James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Penguin Random House, 2006), first published 1824, pp. 326.
Now considered one of the high points of Scottish literature it is fair to say that James Hogg’s The Personal Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner was a bit of a slow burner. It was not positively received on its publication, partly because of a sneering attitude amongst some towards Hogg’s humble origins. Thus, by the time that the French author Andre Gide wrote an introduction
to a 1944 edition of the book he is bemused that ‘such a work should have failed to become famous.’
Perhaps its growing reputation and popularity are due to how strikingly contemporary the book seems in both content and form. Taking the form of a ‘found’ memoir written by the murderer Robert Wringham and an ‘Editors Narrative’ offering a version of the same events 100 years later, the book has an almost post-modern playful quality. By not privileging either of the narrative voices Hogg seems to be questioning what we mean by historical truth and whether it can be anything but subjective. This, Hogg suggests, can apply to the ‘rational’ voice of the Edinburgh Enlightenment as much as that of a religious zealot.
Through Wringham (what is more contemporary than a study of the mind of a serial killer?) Hogg satirises the hypocrisies of fundamentalist religion. Wringham like some other Calvinists of his time believes himself to be a member of the elect; those whose name has already been written into the book which guarantees them their place in heaven. In his disordered mind, this offers him license to wreak vengeance on those less devout than himself, particularly his brother George. However, it is suggested that there is perhaps a more worldly motivation for this as Robert’s mother, the pious Reverend (probably Robert’s real father) and Robert will inherit the family’s wealth if the brother is dispatched. That this is done with some humour help makes the book an easier read than the
subject matter might suggest.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is its ambiguity. Faced with two contending versions of events it is never quite clear which one represents the definitive account. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the mysterious character of Gil-Martin. This shape-shifting phantom goads Robert into his foulest deeds and haunts him as he moves to his sad and inevitable fate. Is Gil Martin the
devil, Robert’s alter ego, or simply a figment of his fevered imagination? It is never made clear as Hogg pre-figures some gothic classics like Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in exploring how our split selves contain the capacity for good and evil.
Don’t let the imposing title fool you this is a novel that is now rightly seen as one of Scotland’s best.
Kevin McVey, October 2023