Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Knight Death and Devil by Albrecht Durer (1472-1528AD)

This is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable books I’ve read in a while.  It was written in the early 19th century and the story is placed a century earlier than that. 

The story takes place in Scotland where a family of Colwan live on the lordly estate of Dalcastle. George Colwan, the Lord of the Manor marries a woman, Rabine, as different from himself as if he were trying to create a marriage out of chiaroscuro counterpoint.  George is one for gaiety and frivolity while his wife, a staunch Calvinist, rejects any practice that might be even remotely light hearted. Their differing views cause such a breach in their relationship that at first Lady Dalcastle returns to the home of her father.  Therein follows a pretty funny episode.

Rabine's father wants to know why she has left her husband and returned to his estate.  His daughter rants for a while describing her husband’s moral and religious failings.  Her father professes to be so upset and offended by his son-in-law’s unchristian behavior towards his daughter that he proceeds to beat his daughter claiming that since his son-in-law is not present to receive his due flagellation, his wife is the appropriate proxy.

“What do you mean, sir?” said the astonished damsel.

“I meant to be revenged on that villain Dalcastle,” said he, “for what he has done to my daughter.  Come hither, Mrs. Colwan, you shall pay for this.”

So saying, the baillie began to inflict corporal punishment on the runaway wife.  His strokes were not indeed very deadly, but he made a mighty flourish in the infliction, pretending to be in a great rage only at the ‘Laird of Dalcastle’.  “Villain that he is!” exclaimed he, “I shall teach him to behave in such a manner to a child of mine...Take you that and that, Mrs. Colwan, for your husband’s impertinence!”

Rabine may be narrow minded but she’s not completely stupid.  She understands that this is her father’s not so subtle way of saying, “you made your bed etc...”  So she returns to her husband at Dalcastle.  They lead separate lives and stay in separate parts of the castle.  Lady Dalcastle develops a close relationship with the local Presbyterian minister while Mr. Colwan blatantly takes on a mistress.

 It’s not clear whether Mrs. Colwan and the minister have anything other than a relationship based on common religious principles, but she produces two sons, the oldest, George, who belongs to Lord Colwan and a younger, Robert, who may or may not be the Reverend's son.

It’s these two sons from which the real story begins.  George is raised by his father and the other by the mother. It is the son, Robert,  raised by Lady Dalcastle around whom the story centers. 

George is found murdered.  As the facts come to light, it reveals that it is his Robert, brother (or half brother) that murdered him.

The story is narrated in an interesting way. It’s not many writers that should attempt switching person narratives in a story but Hogg does it brilliantly.  First the circumstances surrounding George is described through an editor who briefly uses first person but for the most part writes in third person.  As the culprit is eventually found to be Robert, the narrator changes to first person narrative with Robert as the narrator. The final chapter of the book uses a different first person narrator and concludes with a final statement of the murderer.

This book reflects James Hogg’s fascination with the religious beliefs and country lore of the Gaelic people of Scotland.  It is rich in colloquial dialect and idiomatic use of the language as well as a sophisticated eloquence in expression that no longer exists in our modern usage of the language.

The story is deeply psychological in nature.  After he is arrested for his brother’s murder, while in prison, the Robert writes down his confession.  It is titled, “The Private memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: written by Himself.”

In his narrative, Robert explains his religious upbringing at the hands of his simple minded mother and the religiously narrow Reverend Wringhim.  It is imprinted on him from an early age that those who are chosen cannot lose their salvation therefore, they cannot do anything-be it ever so heinous- that would send them to hell.

From the first section of the book through the eyes of  the editor, we get a picture of Robert as an arrogant, anti-social person.  This enables the reader to understand how such a person could become led into a false understanding of what it means to be chosen or the assurance of salvation.

I believe some people might read into Hogg’s book an anti-reformed theology attitude, but this underestimates the level of sophistication of Hogg’s writing.  People’s beliefs are so much more complicated than simply black and white.  It is possible to hold onto a vestige of the truth and through one’s own pride and self-will distort that truth until what the person believes is no longer truth but falsehood.  This is the case with Rabine.  Her intention was never to cultivate a close relationship with God or glorify Him through sincere worship, but to inflate her own vanity in believing she was superior to her husband. 

She nurtures this same pride into her son who develops it to a degree that she never anticipated.  In the end she dimly begins to understand the Frankenstein she has unwittingly created. 

And that is what happens.  In his own words, Robert meets with a man, Gil-Martin, who wields a powerful influence over his life.  As Robert expands on his relationship with this other man it becomes apparent to the reader that this other person is not human but in fact something evil.  As the story progresses we become aware that Robert is under the complete sway of a demon.

