Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p.1James Hogg
• JAMES HOGG •
OF A JUSTIFIED
James Hogg (‘the Ettrick Shepherd’) was a poet, novelist, and farmer whose work was discovered by Sir Walter Scott and admired by writers as different as Wordsworth and Byron. His most famous book, CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER (1824), is striking in its use of Calvinist doctrine, demonology, and a highly modern psychological perception to tell the story of the criminal Colwan, deluded by occult forces into thinking he represents an instrument of divine justice and vengeance.
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
First included in Everyman’s Library, 1992
Introduction, Bibliography and Chronology Copyright © 1992 by
Typography by Peter B. Willberg
Third printing (US)
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in
Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed
by Random House, Inc., New York. Published in the United Kingdom
by Everyman’s Library, Northburgh House, 10 Northburgh Street,
London EC1V 0AT, and distributed by Random House (UK) Ltd.
US website: www.randomhouse.com/everymans
eBook ISBN: 978-0-375-71283-8
ISBN: 0-679-41732-X (US)
A CIP catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data
Hogg, James, 1770—1835.
Confessions of a justified sinner/James Hogg.
p. cm.—-(Everyman’s library)
PR4791.P7 1992 92-52926
Book design by Barbara de Wilde and Carol Devine Carson
The Editor’s Narrative
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Aptly, given its theme is that of doubles and doubling, Hogg’s is a twice-told tale. The first section, full of fights, town riots, slayings, cross-country escapes and who-knows-what hurly burly in a remote castle, and much else, is comic and rumbustious — the material is introduced as if for a newspaper, its readers avid for facts. The second section, by contrast, is intimate and terrifying — the drama lies not in any description of action, but in the relentless unfolding of Robert Wringhim Colwan’s meditations. The sinner’s confessions are a moment-to-moment diary of despair. We are suddenly on the other side of what it’s like to go insane. After that jaunty, enthralled opening (‘Great was the alarm and confusion that night in Edinburgh’), it’s like coming across a notebook left behind by Hamlet — for Robert, exactly like the Danish prince, has been urged on to commit a murder, coaxed and harried, by a ghost or goblin damned, with this result: ‘I was become a terror to myself … I wished myself non-existent.’
Part of Robert’s punishment is that he can’t even succeed in decomposing. As we discover in the journalistic coda (purportedly a letter in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine), the suicide/fratricide’s corpse refuses to disappear — the too-solid flesh hasn’t melted in a hundred years. For, a century after the events of the narrative, when grave robbers are hunting for buckles and buttons, Robert’s skin and clothes have neither mouldered nor lost their bloom. A group of intrigued archaeologists and local historians exhume him yet again; they remark on his old-fashioned costume (the garters look ‘as if they had been newly tied’) and stamp on his head and nose with their iron heels. Then, what is this overlooked package near the body? Why, the sheets of the confession are discovered, immaculate in their slipcase. And isn’t that a pocket diary of additional material, blowing in the wind amongst the shards of skull? The gathered leaves become Hogg’s novel: ‘an original document of a most singular nature … I offer no remarks on it, and make as few additions to it, leaving every one to judge for himself’.
It was in the spirit of Romanticism for its authors to pretend they were merely editors. This way, they could distance themselves from the toxic core of their visions: it was all imagined by somebody else, in the long ago. Honestly. The Ancient Mariner’s anecdotes were passed on to Coleridge by a man on his way to a wedding who’d been importuned by a crank; Keats’ ideas were sprung on him by a nightingale, a copy of King Lear, that Greek vase. His texts had pretexts. The archetypal practitioner remains Thomas Chatterton, who died by his own hand in 1770, the year of Hogg’s birth. He passed off as medieval poet Thomas Rowley’s verses and plays of his own devising. He imitated the style of parish archives, their spelling and calligraphy, forging his own work on sooty paper with sepia inks. (The issue of imitation and translation, with its links to the psychopathology of the actor, is a subject to which we’ll return.) Chatterton reasoned that suicide was preferable to owning up as an original poet — he thus took his visions to the edge of dissociation, and beyond. His death, according to the survivors, was a martyrdom. Wordsworth wrote a poem (‘The heaven-eyed creature sleeps in earth’ etc.) and in our own time, Peter Ackroyd has used Chatterton as the eponym of a novel, to examine the moral implications of art’s deceits and many inventions.
