of the novel consists of Robert's account of his life. It purports to be a document, part-handwritten and part-printed, which was found after his death. It recounts his childhood, under the influence of the Rev Wringhim, and goes on to explain how he becomes in thrall to an enigmatic companion who says his name is Gil-Martin. This stranger, who could be seen to be the Devil, appears after Wringhim has declared Robert to be a member of 'the elect' and so predestined to eternal salvation. Gil-Martin, who is able to transform his appearance at will, soon directs all of Robert's pre-existing tendencies and beliefs to evil purposes, convincing him that it is his mission to "cut sinners off with the sword", and that murder can be the correct course of action. From Gil-Martin's boasting of the number of his adherents and size of his dominions, Robert falls into the delusion that he is Peter the Great of Russia, who visited England about that time.
The confession traces Robert's gradual decline into despair and madness, as his doubts about the righteousness of his cause are counteracted by Gil-Martin's increasing domination over his life. Finally, Robert loses control over his own identity and even loses track of time. During these lost weeks and months, it is suggested that Gil-Martin assumes Robert's appearance to commit further crimes. However, there are also suggestions in the text, that 'Gil-Martin' is a figment of Robert's imagination, and is simply an aspect of his own personality: as, for example when 'the sinner' writes, 'I feel as if I were the same person' (as Gil-Martin).
Robert flees, but is pursued and tormented by devils and can find refuge only as a shepherd. Finally he hangs himself with a grass rope – in which it is suggested that he is aided by devils.
The novel concludes with a return to the 'Editor's Narrative' which explains how the sinner's memoir was discovered in his grave. Hogg appears as himself in this section, expressing scorn of the project to open the grave.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions was published as if it were the presentation of a found document from the previous century offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. The structure thus is of a single, self-contained publication offering a historically contextualised story, but the effect is unsettling. When taken together, the different elements create an impression of ambivalence and inconsistency, as if they were intended to present the reader with a conundrum. Because Hogg's novel appears to test concepts of internal validity, historical truth or a single rational world-view, contemporary critics sometimes regard it as an early anticipation of ideas associated with postmodernism.
The Confession (which comprises the middle section of the novel) is an autobiographical account of the life of Robert Wringhim and, passim, his statement on the crimes with which his name was associated. The document is revealed to be in part a printed document intended for publication and in part a handwritten manuscript. The first section narrates events retrospectively. It is followed by events recounted "in real time", describing events during his last days on earth. It has been proposed that the evangelical Lady Colquhoun and her husband, James, were the models for the character of Rabina and George Colwan.
The Editor's Narrative "introduces" this memoir with "factual" descriptions "from local tradition" of events associated with Wringhim up to the murder of his estranged brother, George Colwan. This Editor's Narrative later resumes at the end of the novel as a post-script appending further details that supposedly comment on the text. This includes the transcript of an "authentic letter" published in Blackwood's Magazine "for August 1823" by a certain James Hogg. The ending finally places the novel in the present time by relating the mystery of a suicide's grave, the exhumation of its remains and (only on the very last pages) the "recovery" of the manuscript. In effect, this post-script reveals what a real "editor" may more properly have set at the beginning, and casts it as the "conclusion".
Discounting any transcendental inferences, there are two time-frames in the novel. The events of the memoir are set in a carefully identifiable period of Scottish history between the late 17th century and early 18th century. (The first date on the opening page is the year 1687.) The editor's narrative is even more concretely dated and situated in present time, external to the novel, through the device of the letter by Hogg included by the fictional editor (which was in fact published in Blackwood's Magazine as described). Hogg's brief cameo role in the final pages of the novel is effectively his "signature" appended to the otherwise anonymous original publication.
The Confessions received a mixed response from its ten reviewers, most of whom were aware that Hogg was the author of the anonymous work. The Literary Gazette may stand as an average response: 'Mystical and extravagant … it is, nevertheless, curious and interesting; a work of irregular genius, such as we might have expected from Mr. Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, whose it is.' Other reviewers tended to the positive or negative end of this spectrum. They tended to be confused by the double narrative structure and the theology, but The Examiner comprehended the latter and was in general enthusiastic: 'a surprising lack of probability, or even possibility, is accompanied with a portion of mental force and powerful delineation, which denote the conception and the hand of a master'.
The book since I read it in black, pouring weather on Tweedside, has always haunted and puzzled me. It is without doubt a real work of imagination, ponderated and achieved.
In March 2023, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a version by Robert Forrest in which the tale is told retrospectively by Robert to two women, Bella and Arabella, who hold him captive near the end of his life.
Rather than a simple version of the book, it appears to be an adaptation of an adaptation – an ambitious production about a previous play about the novel.