The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)


The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg; 1824; London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green)

In August 1823, the writer James Hogg published a letter in the Edinburgh-based Blackwood’s Magazine (see below); the readers of the magazine would probably have known Hogg as a poet and novelist, but this strange letter would have been hard to place. Was it a genuine anecdote? Or a fiction? The letter was titled “A Scots Mummy” and in it, Hogg tells the story of a suicide that had happened a century earlier, seemingly assisted by the Devil himself, and the recent re-discovery of the body which seemed not to have decayed at all. Presented as a curiosity, which the author had not confirmed first-hand but believed was true, the story could have stood alone as a Gothic curio.

In fact, it was an ingenious piece of pre-publicity by a writer engaged in a metafictional game with his readers. The following year, Hogg anonymously published The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the details of the story were retold, using the letter in the narrative. In the book, the letter is attributed to James Hogg, whose testimony is doubted by the supposed editor of Justified Sinner. This inserting of Hogg himself and the “real world” into the text, gives the supposed memoirs a tinge of authenticity, and is a classic postmodern gesture before the term had any meaning.

An early example of both crime writing and metafiction, Justified Sinner was sorely neglected for a century until the French writer André Gide got his hands on a copy and declared it a masterpiece. The plot still grips today. Two brothers grow up raised by different men: George becomes a nice, rounded young man untroubled by serious intellect, Robert grows into fiercely intelligent and fervently religious Calvinist. The two don’t meet in childhood, but attend the same university. Robert insists on following George around and tormenting him, until eventually George dies in mysterious circumstances. This section of the tale, narrated by the aforementioned “editor”, is gothic and strange, but nevertheless holds true to reality. The second half of the book, presented as the “Private Memoirs and Confessions” of Robert, retells the same narrative but from the point of view of the zealous brother. He tells of falling under the influence of a shape-shifting being thought variously to be his doppelgänger, the Devil, and the Czar of Russia. The two halves taken together make up one of the most strikingly original novels in the English language.

As a sidenote, Hogg’s grandfather was supposedly the last man to be speaking terms with the fairies of the Border Country, and the Nobel prize winner Alice Munro is a direct descendent of him. Quite the family.

If looking to buy a copy, we’d recommend the 2010 Canongate edition which includes a preface by Ian Rankin and afterword by the great André Gide.

Housed at: Internet Archive | From: California Digital Library
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: No additional rights
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