The following is an excerpt from the introduction to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, published by The Mantle as part of our Critical Editions series.
I can't pinpoint exactly when I first came across James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Which now, as I sit back considering this outstanding work, is fitting for a novel that is entrenched in unreliability, shifting narratives and points of view, and devious characters whose identities are as cloudy as an early morning on the Scottish moors. Whenever the book cycles back in to my life, I think this time I will know all the answers. Silly me.
Justified Sinner has not achieved the popularity with modern readers that it deserves. The casual reader may stumble across Hogg's masterpiece when researching the novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Hogg's fellow Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, a Gothic work that debuted 62 years after Justified Sinner's 1824 publication. The former, a story of a man splitting his personality between good and evil, is categorically more popular with the reading public than Hogg's devilish predecessor. Is it because Stevenson's duality is so clear-cut?
But what is The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner? Though the scenery and conversation clearly place the reader in 18th century Scotland, the modern structure and the marvelous creativity feels like it could have been written today.
First presented as a found text, the opening section of the novel is The Editor's Narrative. It is a review and a recounting of a found memoir of a troubled youth, but as told through an editor in Hogg's modern day (early 19th century). The editor tells us that a diary has been found, that its contents relay a diabolical story from the turn of the previous century. The editor's narrative includes the expected moving pieces of any Gothic tale: a wicked laird, two brothers with divided allegiances, hyperbolic religious characters who find themselves butting up against said wicked laird, the Devil, and a touch of supernatural propelling the drama.
The editor wants us to believe that he is simply an innocent messenger who is somehow duty-bound to share this devilish tale. Regardless of the editor's, or Hogg's, intention, The Editor's Narrative provides deep context and family history that sets the scene for the enthralling confessions in the book's second section.
The second section, presented as a found diary, is the juicy stuff. We finally get to be with the justified sinner, Robert Wringhim, and his strange mind.
Wringhim’s memoir documents his early life being raised by his mother and his father, Reverend Wringhim, a childhood of strong and overbearing religiosity. In young adulthood, Wringhim meets a mysterious stranger going by the name of Gil-Martin. With an ever-changing sinister appearance, Gil-Martin has an easy time persuading Wringhim that killing the ungodly is a normal and moral act. Wringhim's soul becomes twisted and amoral; his mind is driven mad by his murderous misdeeds. Gil-Martin continues to appear to him as Wringhim devolves and shrivels. It is only at the end of his life that he admits his own sin—that of murdering so many.
Perhaps it is here where Robert Louis Stevenson purloined the idea of a seemingly moral man being taken over and manipulated by a devil figure. It is in Wringhim's own testimony that he blurs himself and Gil-Martin, often making the reader wonder if the two aren't one and the same. The sign posts are inconsistent and it can be difficult to point to a definitive answer as to whether Wringhim is consorting with the devil, Gil-Martin, or both, or perhaps himself, the latter of which would be a grand delusion.
It can be argued that the prolonged confession of the second section is that of a demented man losing his marbles with each passing page. Another take could be that Wringhim is actually stalked and encouraged by the Devil himself to partake in dastardly deeds. Unanswered questions compel the reader to solve the puzzle. Is Wringhim simply a deranged murderer? Is his close confidant less man and more Beezlebub? Is Wringhim insane? Is the story some sort of mixture of all options? The account doesn't explicitly present one version or theory over another. It's maddening.
To continue reading this introduction, purchase your copy of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.