In Scotland, the confidence trickery of scholarship was manifested by the Ossian controversy. Was Ossian an historically verifiable Gaelic bard of the third-century glens, or a late-eighteenth-century hoax? James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760), which was apparently translated from the Erse, was, along with Fingal (1762), an ‘Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books’, scoffed at by Dr Johnson as a pile of ‘impudent forgeries’. But what offended the Augustan lexicographer and sage delighted the Romantic heart — the impudence of Macpherson’s Ossian was Chatterton’s model, for example, and the wild seas and mountain tops of the Ossianic world were what people now wanted: Goethe’s Werther and Charlotte study Macpherson’s Ossian edition and weep over the ballads; Monk Lewis, Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley and Mrs Radcliffe used the turbulence and ancient temples as habitats and habits for their characters — a sublime landscape that also mapped inner states, or souls, from the fear of the maidens in Otranto and Udolpho to Dr Frankenstein himself, putting up a lightning rod in an electrical storm in a bid to bring the dead back to life.
When Macpherson was asked to produce Ossian’s original manuscripts, he obligingly (and laboriously) concocted them. Through forgery and editorializing he brought back to life a dead poet who’d never (perhaps) existed. His probable sources for the myths and legends were the songs, folk tales and apocrypha of rustic recitation — such as were collected, collated and adapted by Scott for The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border between 1802 and 1803. Scott’s collaborator was James Hogg. Hogg, a year Scott’s senior, had been born amongst the peasantry of the Ettrick valley. He’d worked most of his life as a shepherd and didn’t read or write until 1794, when he started to try and set down the ballads and pastorals, the winter evening tales, which he had absorbed. He was thus at the centre of the Romantic interest in seeing literature make its way out of the oral tradition to become drafts and printed books. Scott himself was much interested in printing methods and the economics of publishing; so too was Hogg. Robert Wringhim Colwan, towards the end of his c
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner thus filters through to us and is introduced as a combination of chanced-upon manuscript and scholarly apparatus — anything to push it back into the past. The first edition of 1824 even omitted Hogg’s name on the title page. Ten years later he explained, ‘it being a story replete with horrors, after I had written it I durst not venture to put my name to it’. What constitutes the horrors is devil-worship. The book up-ends conventional religious notions; it satirizes the behaviour and aspirations of the devout; it extends the puritanical logic of John Knox to a surreal extreme — so that holiness becomes an ingenious way of justifying slaughter and creating a hell on earth. Over all, the novel is a condemnation of non-benevolent Calvinism — Jean Chauvin (1509-64), or John Calvin, being an influential proponent of predestination: a few of us will be blessed with ‘efficacious grace and the gift of perseverance’ and will enjoy salvation; the rest of us are damned from the outset and no amount of prayers or good offices will protect us from eternal torment. (The biblical authority is John, 10, 26-9: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.’)
Being a man who overcame his origins with literacy, Hogg was never going to believe in a doctrine that branded people with original sin and excluded them from achievement. He may have known his place, the Ettrick Shepherd who said he believed in fairies, patronized and indulged by intellectuals like J. G. Lockhart, editor of Blackwood’s, John Wilson, who held Edinburgh’s Chair of Moral Philosophy, and William Maginn, an essayist — but he had no intention of staying in it. (Indeed, as a farmer and agriculturalist he was a disaster, going bust any number of times.) Having altered the course and direction of his life, becoming something of a celebrity who was even offered a knighthood, he was an exemplar of free will — as sketched in his story ‘The Poachers’, published in Ackerman’s Juvenile Forget Me Not, Volume II (1831), where an orphaned boy of the forest attends a dame school and puts himself through college: ‘there is not at this time a more respectable presbyterian clergyman that I know of’. A rise in station that was a fantasy version of Hogg’s own.
Free will, for Hogg, means the best deployment of one’s nature and lights; it is almost a figurative freedom of spirit — as portrayed by George Colwan, Robert’s sporty brother, heir to the Dalcastle estates, his superior ‘in personal prowess, form, feature, and all that constitutes gentility in deportment and appearance’. Against such worldliness and popularity, the madness of Robert’s religion is enviously set. The warfare between the brothers is a continuation, moreover, of the enmity between the parents. Mrs Colwan, Lady Dalcastle, is an ice-queen who flees from her husband on their wedding night. She objects to his enjoyment of dancing and the fiddle (‘I will sooner lay down my life than be subjected to your godless will’). Behind her denial of happiness is a fear of sex — a fear which foreshadows Robert’s own repulsions and repressions. When, having been beaten by her own father for her desertion (‘His strokes were not indeed very deadly, but he made a mighty flourish in the infliction’), she returns to ‘the heathenish Laird of Dalcastle’, the manor house was to be rebuilt. She has a sort of personal nunnery (an ‘elevated sanctuary’) upstairs, linking to its own gardens by concealed doors. From this vantage point she spies upon her husband’s normal life, doing little except censure, reproach, scold. She sees everywhere profligacy, everywhere iniquity.
