With a title so large we had to squish our typical “Book of da Week” down to just “Book Review”, and use a bloody ampersand, you know this is going to be a bombastic old tale. This had better be good! Thankfully, James Hogg’s (1770 – 1835) novel is a masterful tale of evil in 18th century Scotland (that bit above England).
Although the title suggests this is going to be a completely autobiographical tale of Hogg’s misbehaviour during his life, it’s instead a story about a young Calvinist boy who, after being taken under the arm of an enigmatic outsider, commits several murders. Naturally, this would suggest (at such a pious time in the world) the stranger is Satan – for such a provocative subject, it forced the Scottish author to use an anonymous title upon publication.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
It’s a novel which was very ahead of its time, drafting in gothic themes, psychology, self-awareness (i.e. metafiction), and using culture to portray the hideous nature of evil. The first section is named the Editor’s Narrative and reads as a report of the events which unfolded. In this, the character Robert grows up in a strict world but remains a popular boy, until suddenly committing numerous murders for an unknown reason.
In the eponymous second section, as written by Robert, he recounts what occurred in terrible detail, even revealing he was guided by the mysterious stranger known as Gil-Martin. It’s unclear if this character is intended to be real, satan, or a figment of Robert’s imagination.
Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita would go on to use a similar premise, with the devil arriving in atheist Moscow (with a giant talking cat called Behemoth) to spread general anarchy amongst bemused citizens. Justified Sinner, however, is a much darker tale which, due to changing writing styles, doesn’t have the same flow as you’d expect from 20th century literature.
It’s still an excellent read although, upon release in 1824, the public and critics weren’t having any of it and the work sold terribly badly. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Hogg began to receive a second appraisal, and the book is now considered a classic (it was forced upon us as part of our English degree in 2003). Commendable and well worth a look if you’d like an example of early crime fiction.
Here’s a quick look at the life of Hogg, a gentleman from a bygone age none of us were part of. Researching him was fairly straightforward – growing up in Scotland, he worked as a shepherd but began writing poetry in his 20s. He soon made a name for himself and visited Edinburgh in 1807 where he hung out with the likes of Wordsworth and De Quincey.
He was self-taught in his life as, due to his peasant upbringing, he didn’t have a formal education. This meant he was viewed as something of an underdog writer during his era – working class boy done good, type of thing. This shouldn’t detract from the excellence of his writing, though, and we encourage you to dig deeper if this is your thing. There’s even a live head cast of Hogg in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, if you’d like to go and meet him in person.