Book Review: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Since I read “The Testmanent of Gideon Mack” I had “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” on my ‘to-read’ list, as “Gideon Mack” makes many references to the Hogg novel. Both novels are opened by narrators who then present a ‘document’ and then conclude the novel. Both novels deal with a protagonist who meets the devil. Both seem to be intentionally riddled with unreliability which jars with the ‘documentary’ feel.
Enough of Gideon Mack. Back to James Hogg.
The novel was written in 1824 and the ‘memoir’ contained within it was set the century before that. The 1700s were times of political and religious turmoil in Scotland with Protestantism being thrashed out as an ideology in a country with the Jacobite uprisings and other unrest.
The main character, Robert represents strict Protestant theology. He becomes convinced that he is spiritually ‘saved’ and that no deed he carries out will be enough to prevent him from going to heaven. He believes in the tenet of “infallibility”. This is a caricatured polarization of his Protestantism, to help draw a contrast with other forms of more liberal Protestantism and Catholicism which would allow “works” of a person to count for or against them in their dealings with God.
Robert, raised by his ‘adoptive’ father (sometimes alleged to be his natural father) – a Protestant clergyman – becomes convinced of his calling and election and therefore his immunity to hell by Satan, who meets him straight after he finds spiritual ‘assurance’ of his salvation.
The devil, who calls himself Gil-Martin, woos Robert and coerces him into committing murders, most notably, that of his brother George.
Eventually, Robert begins to hate the devil and tries to escape him and writes down his memoir, that is discovered after his death.
In the memoir Robert describes his haunting or possession. He suffers from a split personality and at times feels like he is neither of the characters that he inhabits. He is plagued by stress and guilt and by the end of the novel feels thoroughly wretched.
Strange things happen – Gil Martin can impersonate anyone and things can appear and disappear. Robert loses all sense of time and reality.
All in all, this was a very odd book. The manuscript was presented, you read it, and you think, well, that was odd. The narrative which surrounds it is also odd – as it is set in the century following the document, yet the narrator manages to know conversations and details and thoughts from the same time as the document with no explanation of how. When Robert’s body is discovered at the end, it has been almost supernaturally preserved, hence the survival of the document. It reminded me of the Roman Catholic idea of “incorruptible saints”, which was ironic.
So, that was Hogg’s novel. Back to Gideon Mack.
The devil in Gideon Mack claims to be one and the same that appears in Hogg’s novel. And as a shape shifter I shouldn’t be surprise that he could appear to be different. Gideon Mack just had a three day tutorial from Satan (ironically echoing Jonah and the Whale and Jesus in the tomb, perhaps) but Robert had prolonged courtship and debate with Gil Martin that drove him mad. Gideon Mack seemed mad too.
It seemed a very modern novel for such an old novel. Murder, insanity and possession and suicide.
Not exactly holiday reading, but I’m glad I read it.