My sister gave me a copy of this book saying it was one of the weirdest books she’d ever read and she thought I would love it. I’m not sure what that says about my reading tastes, but she was right anyway because I did love it!
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, was written by the Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg. I had never come across Hogg and his work until now and was interested to learn that he was a shepherd who taught himself to read and write and became a friend of Sir Walter Scott. This, his most famous novel, is part horror story, part murder mystery and part gothic fiction, but it also incorporates elements of religion, Scottish folklore, the supernatural and even some humour and satire.
Robert Wringhim, the ‘justified sinner’ of the title, is a young man who has been raised by his adoptive father, a Calvinist, to believe he is one of the chosen few, destined for a place in Heaven regardless of the sins he commits in life. One day he meets a mysterious stranger who calls himself Gil-Martin and who seems able to change his appearance at will. Wringhim allows the stranger to convince him that it’s his duty to “cut sinners off with the sword” and that he doesn’t need to worry about committing murder as in this case it’s the right thing to do and he is sure to be saved by God anyway. In his Private Memoirs and Confessions, he describes how he falls under the spell of the sinister Gil-Martin and how, when he begins to have doubts about his new friend, he starts to descend into madness and desperation.
Robert Wringhim’s Confession is presented as an authentic document that has been discovered under unusual circumstances a century later. It is introduced by a Narrative written by a fictitious editor which gives a supposedly factual account of Wringhim’s life and the crimes he is involved in. The Editor’s Narrative also forms the third and final section of the novel and attempts to explain how the Confession was found and what it might mean. But instead of helping to clarify the story, the Editor actually makes things more confusing and sometimes even contradicts what Wringhim has said. Neither narrative seems to be very reliable and at the end of the novel, we have to decide for ourselves what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether Gil-Martin is a product of Wringhim’s imagination or whether he is a real person or even the Devil.
This book kept me gripped from the first page, but it was quite a challenging story to read. There was a lot of Scottish dialect and while that’s not something I usually have a problem with, many of the words used here were unfamiliar to me and I was constantly turning to the glossary at the back of the book. There were also a large number of Biblical references on almost every page and again, I found that I kept needing to refer to the notes. It wasn’t completely essential to recognise or understand all of these references, but it was important to know how the various characters were interpreting them. Finally, there are no chapter breaks – the middle section, the Confession, forms one continuous chunk of over 100 pages, making it hard to find a place to stop reading.
However, it was definitely worth having to make a bit of extra effort; this is one of the most fascinating and original classics I’ve read and I can’t believe it isn’t better known. I thought it was much better than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is the book it reminded me of most. I’m also surprised that, as far as I’m aware, it has never been adapted for film or television. Some parts of the novel are very visual – the atmosphere of the dark wynds and closes of Edinburgh; the description of the rainbow seen by Robert Wringhim’s brother, George; and some of the scenes where Wringhim finds himself hounded and tormented by fiends and demons. I loved this book and am very grateful to my sister for recommending it!