The demon persuades Robert that he must “purge” the earth of all of those who are not chosen.  That it was not murder to do so, but, in fact, was work commissioned to him by God.  He quotes all sorts of scripture to justify this point.  Robert wavers at first, but doesn’t have the strength or knowledge of Scripture to counter him.  Apparently, for all his mother and the Reverend’s teachings, endowing her son with a grounded knowledge in Scriptures wasn’t included.

The Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli 1500AD

The discussions back and forth between the demon and Robert remind me of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert.  The difference was that Jesus did know his Bible and was able to point out how Satan twisted Scripture in an attempt to tempt Jesus into committing wicked acts.

Gil-Martin uses the same tactics on Robert but, unlike Jesus, he has no defense.  Consequently, he commits various acts of murder and other wicked deeds, even some to his own horror. It’s a great illustration of someone who becomes a slave to his own corrupted nature.

The story ends a hundred years later when a grave is found at a crossroads.  It is the burial of a suicide.  The grave is dug up and Robert’s manuscript is discovered in the grave site.
I've read some reviews on this book that suggest that Gil-Martin could be a figment of Robert's imagination but the reason I don't think so is because after Robert's death, third party witnesses claim to see two people preparing to hang themselves but the grave reveals only one.

James Hogg came from farmer stock.  He over came the British class caste by educating himself and becoming a nationally renowned writer.  His stories often target the upper class and portray the common man as the hero.

Indeed, it is in the servants that we hear the truth of God’s word spoken. 

The servant John tells Lord Dalcastle exactly the sort of man he is:

“Well, John, and what sort of general character do you suppose mine to be?”

“Yours is a Scripture character, sir, an’ I’ll prove it.”

“I hope so, John.  Well, which of the Scripture characters do you think approximates nearest to my own?”

“...Ye are the just Pharisee, sir, that gaed up wi’ the poor publican to pray in the Temple; an’ ye’re acting the very same pairt at this time, an’ saying i’ your heart, ‘God I thaink thee that I am not as other men...”

A debate ensues between the servant John and Dalcastle where as the latter thinks it is a good thing to be a self-righteous Pharisee while John correctly points out that Jesus' parable was a warning against religious hypocrisy.

It is a clever method on Hogg’s part to have true wisdom disguised in heavy Gaelic dialect while the aristocrats, with their cultivated speech, are blind to the truth and are full of self-satisfaction.

The book should be a matter of interest, I think, to all Christians, simply because the topic of predestination and assurance of salvation are hotly debated subjects between denominations.

Below I’ve included the links to other blogs that have also reviewed this book from a different viewpoint than mine.  Thanks to Brian at Babbling Books for calling this great book to my attention.  I have since downloaded all of James Hogg’s books onto my Kindle (they’re free!)

James Hogg

 $1.99 on Kindle

Babbling Books


  1. You have reminded me that I really must read this book. I have had it on the shelf for a while after buying a copy after reading a contemporary novel called The Testament of Gideon Mack a rather compelling novel in it's own right that references the Hogg novel. I keep putting off reading Hogg because I think I will need time to devote to it, it does not seem to be a quick easy read but a novel that requires a bit of thought. Impressive review.

    1. Thanks, Arabella. I actually did not find it that long a read. In fact I read it in bits and pieces whenever I had a few minutes to spare at work. It's not that long. I hope you'll be able to read it. Take care.

  2. Hi Sharon - Very insightful commentary.

    Great points in regards to the parallels to Christ temptations in the desert as well as the wisdom of the common folks who speak in a the Scottish dialect. You also make a great point regarding the complexity of Hogg's thinking. I may have overemphasized the anti - calvinist nature of the narrative in my commentary. This is not a simple work.

    All the best.

    Thanks for the mention, I will check out the other links.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I was curious as to what your opinion would be about my review.

      Most of the reviews I read view his book as anti' Calvinist. It certainly isn't a pro Calvinist stance, hence the negative response from his contemporary Scottish (staunch Presbyterian) readers.

      I just think Hogg's greater aim was to show how easily people can be deceived even when they think they are on God's side.

      The only barometer to gage their beliefs by is Scripture.

      I find Hogg's story relevant today because I see this same type of thinking pervasive in some circles. I.e. "I am a Christian simply because I call myself a Christian regardless of the fact that my life, words and thoughts in no way resemble the life of Jesus Christ."

      Thanks for commenting, take care!

  3. This sounds like an interesting book! I should probably learn more about Calvinism first though, because I'm already slightly anti-Calvinist, and I still have a lot to learn about it! I wouldn't want to make my bias worse....


    1. Eustacia: I understand why people could be against Calvinism, even Christians. I don't fully understand everything about it or know that I agree with some of the more hard core stances among some Reformed theologians. A good book to read is Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul. He gives a good, intelligent argument for predestination. Take care!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.