The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Mia Forbes explores James Hogg's intriguing and ground-breaking 1824 novel on the nature of good and evil

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

The truth observed by Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzenhenitsyn during his time in a Soviet Gulag was not a new discovery. The human capacity for both good and evil has formed the foundation of western morality for thousands of years, and the question of how to handle it has challenged philosophers, psychologists and authors alike. One approach has been to wrest the two sides of the individual - the soul, the mind, the psyche - apart and examine them as individual elements. From The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Fight Club, this has proved an engaging way of tackling a much deeper problem. In the recent decades, however, the overuse of the ‘evil twin’ narrative in low-budget Hollywood productions has trivialised the concept, turning it into the writer’s quick-fix, a cop-out and consequently, a running joke.

 But in 1824, when James Hogg anonymously published The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, he provided a new way of looking at life through literature. Born in a Scotland divided along political, religious and intellectual lines, Hogg ascended from his humble origins as a shepherd boy to the elite literary circles of Edinburgh. He never managed (perhaps never tried) to efface his rustic background altogether, with Wordsworth describing him as ‘a man of original genius, but of coarse manners and low and offensive opinions’. Hogg was often no more flattering about Scottish high-society, and at first, Private Memoirs comes across as a satire on the upper-class clans, their cavorting punctuated only by cries of "Hic-hoc-wheew", "hoo-boo" and other esoteric communications.

The book begins with the “Editor’s Narrative”, which introduces us to Rabina, an exceedingly pious young woman, trapped in an unhappy marriage to the Laird of Dalcastle, who spends most of his time dancing, drinking or sleeping. Despite living separately from her husband, Rabina eventually bears two children: George, unquestionably the son of the Laird, and Robert, whose father is implied to by Reverend Wringhim, Rabina’s religious advisor. As the two boys are brought up, we see the novel’s first dichotomy emerging. Popular, charming and athletic, George is an all-round golden boy, whereas Robert, although intelligent, is irascible and solemn, “inured to all the sternness and severity of his pastor's arbitrary and unyielding creed”. The creed in question is Calvinism, the belief that each person’s eternal destiny has already been decided, and that no good or evil actions on earth can change it. Reverend Wringhim tells the young Robert that he is one of the elect, or the justified, who are predestined to go to heaven.

As young men, the brothers both find themselves in Edinburgh, where Robert begins stalking George, miraculously appearing wherever he is, deliberately provoking him and eventually coming close to throwing him off a cliff. The distinction between them is clear, and the reader would be forgiven for thinking that we have already reached the crux of the novel: an allegorical struggle between two brothers representing good and evil. The symbolism certainly points that way: at one point, George looks up into the sky and sees “to his astonishment, a bright halo in the cloud of haze, that rose in a semicircle over his head like a pale rainbow”, while later in the novel Robert “looked up to Heaven for direction; but there was a dimness come over [his] eyes that [he] could not see”.

One night, George’s body is found in a public park. It is widely agreed that the murder was committed by his friend Drummond during a duel, and yet the only witness claims she saw him stabbed by Robert while tussling with Drummond. Here, the editor’s narrative ends by introducing to the readers “an original document of a most singular nature, and preserved for their perusal in a still more singular manner”. What follows are "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner. Written by himself.”

We now hear the story repeated from Robert’s perspective, starting from his childhood, and begin to understand the impact of Wringhim’s merciless Calvinist teachings. Together with his mother, who finds it “delightful to think that a justified person can do no wrong”, the Reverend convinces Robert that no earthly actions could compromise his guaranteed place in heaven. Taking this lesson to heart, Robert forgives himself for all his previous misdemeanours and comes to see himself “as an eagle among the children of men, soaring on high, and looking down with pity and contempt on the grovelling creatures below”.

Soon after this revelation, Robert meets with a mysterious figure to whom he is irresistibly drawn and who first appears to be his doppelgänger. As they talk and the stranger wins him over with flattery, Robert notices his appearance change throughout their conversation. Remarkably unperturbed by the metamorphosis, Robert returns home, where he comes to the conclusion that he can best serve God by “cutting sinners off with the sword”. Throughout their following meetings, the stranger shows his support for this decision, urging him on further: 

“And, now that you have taken up the Lord's cause of being avenged on His enemies, wherefore spare those that are your own as well as His? Besides, you ought to consider what great advantages would be derived to the cause of righteousness and truth were the estate and riches of that opulent house in your possession, rather than in that of such as oppose the truth and all manner of holiness."

