The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

God’s chosen few…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle, takes a much younger bride, the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The Laird is a fun-loving, hard-drinking, party animal – the bride, Rabina, holds extreme religious views of the Calvinist variety. She despises him; he is disappointed in her. Remarkably, despite this, they manage to produce two sons. The first, George, will grow up to be the apple of his father’s eye. The younger, Robert, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabina’s close friend and spiritual adviser, Reverend Wringhim. The Laird rejects him and Robert is brought up as a ward of Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinates him in the antinomian sect which believes that some people – the elect, or justified – are predestined to be saved by God, while everyone else will burn in hell. This is a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

It’s a historical novel: first published in 1824, it’s set more than a century earlier, between 1687 and 1715, roughly – or from the Glorious Revolution that saw the final downfall of the Stuarts, through the parliamentary Union between Scotland and England, and on towards the Jacobite rebellions. I’m reasonably familiar with this period of history on a fairly superficial level, but I was nevertheless glad to be reading a book with explanatory notes, and would suggest that’s essential for anyone who doesn’t know the background to the religious and political situation in Scotland at that time. Not that the book gets at all bogged down in any of these subjects, but the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with them, so doesn’t explain them as he goes along. My Oxford World’s Classics edition provides concise background information – enough to allow the reader to understand the references without feeling that s/he’s reading a history book – and a glossary and notes which explain any unfamiliar terms or allusions. The informative introduction, by Ian Duncan, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, sets the book in its historical and literary context, and provides some biographical information on the author.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

The story is told in two main parts, plus a short epilogue. The second part is the memoir and confession referred to in the title. The first is written by “the Editor” who, before presenting the reader with the memoir, tells what he has managed to learn of the actual events. This means we see the same story twice, allowing us to judge for ourself how much we can rely on the sinner’s account. The third part wraps the story up in the author’s present day and is unfortunately full of references to real people who were doubtless recognisable at the time but who have faded into obscurity since, so that some of the humour of this section is rather lost now.

The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma. On a wider level, he quietly mocks the way all religious sects tend to cherry-pick the bits of dogma that suit their world view best, while ignoring or “interpreting” the inconvenient bits of Scripture they don’t like.

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

On the day that Robert is told he is one of the elect, he meets a mysterious young man under whose spell he gradually falls. This man convinces Robert that he cannot sin whatever he does, and gradually leads him down a path that will lead to murder – more than one! The structure makes this particularly intriguing. Robert’s own memoir can be seen as the confession of a madman and his tempter could easily be seen as a delusion. But the Editor’s account suggests that the tempter is a real being, seen and witnessed by many others in physical form. To modern eyes, the temptation to see him as a product of mental illness is almost irresistible, but I suspect readers at the time would have been in no doubt about his Satanic origins.

It all sounds terribly dark and serious, I know, but the satirical element keeps it entertaining. There’s a lot of humour in it, particularly in the comparison of the Editor’s portrayal of Robert as a snivelling coward and Robert’s own vastly more heroic portrayal of himself. There’s also some great horror as Robert gets sucked further and further into his tempter’s schemes. And a whole lot of fairly wry insight into Scottish society. The vast majority is written in standard English, but there’s some brilliantly executed dialect in the dialogue, where Hogg manages to differentiate between the various regions of Scotland, and rather shows that the “common” man has considerably more common sense than his social “betters.”

Book 24 of 90

I read this one reluctantly because I felt I ought to given its status as a Scottish classic, and ended up much to my own surprise enjoying it thoroughly. Hogg takes all these theological and societal aspects, and turns them into an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation. Like so many others, it has suffered from the cultural domination exerted by England over the last few centuries, but it’s time these Scottish classics took their rightful place in the sun as equal partners in the great British literary tradition – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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32 thoughts on “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

  1. So glad you enjoyed this. It’s a book I know well: when I was at Uni Thomas Wilson, who was then professor of music, was writing his opera based on it, and I was one of the many students whom he used as a chorus and his guinea-pigs. Being me, my immediate reaction was to read the book.

    • I’m not quite sure I can imagine it as an opera, but then I can rarely imagine anything as an opera! But if it made you read the book, then it was worth it. I was pleasantly surprised – I really thought this one sounded as if it could be awful, or incomprehensible, but actually I thought it was much more straightforward than I expected, and much more fun!