Her only visitor, up in the tower, is the Rev. Wringhim, a fire-breathing divine, her match in theological debate. (He is like a witch’s familiar.) Wringhim maintains that they are amongst Calvin’s lucky elect. Their nauseating sense of superiority, coupled with their endless arguifying, grows so impassioned, Hogg is plainly giving us an allegory of an affair — the feminine ‘sweet spiritual converse’ mixing and mating with a masculine alacrity; that is, with the ‘heat of his zeal’. Robert is the result. He is raised to hate the laird and his elder half-brother George (quite how George was conceived is passed over) and he is quick to disclaim the family name of Colwan — he becomes a Wringhim, doing whatever he pleases all the hours there are: ‘How delightful to think that a justified person can do no wrong!’ If there are to be no rewards for the non-elect, no matter how they might strive, similarly, if a person is pre-ordained for salvation, he is above mankind’s laws — and this is shown when the devil tempts Robert into becoming a killer. Tormenting other people is a game and being ‘an assassin in the cause of Christ’ a vocation.
The brothers, though brought up under what is technically the same roof, are kept apart. The first time they meet is during some sports in Edinburgh — and Robert, his ‘face as demure as death’, haunts and harasses George, tripping him up, getting him to miss the ball. He keeps as close to his victim as the Rev. Wringhim did to his mother — and as the devil will to him. Wherever George goes, ‘the same devilish-looking youth attended him as constantly as his shadow’. He spoils George’s tennis and cricket playing; he invades his parties; he insults his friends — who start to withdraw from his society. ‘A fiend of … malignant aspect was ever at his elbow.’ They become like good and evil twins. Whether he is in church, the theatres, in the streets or in the fields — Robert is there too, scowling — ‘like the attendance of a demon on some devoted being that had sold himself to destruction’. Whether it is really Robert, or the devil impersonating Robert (and they do become interchangeable), we are never told. What does happen is that the Rev. Wringhim’s prayers, when condemning the innocent George on behalf of his own illegitimate son, take on the frenzy of a black mass —
And upon his right hand
Give thou his greatest enemy,
Even Satan, leave to stand
— and of course it is young Robert who takes up his station ‘at his brother’s right hand’. When they meet alone on the mountain top, all the trappings of high Romantic drama are present — storm clouds and a sunburst, waterfalls and a magical coloured misty light (gravity’s rainbow). It is a scene out of a Casper David Friedrich painting. If set to music, Berlioz would have been the composer. George, hoping at last to be by himself, goes ‘to converse with nature without disturbance’, but Robert manages to materialize through the fogs — an apparition amongst the shadows and declivities of the hill. This persecutor is like a genie, a ‘dilated frame of disembodied air, exhaled from the caverns of death’.
When the men move in to attack, the mood passes from the gothic to the slapstick (‘Eh! Egh! murder! murder! & tc.’) and it is George who is arrested and charged as the aggressor, for he has plenty of ‘moving cause and motive’. But he is acquitted. (Hogg, like Scott, who was Sherrif of Selkirkshire and Clerk to the Court of Session, enjoys the thrust and parry of legal argument.) And then that night his body is discovered, the old laird dies of grief (‘his father never more held up his head’) and Robert takes possession of the title and inheritance. He becomes a lunatic misanthropist, filling his days in wanting ‘to denounce all men and women to destruction’.
At this point we feel that a pact or deal has found expression in the fratricide. Robert, as more of a rakehell now and ‘a limb of Satan’, does the devil’s work. But he encounters an opponent. His adversary is Mrs Logan, the old laird’s helpmeet. In her wanting to solve the mystery of George’s death, the tone of the novel changes again — this time to detective fiction. ‘I will spend my days,’ the old lady vouchsafes, ‘in endeavours to … expose the unnatural deed.’ She tracks down a prostitute, now in gaol, called Bell Calvert, who was on duty at the time and place of George’s murder. After much more legal pettifoggery, to do with her being an accessory for burglary, Bell says it would have been impossible
We move now to the actual confessions. It is a measure of Hogg’s maturity as an artist that he makes no attempt to let Robert present himself sympathetically. He engineers the sacking of a trusted servant (‘I rejoiced in his riddance’) and the downfall of fellow pupils — when another boy bests him in Latin, ‘I succeeded several times in getting him severely beaten for faults of which he was innocent.’ He enjoys lying and glories in ‘a labyrinth of deceit’ — all of which he does ‘as a duty’. The character’s over-mastering arrogance never mellows. (Tenderness is a sin and, like compassion, a temptation to be resisted.) Wounded and on the run he has no humility — taken on by the printer ‘I could not but despise the man in my heart’; and his last words are a farewell to ‘woman, whom I have despised and shunned; and man, whom I have hated’. His unwholesome rages, as mentioned above, mirror his mother’s. His own fear of sex seems to have originated in his conception — copulating to produce him, his parents sinned — and before long ‘I brought myself to despise, if not to abhor, the beauty of women … to this day I am thankful for having escaped the most dangerous of all snares.’ This is not to say that Robert has no lustful urges. Far from it. What transfixes the reader of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is its presentation of the eroticism of evil.
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