The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor

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Introduction

The long title belongs to a novel by Scottish author James Hogg, published anonymously in 1824. This masterpiece was neglected when published. It was not until 1947, when Andre  Gide praised the novel in the introduction of its reissue, that the world realized what a great novel it is.

To put the novel in some chronological perspective, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in 1818, whereas Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was first published in 1886.

There are two parts in the novel and a conclusion. One where the editor tells the story, and another, where Robert, the main character of the novel (the sinner) tells his story. The novel concludes with the editor describing how the novel (the sinner’s memoir) was found in his grave.

The first thing that attracted my attention to the novel is its title. I enjoy reading memoirs and confessions, especially when they come from a justified sinner. What is a justified sinner?

Add to all of this “curious traditionary (1) facts” and “other evidence by the editor” and you have an inviting thriller in front of you.

Note 1: Traditionary is an archaic form of the word traditional.

But it is not only the title that makes this novel an attractive one. It is the concept of antinomian predestination, that drives some of the heroes and the plot and is highly relevant to religious fanaticism, in this case of Calvinist origin. Contrary to some beliefs, there are even today fanatical Christians and they are not less dangerous than the heroes of Hogg’s novel. Because they are convinced that they are the chosen ones, and that no matter what they do, they have a free pass.

Hogg is playing with the uncanny and the physiological. Phrenology was popular in Edinburgh in ealry 19th century and Hogg refers to it at some point. Phrenology is deterministic, and it absolves the sinner of all of his doings, because it is his brain’s features that are responsible for his behavior. But is it phrenology at play after all?

Under the guise of antinomian predestination may lurk real evil. Evil disguised as a good predestined Christian. Ultimately, this is a novel about Evil. There is no interplay between Good and Evil, just Evil and its victims.  Therefore, this could also be a cautionary tale about the power of Evil.

I will present extensive fragments of Part I, the Editor’s cut. Part II is Robert’s (the sinner’s part) and I leave it to the reader to read for herself, should they have the desire to do so. I only include here some fragments as a taster.

 

Part I: The Editor’s Narrative

“The meek mind of Lady Dalcastle was somewhat disarranged by this sudden evolution.” The Editor.

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James Hogg

This sentence is right at the beginning of the editor’s narrative. Newlywed Lady Dalcastle discovers that her husband is not a practicing Christian. Even worse, he is not even a believer!

“He also dared to doubt of the great standard doctrine of absolute predestination, which put the crown on the lady’s Christian resentment.” The Editor

“He” is George Colwan, the laird of Dalcastle, husband of Rabina (Mrs. Colwan, the Lady of Dalcastle). The Calvinist concept of “predestination” is central to the novel’s plot. According to predestination, God in His omniscience has predetermined who is going to Hell and who is going to Heaven, i.e. the fate of each individual soul. This of course raises the issue of human free will. If the fate of a human being is predetermined by God, what is the point of “free will”?

“To the wicked, all things are wicked; but to the just, all things are just and right.” Rev. Mr. Wringhim.

Rev. Mr. Wringhim is the spiritual companion (and more) of Lady Dalcastle.

Lady Dalcastle gives birth to George, and a year later to Robert. George lives with his father, whereas Robert with  Rev. Mr. Wringhim, who gives him his name. The Laird of Dalcastle does not want the two boys to ever meet, and for this reason he expels Lady Dalcastle from his house in Glasgow.

Miss Logan, Lord Dalcastle’s housekeeper, and mistress, becomes the lady of the house.

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However, the inevitable meeting between George and Robert takes place in a tennis match in Edinburgh.In this meeting Robert did everything in his power to upset and obstruct George’s playing. But this is only the beginning.

“But the next day, and every succeeding one, the same devilish-looking youth attended him as constantly as his shadow; was always in his way as with intention to impede him and ever and anon his deep and malignant eye met those of his elder brother with a glance so fierce that it sometimes startled him.”

At some point, George learns that the devilish-looking youth is his brother and tries to make amends to no avail. Things get rougher and rougher until George finds it extremely difficult to even get around and live a normal life.