  2. This sounds really interesting! And it is an interesting concept, regarding the ‘chosen ones’ and sinning. It rather begs the question – if you are fated to eternal damnation, would you bother to try and live a good life? Conversely – if you know you will be saved, would you let up on worthy deeds? I have a friend who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and they have a similar thing about a set number of the faithful gaining access to Heaven. So even if you are really, really good you don’t get in if it’s already full. Although it makes for a good excuse – if I don’t get in I can say it isn’t because I wasn’t good, all the spaces were already taken 😉

    • Haha – yes, indeed, anticipating unavoidable eternal damnation is oddly freeing! 😉 There’s actually quite a lot of info about the various grades of predestination in the book but nicely hidden so they don’t get in the way. But I did feel I understood the whole thing better than before (still think it’s elitist hogwash though!). My aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness too. What always makes me laugh is that people who believe in predestination always believe they’re one of the elect rather than one of the damned! It also makes me laugh that nearly every Scottish classic I’ve read is obsessed with John Knox and Calvin in some way or other – those men have a lot to answer for… 😉

      • Well it is certainly a fascinating subject and I’m always keen to learn more about such things, even if I find the concepts involved completely baffling. Haha – I’m sure Knox and Calvin would be delighted!! 🤣

  3. This sounds absolutely fascinating, and clever, too, FictionFan! Murder, history, and social commentary, too? Count me interested. And I really like the philosophical questions raised about what we mean by our destiny, and who is responsible for it. Sounds like ‘food for thought,’ among all the rest.

    • I kinda knew what it was about before I read it and was expecting something rather grim and dull, full of theology and stuff. What a pleasant surprise to have some nice murders and a bit of horror to liven things up! 😉 It is thought-provoking though and raises some serious questions about when religion turns to fanaticism and so on, but it’s also remarkably enjoyable to read…

  4. I love it when books from ‘back in the day’ poke fun at the hypocrisy of religion-it seems like such a risky thing for the author to do, but it helps the book appeal to us future readers too!

  5. I read this a few years ago and found it surprisingly enjoyable too. I also read the Oxford World’s Classics edition and was glad I did as I would never have understood all the religious references without the notes! Great review. 🙂

    • Thank you! I noticed you and I are the only ones who’ve read this for the Classics Club. Ha – the more I read of Scottish classics, the more steeped I seem to become in all these different religious sects – we’re clearly obsessed! 😉 But I do love these OWC editions – they give just the right amount of info, I find.

  6. I’ve not heard of this book so I give some merit that the Scottish Classics should also have a place in the sun too.
    I have to say it does sound a bit on the heavy side, but also incredibly clever – as you say pointing out the picking and choosing of parts of religious understanding. However it sounds as if the satire balance provides a good counterweight. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

    • It is a pity these Scottish classics aren’t as well known as the English ones because I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by their quality since I stuck them on my CC list. With this one, it’s really hard to make it sound like fun(!) but it was a much lighter read than I was expecting, Well, maybe not light – it had lots of depth – but it was entertaining which made it easy to read. Good stuff! 😀

    • Still just over three years to go, but I made the rather foolish decision to put ninety books on my list, so I’m feeling the pressure a bit. It seemed like a good idea at the time… 😉

    • So many of these old Scottish classics seem to have faded into obscurity. I’m glad that a few of the big publishers seem to be resurrecting some of them. This one was considerably more fun than I expected!

  7. This was imposed upon me by my then English teacher provoking much eye rolling and sighing – until i opened it. And then loved it! The only other book on a par with it for unexpected humour for me was Don Quixote!! Following on from this that same teacher got me to read other Scottish classics and though this wasn’t my favourite ( that affection belongs to The Silver Darlings!) it’s still up there!

    • I’ve been avoiding this book for years because it sounded so dull and awful, even though my brother kept telling me it was good. I’m woefully under-read in Scottish classics – it’s actually embarrassing. I am off to investigate The Silver Darlings – ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Neil Gunn’s books, so thanks for the tip! 😀

      • I loved it – and nearly as good though not as well known maybe was ‘Young Art and Old Hector’. I was fortunate enough ( depending on your point of view) to have an English teacher who was a die-hard Nationalist and a fierce supporter of Scottish Literature – hence we spent more time on the Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil than we ever did on anything by Shakespeare!!

        • The blurb of that one sounds intriguing too. You were lucky indeed – I don’t think I was introduced to a single Scottish author in school, not even Scott. It was all English and American, with the result that I went on reading them through most of my adult life, and am now doing remedial catch-up with my own culture! Still, at least it means I have a wealth of unread classics to enjoy, I suppose…

  8. I’m glad you’re reading more Scottish lit; I certainly enjoy the reviews you write about them. But even more so, you noted that you were reading books written by Scots instead of English classics. When I was in college, I became very confused when I took “British Literature” and we read books from Scottish, Irish, and Indian authors. I figured the title of the class MUST be accurate because NO way would we have a course with an offesnsive title like Brit Lit when really what they meant was British Empire… including colonized peoples. Pffffft.

    • Ha! I don’t mind Scottish lit being included in British (but certainly not included as English), because we are British as well as Scottish, but I’m certain Irish and Indian authors would hate to be included since, as you say, they were under British control rather than being part of Britain! I do love Indian literature because of the strong cultural ties, but I’d never think of them as British books. I think your feeling that it was offensive was right!

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