Total Depravity: James Hogg’s “A Justified Sinner”

James Hogg, being a friend of the more famous novelist Sir Walter Scott, was doomed to obscurity. He was known in the literary circles that included Scott, but since he came from a rural background of shepherds, eventually the parody as which his ‘friends’ depicted him in a series of magazine tales became more famous than he was. Only in the 20th century did he come to greater prominence, although there’s still a ways to go before he could be called ‘well-known’ outside of Scottish literature. And given the power of The Private Memoirs And Confessions of A Justified Sinner, this obscurity is richly undeserved. It rarely shows up in lists of required Gothic reading, though recent critical scholarship has praised the work as one of the most important Scottish novels ever written. The book’s fans include modern-day novelists like Ian Rankin and James Robertson, who cite Hogg as an influence. Partly Gothic horror, partly historical fiction, partly religious and political satire, this 1824 novel isn’t easy to classify into a genre, but sometimes the best novels aren’t.

Keeping with the Gothic tradition, the story is presented as an ancient manuscript recently found, dug up, and preceded by an unnamed Editor’s lengthy introduction. This splits the book essentially into two halves which, again in line with the Gothic, present us with the supernatural tragedy of Robert Wringhim and the more rational, Enlightened attempts to define the same events by realistic explanations, since “in this day…it will not go down, that a man should be daily tempted by the devil, in the semblance of a fellow-creature”.

We have two versions of the story, then. The Editor first gives us the ‘facts’, a narrative informed by the official record and sworn statements. It centres on two brothers, the sons of a laird in late 17th-century Scotland, the younger of whom is presumed to be illegitimate and raised by a Calvinist minister. Robert Wringhim thus grows up into an extremely rigid form of Christianity, where the world is divided into the reprobate and the elect — and no good work or sinful act can change God’s decree of who is damned and who is saved.

Sometimes you find books and sometimes books find you. Hogg’s Justified Sinner sat there on the wrong shelf in the bookstore and dared me take a look. I had never heard of it before, but at the promise of supernatural terror mixed in with religious critique I knew I would succumb easily. Luckily, the library had a copy; a student’s budget doesn’t allow a lot of blind buying. I did have to exercise a little patience. The Gothic elements take a considerable time to show themselves in full, and the lack of any chapter divisions has a detrimental effect on the reading experience. But fortunately, Hogg is an able enough writer to sustain interest. And when he finally comes to Robert’s own personal narration, he creates a vindictive anti-hero who both repels and compels in equal measure.

The book is also a damning indictment of Scottish Calvinism, at least in its more stringent form and practice. While the Editor’s narrative places the religious controversies of 1705 in the wider social and political sphere, Robert’s confession gives voice to the spiritual heart of someone who believes sharply in his own righteousness, his own salvation, and his own malicious brand of ‘evangelism’. He cannot recognize, though we do, that the charming and seemingly devout man who becomes his closest friend and confidant is none other than Satan himself, arguing that since nothing can undo the granting of God’s grace, then for the saved even the most heinous act can’t be a sin. But long before he is tempted into violence and murder, Robert Wringhim is already convinced that he has a divine duty to work against the enemies of God. He isn’t so much tempted as helped.

Shortly after they begin spending time together, Robert is counselled by a more moderate clergyman to leave off the theological path he walks:

Religion is a sublime and glorious thing, the bond of society on earth, and the connector of humanity with the Divine nature; but there is nothing so dangerous to man as the wresting of any of its principles, or forcing them beyond their due bounds: this is of all others the readiest way to destruction. Neither is there anything so easily done. There is not an error into which a man can fall, which he may not press Scripture into his service as proof of the probity of, and though your boasted theologian shunned the full discussion of the subject before me, while you pressed it, I can easily see that both you and he are carrying your ideas of absolute predestination, and its concomitant appendages, to an extent that overthrows all religion and revelation together; or, at least, jumbles them into a chaos, out of which human capacity can never select what is good. Believe me, Mr. Robert, the less you associate with that illustrious stranger the better, for it appears to me that your creed and his carries damnation on the very front of it.

At last, one thinks, the voice of reason. But unfortunately, this moderate Christian tolerance is the first victim in Robert’s battle against a fallen and reprobate world.

Indeed the entire book is made of battles, it seems. Battles of religion, battles of the rational against the supernatural, and ultimately a battle between Robert Wringhim and his devilish companion. How these battles end, and whether there is even a victor, is something we’re left to decide for ourselves.

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