The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
by James Hogg
edited with an Introduction and Notes by Ian Duncan
this edition 2010
One of the aspects that I like about "classic literature" as a cultural product is it's sheer..."know-ability." By "know-ability" I mean the HUGE volume of writing by different groups of intellectuals on the subject, both on individual works and "classic literature" as a group of artistic products. An interested reader can wallow forever in the pools and eddies of the stream of writing issuing forth on, say, 19th century British literature. Like all subjects of knowledge, classic literature has seen a logarithmic explosion of academic, quasi-academic and non-academic writing in the last 50 years, but the debate PRIOR to World War II is relatively easy to get a handle on: A set number of works, a set number of theories.
The real pleasure for me comes in reading a work that I had never heard about prior to reading. One of the primary pleasures of intellectual pursuits is the joy of discovery: finding out something you didn't know before. It's a quiet, private pleasure that doesn't require a group for validation. This was the case for me with James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, originally published in 1824. Private Memoirs is not quite the first serial killer novel, not quite the first historical novel, and certainly not the first novel of the Scottish literary boom of the early 19th century, but it was influenced by all of those literary trends and more besides. Private Memoirs takes the form of two opposed narratives: One by an anonymous Editor, purporting to recount the same series of events the other narrative, the Private Memoirs and Confessions of the title. The Justified Sinner in this case is Robert Wringhim, the bastard son of a Scottish Laird and his over-zealous religious wife.
Wringhim is what you call a "serial killer" and his activity takes place against the background of what today we would call "psychotic episodes" and what they then called "being haunted by the Devil." The Devil in this case is the affable "Gill-Martin." He's a charmer, and a shape shifter, and maybe a figment of Wringhim's imagination, and maybe not. The knowledge that this book was written in the early 1820s is interesting too contemplate. While Hogg was not drawing on terra incognita in his Gil Martin figure (Goethe's Faust had appeared in Scottish periodicals prior to this book being written, the overall combination of the doubling/visit by the devil/serial killer/scottish historical novel styles of 19th century literature is an intoxicating blend. Private Memoirs doesn't go on for 500 pages, either- it's readable in a weekend afternoon.
Before reading the book, I was surprised to read Ian Duncan's claim that this is now the most popular 19th century Scottish novel, but after finishing, it makes perfect sense. Sharp, scary, funny and downright weird, Private Memoirs is a novel that holds up waaaayyyyyyyyy after it was published.