“To whatever place of amusement he betook himself, and however well he concealed his intentions of going there from all flesh living, there was his brother Wringhim also, and always within a few yards of him, generally about the same distance, and ever and
anon darting looks at him that chilled his very soul.”

The situation becomes even worse …

“…and every day, and every hour, from the first encounter of the two, the attendance became more and more constant, more inexplicable, and altogether more alarming and insufferable, until at last George was fairly driven from society, and forced to spend his days in his and his father’s lodgings with closed doors.”

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What is puzzling George is that his stalker knows his exact moves, even the ones that George has not planned. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that Robert has an evil accomplice who informs him.

“In no other way could he account for the apparition he saw that morning on the face of the rock, nor for several sudden appearances of the same being, in places where there was no possibility of any foreknowledge that he himself was to be there, and as little that the same being, if he were flesh and blood like other men, could always start up in the same position with regard to him.”

One thing leads to another and the matter goes to a Court of Justice. The Judge orders Robert and the Reverend to stay away from George and stop stalking him. All seems now to be good, but it is not. Shortly after a celebration for the resolution of his problem, George is murdered. One of the young gentlemen in George’s circle, Drummond, is convicted of murdering George.

“Upon the whole, there was a division in the court, but a majority decided it. Drummond was pronounced guilty of the murder;  outlawed for not appearing, and a high reward offered for his apprehension. It was with the greatest difficulty that he escaped on board of a small trading vessel, which landed him in Holland, and from thence, flying into Germany, he entered into the service of the Emperor Charles VI.”

Soon after Drummond’s conviction, George’s father passes away, unable to live a life without his beloved son.

“In a few weeks he followed his son to the grave, and the notorious Robert Wringhim took
possession of his estates as the lawful son of the late laird, born in wedlock, and under his father’s roof. The investiture was celebrated by prayer, singing of psalms, and religious disputation.”

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Grassmarket in the middle of the 19th century

Miss Logan, who has by now become Mrs. Logan, is highly suspicious of the circumstances leading to George’s murder.

“And, as woman is always most jealous of her own sex in such matters, her suspicions were fixed on her greatest enemy, Mrs.Colwan, now the Lady Dowager of Dalcastle.”

A robbery of her home brings her in touch with Arabella (Bell) Calvert, a fallen woman.

Bell Calvert has been a witness to George’s murder and she knows the murderer. It is Robert, his brother, who killed George. But Robert was not alone. Accompanying him was a man resembling Thomas Drummond, a friend of George’s, who has already been found guilty of George’s death. Bell claims that the man could not be Drummond, because she had seen him going in the opposite direction, away from the site of the murder, a few minutes before she had sighted Robert and his company. Rega

Bell relays all this to Miss Logan and they go on a trip to Dalcastle. They run into Robert (it is at this point that Bell puts a name on the murderer), but Miss Logan is shocked when she realizes that the man who accompanies Robert is George. How could that be?

Miss Logan now has all the facts she needs to convict Robert of George’s murder. But when the authorities go to arrest him, he is nowhere to be found. He has disappeared. No trace of his mother could be found either.

This is the end of the editor’s narrative.

Part II: Robert’s Narrative

“..the truth is, that one lie always paved the way for another, from hour to hour, from day to day, and from year to year; so that I found myself constantly involved in a labyrinth of deceit, from which it was impossible to extricate myself.”

“…am assured of your acceptance by the word and spirit of Him who cannot err, and your sanctification and repentance unto life will follow in due course. Rejoice and be thankful, for you are plucked as a brand out of the burning, and now your redemption is sealed and sure.”

“As I thus wended my way, I beheld a young man of a mysterious appearance coming towards me. I tried to shun him, being bent on my own contemplations; but he cast himself in my way, so that I could not well avoid him; and, more than that, I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist.”

“What was my astonishment on perceiving that he was the same being as myself! The clothes were the same to the smallest item. The form was the same; the apparent age; the colour of the hair; the eyes; and, as far as recollection could serve me from viewing my own features in a glass, the features too were the very same.”