James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions
of a Justified Sinner
reviewed by Louise Norlie
Editor: John Carey
Publisher: Oxford University Press,
Length: 306 pages
Scotland, the beginning of the 18th century. A dour young man dressed in black, raised to believe that he is one of God’s elect and can do no wrong, stalks his brother through the dusky streets of Edinburgh. Filled with hatred and self-righteousness, he feels that his religion justifies any number of crimes, including murder.
The young man is accompanied by a powerful and mysterious companion who seems to change his appearance at will. In The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, evil at first triumphs over good, but ultimately unravels from the inside, lost in labyrinths of its own madness.
An unclassifiable tale of mystery, murder, religious fanaticism, folklore, horror, and fantasy, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, was for many years forgotten. Scottish writer James Hogg, a self-educated shepherd once popular for his poetry and magazine articles, published the novel anonymously, correctly assuming that its strange, experimental style and horrific subject matter would not be appreciated by the general public. It was only in the late 1940s that French writer André Gide acclaimed it as a masterpiece.
The novel is divided into three sections, giving the reader several ways of understanding the story and the psychology of the madman. The first section is a factual summary of events as they exist in local tradition and folklore. The second section is the confessions of the fanatical Robert Wringhim. The short final section is the unearthing of Wringhim’s remains by a group of writers and the discovery of the shocking confessions that were buried with him. In this section, James Hogg, attempting in an offhand way to distance himself from the bizarre story he created, actually inserts himself as a character.
The novel opens with the unhappy marriage of Rabina Orde with George Colwan, the Laird of Dalcastle. This event has repercussions throughout the book, setting the scene for conflicts to come. Rabina is a prudish bigot who disapproves of her new husband because he dances and drinks alcohol. The couple soon separates. However, Rabina Colwan gives birth to two children. The first, George, is the son of the Laird of Dalcastle, but the second, Robert, is most likely the son of the Reverend Wringhim, Rabina’s spiritual advisor who lives with her.
The two brothers live apart and never interact until the main events of the novel take place. George, raised by the Laird of Dalcastle, becomes a friendly, typical young man who enjoys sports and socializing with his friends. Robert, educated by his mother and adoptive father Reverend Wringhim, is quite the opposite, priggish, malicious, and conceited. He is indoctrinated into Reverend Wringhim’s radical sect of Calvinism, which holds that only certain elect people are predestined to be saved by God. According to these extremists, these chosen few will have a heavenly reward regardless of how their lives are lived. Everyone else will be damned. Robert Wringhim takes this already extreme belief to the furthest boundaries of wickedness, using it to justify a degenerate life of crime.
In the first part of the novel, Robert Wringhim appears as a force so spiteful and malevolent as to seem almost inhuman. His main intent is to destroy his brother George. In this section of the novel, the reasons for his behavior are unclear, making him a truly terrifying presence.
Robert begins by stalking George through Edinburgh and making mocking remarks. Robert’s interference with his brother’s activities leads to confusion and bloody brawls in the streets. George is alarmed to discover that his stalker has the uncanny ability to follow him everywhere he goes. Even when attempting to find solace in the quiet countryside, George sees a terrifying vision of his evil brother in the sky and turns to find him lurking behind him, preparing to throw him off a cliff. Even though George tries to reach out to his brother, Robert literally kicks the hand offered in way of friendship.
Finally, George is murdered, stabbed in the back, apparently during a duel with one of his drinking buddies. The only witness to the murder is a prostitute, who claims that the culprit was Robert, aided by what appears to be the double of one of George’s friends. Before Robert can be apprehended by the law, he disappears and many puzzling details are left unexplained.
The subsequent confession of Robert is the most fascinating part of the novel as it takes us deep inside his deranged mind. After the distanced rendering of his character during the first section, Robert is revealed to be strangely delusional and nadve. From earliest childhood, he is predisposed to be bad, having every manner of ill trait, from jealousy, to lying, to arrogance. He engages in petty schoolroom crimes and blames them on others.
Eventually, Robert is joined by an enigmatic companion who says his name is Gil-Martin. This intelligent and compelling stranger soon directs all of Robert’s pre-existing tendencies and fanatical beliefs to extraordinarily evil purposes, convincing him that it is his mission to “cut sinners off with the sword.”
Able to morph into anyone, Gil-Martin is one of the first examples of a doppelganger in literature. He transforms into many other characters, including Robert himself, thereby enabling him to commit murders with impunity. Thus, Robert has unwittingly entered into a Faustian compact, exchanging everything for short-lived power.
The confession traces his gradual breakdown into despair and madness, as Robert’s doubts about the righteousness of his cause are counteracted by the diabolical 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 possible that Gil-Martin assumes Robert’s appearance in order to commit further crimes... Or perhaps Robert commits the crimes himself and blocks out the memory... It is up to the reader to decide.
The novel is remarkable for creation of the brilliantly wicked character of Gil-Martin as well as for its insight and ambiguity in the portrayal of Robert Wringhim. Robert cannot be described as an anti-hero, like Milton’s Satan, because that implies that in spite of his evil, we admire him.
Through James Hogg’s extraordinary depiction of his character during the confessions, Robert actually becomes a figure so pathetic as to verge on being sympathetic. In spite of multiple clues that Gil-Martin is a demonic force, Robert believes that Gil-Martin is the Czar of Russia! Furthermore, although he destroys his brother, Robert loses everything. Haunted by Gil-Martin, chased by suspicious peasants, and tormented by fiends who do not allow him to rest, Robert ultimately stumbles penniless and helpless through the countryside, then commits suicide to escape his misery.
Through the three-part structure of the novel, the reader is left to choose whether the devilish Gil-Martin is a figment of Robert’s diseased mind or whether the supernatural events in the story have a greater reality. There is evidence in support of both interpretations.
The style of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is very accessible to modern readers in spite of its age. There are only a few uses of heavy Scotch dialect and the occasional use of bombastic exclamations such as “Woe then to the wicked of this land, for they must fall down dead together...” serves to set the scene of a place and time where religion is corrupted and twisted to become an instrument of the utmost evil.
The novel is gripping, atmospheric, and occasionally injects black humor amid the Gothic gloom. Treating such fascinating and relevant topics as madness, the supernatural, and religious intolerance, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner has a well-deserved place among the classics of horror and fantasy.
Copyright © 2007 by Louise Norlie