The reader is well-aware by now that the stranger, who begrudgingly identifies himself by the name Gil-Martin, is manipulating Robert’s confidence in his predestination to justify all manner of heinous deeds, even murder. Even at this point in the dark and twisted tale, however, Hogg does not begrudge a touch of humour as Robert speculates that Gil-Martin, who boasts of his vast dominion and hordes of followers, must surely be Tsar Peter the Great travelling incognito around Scotland.

We now arrive back at the main action of the novel with another account of George’s murder. Despite his doubts about Gil-Martin (no doubt heightened by the observation that he has cloven hooves for feet!) Robert still finds himself seduced by his friend’s claims that extra divine favour can be won by killing those who are already damned. Conveniently, these include his rabble-rousing sinner of a brother. Therefore one night, Robert lies in wait, armed with a dagger, as Gil-Martin assumes the form of Drummond and goes to fetch George. The two men begin to fight, but Robert refrains from entering the altercation until his friend cries out for help, at which point he leaps up and murders his brother.

The two murderers then take over Dalcastle, considering it Robert’s rightful inheritance. He begins, however, to experience lapses in time, during which it is hinted that Gil-Martin adopts his identity to commit further crimes. The increasingly paranoid Robert becomes disillusioned with his devious companion, but as much as he tries to break free from his grip, finds himself under his spell once more. After several unsuccessful attempts to flee his captor, Robert finally escapes Dalcastle and begins a new life flitting from job to job, plagued by nightmares and fears of a vengeful Gil-Martin. The memoir ends with his suicide, and we return once more to the editor’s narrative. The anonymous editor explains how, on instructions sent to him by a certain James Hogg, he had located Robert’s grave and upon digging it up, had discovered a journal containing the memoir, which he now publishes without revision or amendment.

Although the editor purports to leave the final judgement to the reader, the story’s central message is abundantly clear. While faith and morality are essential for the prosperity of both individual and society, unyielding confidence in one’s own values can be the most dangerous thing of all. This idea is summed up by one of the minor characters who attempts to warn Robert about the dangerous influence of his new friend:

“Religion is a sublime and glorious thing, the bonds of society on earth, and the connector of humanity with the Divine nature; but there is nothing so dangerous to man as the wresting of any of its principles, or forcing them beyond their due bounds: this is of all others the readiest way to destruction. Neither is there anything so easily done. There is not an error into which a man can fall which he may not press Scripture into his service as proof of the probity of.”

The more complex and interesting question arises when Robert’s death forces us to consider who is at fault. Is it Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinated the young boy in Calvinist beliefs? Is it Gil-Martin, the evidently demonic figure who instigates his most abhorrent deeds? Or is it Robert himself, and should we hold each person entirely accountable for their own actions? The form of Hogg’s novel complicates the issue further, with the various narratives offering different perspectives on the same story, and inviting the reader to consider who we ought to trust. Is the editor correct to report that Robert chased George across Edinburgh, or should we believe Robert himself, when he records that he was trapped at Dalcastle the whole time? Only when we reach the end of the novel can we look back on the story as a whole and begin the attempt to piece together the puzzle. 

The issue rests on what we make of the relationship between Robert and Gil-Martin. For anyone who has read Jekyll and Hyde, it seems all too obvious that the men are two sides of the same coin, and Gil-Martin openly acknowledges their unity:

“I am wedded to you so closely, that I feel as if I were the same person” ... “Sooner shall you make the mother abandon the child of her bosom; nay, sooner cause the shadow to relinquish the substance, than separate me from your side. Our beings are amalgamated, as it were, and consociated in one, and never shall I depart from this country until I can carry you in triumph with me."

And yet, his cloven-hoofs, shapeshifting abilities and titles such as “the Prince of Darkness” seem to point rather directly to Gil-Martin’s satanic identity. Admittedly, he doesn’t have the charisma or eloquence of Dostoevsky’s Devil in The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s tormentor the character of Gil-Martin plays with our perception of good and evil. Does evil exist as a separate force, or is it something that we generate? The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner transforms this philosophical and religious question into a literary conundrum that has inspired countless readers and writers to explore the notion of morality more deeply, both on the page and within themselves.

 Image: Illustration from late 19th edition Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

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