First published in 1824, one of the most remarkable things about The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the fact that it was ignored for so long. With less than half its original print run of 1,000 copies selling, it left almost no impression on its contemporary readership. Today, the neglect of so powerful and original a work seems almost unbelievable, and yet there is something overwhelmingly modern about this novel. Many of the methods Hogg employs – the multiple narrators, the layering of conflicting vantage points, the embedding of intense psychological exploration in a sound basis of social and political realism, the intertextuality, the provocative refusal to provide a definitive line of interpretation – would barely resurface until the postmodern period. It is this which makes the Private Memoirs seem so fresh today, despite its firm rooting in events that are – for the non-Scottish reader, at least – beginning to darken into obscurity.
There are many ways of reading the Private Memoirs. On one level, it is a biting attack on fanaticism. Calvin is its overt target, but the satire is directed less against his ideas per se than the destructive power of religious zeal magnified under the lens of human egotism. To be sure, Calvin’s harsh doctrines provide fertile ground for Hogg, but it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to substitute for these other forms of religious or ideological intolerance. It’s only too easy to picture Robert in our current climes where reports of all kinds of extremism – from terrorist attacks to the alarming rise of the far right - are everyday fare.
Private Memoirs also has claims to be the first major psychological novel in the English language. It is never quite clear whether Gil-Martin, the demonic figure who incites Robert to commit a series of increasingly horrifying acts, is actually the devil or whether he is the projection of Robert’s not-so-deeply buried desires. In Hogg’s hands, the boundaries between the internal and the external, the real and the imagined, dissolve into nebulousness.
According to another reading, Robert’s confession is an intense exploration of mental illness at a time when there was virtually no vocabulary to describe it. Though case-studies of individuals who would now be diagnosed with schizophrenia had begun to appear in Hogg’s time, it was far from being a defined condition. All the more remarkable, then, that he should describe it so perceptively. Writing at a time when the medical profession saw ‘madness’ as a form of illness to be treated whilst the common man ascribed it to the meddlings of witches or the devil, Hogg draws on both strands of belief. Together, they inform a terrifyingly vivid portrayal of paranoia, hallucinations and wild delusions of grandeur and persecution. The medical view that these are symptoms of schizophrenic breakdown and the folk belief that they are signs of demonic possession vie for prominence throughout the novel. Hogg, himself a master of devilish trickery, scatters about clues that could lead to either conclusion.
Offering multiple meanings, Hogg closes upon none. In doing so, he puts at the centre of the novel a strikingly modern concern with the imperative of interpretation itself. He leads the reader up the garden path by utilising narrative styles – the historical, the confessional, the public and the private – that invite a particular type of reading and then pulls the rug from under our feet by revealing that our assumptions have been misplaced. His characters constantly quote texts whose meanings they have warped to fit in with their own worldviews. He employs multiple narratives that call each others’ veracity into question. He even has his real-life friend and colleague, John Gibson Lockhart, exclaim “Hogg has imposed some ingenious lies on the public ere now” (p. 235). If this is a novel about the act of reading then it is one where the aim of reading – to understand – is constantly undermined and deferred. By holding this desire for narrative resolution before us – taunting us with it – yet refusing to satisfy it, Hogg ensures that the menacing power of Private Memoirs holds sway over our minds long after the novel is finished.
“Poe never invented anything more horrible or with so much spiritual significance; Defoe never did anything with more convincing particularity.” T. Earle Welby, introduction to the 1926 Philpot edition.
“It is long since I can remember being so taken hold of, so voluptuously tormented by any book.” André Gide, trans. Dorothy Bussy, introduction to the 1947 Cresset edition.
“There is nothing else like it and, before the Freudian era at least, nothing to touch its groping insight into the fractures of human nature.” Brian Morton in the Observer, 17th August, 2003.
“The Confessions of a Justified Sinner… is one of the literary masterpieces of any age – a visionary narrative on the matter of second selves and the folly of those who consider themselves to be justified persons.” Andrew O’Hagan in the Telegraph, 18th August, 2003.