27 October 2009

On the private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner...

One of the irritants about coming south this year is that I’ve missed Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of one of my favourite books – James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. First published in 1824, the novel has been adapted for the stage and propelled across the boards by the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thompson and has, to my chagrin, been receiving grand reviews, underlining what I’m missing.

Those of you with artistic inclinations and Edinburgh roots may already have toddled along. Those of you in near proximity might consider doing so. For those of you who, like me, are either furth of Scotland or simply furth of Edinburgh, I’d like to do my bit as a partisan for the novel, and induce at least someone who hasn’t read it before to give it a try. Iain Crichton Smith once described it as "a towering Scottish novel, one of the very greatest of all Scottish books".

I'd agree with that brisk, laudatory analysis. Yet the book suffers, I think, from a familiar range of buyer's prejudices. The puffy title sometimes puts people off. Or negative book cover associations strike, despite popular proverbs, if publishers make daft and unimaginative choices. Certainly that was my first feeling when I drew down a copy from the shelf several years ago and saw the tweedy, rustic figure of James Hogg on the cover, gazing politely and middle-agedly back, looking mustardy and drab. Ordered to absorb it for school, I didn’t appreciate it on the first go. I had to grow up and grow into it. Indeed, not until I'd lived in Edinburgh for a reasonable period, furnishing me with the gentrified, smoky skeleton of Hogg's setting, that my imagination could set the scene and Robert Wringham and Gil-martin could walk this ideational Edinburgh with confidence. I recently bought a copy for my father, published by Penguin Classics, covered by a groaning, sweaty, tormented scene springing from the mind and brush of Goya.

Given the febrile suffering and existential angst which the Confessions are shot through with, this is a far more apt and more tone setting visual cue. Give some horror like George Elliot's Silas Marner your typical “Classic text” alienating frontpiece to remind the reader that he or she must brace for boredom – for Hogg, Goya’s clammy horror is ideal. Sometimes when you see dramatisations of some of these 18th Century “classics” on telly, you wonder how the present generation is even possible with these artificially unfornicating, unfleshy souls as our progenitors.

Equally, when pressed for a compressed notion of the book’s themes – frequently the (somewhat) alienating response of the “Calvinistic doctrine of predeterminism” will be mentioned. Quite right too, but not, perhaps, the way to coax the uncertain into opening Hogg’s pages, casting their eyes across his words and giving him a chance to relate his story of the human consequences and the diabolical agency which lends religious fanaticism in a weak man its potential horror. While sometimes claims for “contemporary relevance” of literary voices from alternative ages and societies can seem a bit forced, not so to my mind of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Indeed, it’s a hideous shame that, given its resonances, its crystallising of plausible but also wildly vivid characters, its frisson of the supernatural – even its ironic humour – that so few people will have heard of it, never mind read it, both inside and outside of Scotland. This particularly because another charm of the text (from the outsider perspective) is that it overcomes claims that Scottish art in general and Robert Burns in particular is inaccessible to the broader, English-speaking community.

Written in English with characteristic forays into the vernacular, I defy any careful and sympathetic reader not to be drawn into its web of themes and its spidery, inky substance. A novelist to be cherished – and read – is James Hogg. If I’ve managed to tempt you or to alert you to his presence, do please consider acquiring a copy or seeing the play. Never to bring it to mind and to thoughtlessly erase Hogg’s genius from our literary life is to deny ourselves a creative and alternative Gothic history of Scotland and its religious life.


  1. Thanks for this.

    From your post and recommendation I will gie it a go.


  2. Splendid, Alistair.

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Hi Lallands,

    I found this to be one of the most frightening books I have ever read. Not that it is a "horror" novel in itself, far from it, but that it gives an insight to the mind of the fanatic.

    "I am one of the elect. As one of the elect I know right from wrong. Therefore anything I do as one of the elect must be right and for the good." Thus are all of the horrors of the world visited on mankind by mankind explained - from genocide and suicide bombers to hurtful remarks.

    One of the ultimate horrors is the sneaking suspicion, just sneaking mind you, that one might have on occasion acted thus oneself. Horrors.


  4. All of which might be true (and is phrased beautifully), but you haven't really said what the book's about! What's the setting, the plot (if any), the gist of it? Is it a memoir or novel?

  5. Rab gave you a splendid précis of some of the psychological implications there Bucket of Tongues.

    Still, maybe just a few details in case it might tempt another convert - the wikipedia article on the book is sufficiently vague not to give the plot away but to give a flavour of its obsessions and themes: