Literature: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

"An assured reward for the faithful one", the motto on the title page of Robert Wringhim's titular memoirs.

It sounds like it ought to be an Awful British Sex Comedy, but in fact James Hogg's Scottish novel dates from 1824 and is thankfully lacking in pinging bras, creaking bedsprings and window cleaners. Instead, this is the tale of Robert Wringhim, the younger son of the Laird of Dalcastle. His father, who he has been raised by his pious mother to despise as an unrepentant sinner, has no time for him. Lord Dalcastle suspects that he is the illegitimate son of his estranged wife and her religious adviser (whose name he shares and who is effectively his stepfather). Robert won't be inheriting anything on his father's death - that's all going to his elder and more popular brother, George Colwan - and he regards himself as an outcast, although his stepfather has assured him that he is predestined to be one of God's elect. Then one day, as Robert walks through the fields alone, he encounters a mysterious and apparently powerful young man called Gil-Martin, who has a few suggestions about how he can sort out all his problems...

The book is Scotland's own version of Faust, and, although Hogg himself was a devout Calvinist, it's a cautionary tale of just how wrong you can go when fired up with the idea that God has guaranteed your salvation in advance. Hogg, who lived from 1770 to 1835, was a former shepherd from Ettrick in the Scottish borders (which unsurprisingly got him the nickname "The Ettrick Shepherd"). He became well-known from 1813 on for writing poetry on Scottish themes in a similar vein to some of that of his friend Sir Walter Scott. He also wrote other novels and short stories, but this tends to be the one that is remembered. For a nineteenth century horror novel, it's unusually subtle. We're not left entirely sure of who Gil-Martin was or even how real he was.

Tropes include

  • Agent Mulder: Robert himself, who late in the novel is forced to conclude that his mysterious friend is really the Devil in disguise.
  • Agent Scully: The Editor, who prefers to dismiss out of hand any supernatural explanations for Robert's experiences. When, for example, Robert somehow summons a gigantic apparition of himself to terrorize his brother on top of a mountain, the Editor claims this is merely the result of a strange weather phenomenon, wherein Robert's shadow was magnified by the fog around the mountain. Although not mentioned by name in the novel, scholarly editions argue that this is most likely a Brocken spectre.
  • Amoral Attorney: Lawyer Linkum is quite prepared to forge an old deed to enable Robert to gain control over the land of the mother of a girl he wants to seduce, and hence over the girl herself.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The last few pages of Robert's own narrative, which are presented as diary entries, are this.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil; None of the upper-class characters come out of this looking too good. Lord Dalcastle is a boozy debauchee, Lady Dalcastle is fanatically religious (although she gets some Character Development), Robert is a villainous hypocrite when he's not holding the Idiot Ball and even his brother George is portrayed as a hot-head who's rather too fond of the ladies himself. This may well be connected to Hogg's early, impoverished days as a shepherd and tenant farmer.
  • Arranged Marriage: The source of all the problems in the novel is Lady Dalcastle's to Lord Dalcastle. Her father is a wealthy merchant and it's strictly for Money, Dear Boy.
  • The Cavalier Years: The action of the novel, which starts in 1687, takes place towards the fag-end of this period.
  • Deal with the Devil: The whole point of the book, and it's all the more remarkable that until very near the end Robert (unlike Faust) has no idea what he's done.
  • Driven to Suicide: Robert, destitute and driven to despair by Gil-Martin, ultimately kills himself.
  • Egocentrically Religious: Arguably Robert, who pretty much considers his status as one of the elect means God will let him get away with anything.
  • Evil Twin: Robert comes to believe that he has one towards the end of the book, as he has no recollection of some of the evil deeds of which he is accused. As discussed elsewhere, it's never quite clear if this is true and attributable to Gil-Martin's demonic powers or if Robert's mentally unstable and amnesiac.
  • The Fundamentalist: Both Wringhims are this. Gil-Martin claims to share their ideas but puts what you might call a unique twist on them...
  • Good Shepherd: Mr. Blanchard, the elderly minister who is Robert and Gil-Martin's first victim is presented as this.
  • Good Bad Girl: Miss Logan, Lord Dalcastle's housekeeper and mistress, who plays a major part in Robert's eventual downfall.
  • Hiding Behind Religion: Both Robert and his stepfather are repeatedly accused of this by other characters, to the extent that one even says that this shared trait is proof that the elder Wringhim is his biological father. It's open to debate to what extent either of them are conscious hypocrites, however, as opposed to morally blinded by their extreme views on predestination.
  • Hot for Preacher: Lord Dalcastle's take on Wringhim Senior's relationship with his wife. They certainly seem unusually close for a minister and his pupil.
  • Idiot Ball: Held by Robert for most of the time. In spite of an intensely religious education, when he meets a mysterious dude with amazing powers who encourages him to do naughty things, it never occurs to him to think, "Hey, maybe I'm dealing with the Prince of Darkness here." Lady Dalcastle and Wringhim Senior do inquire this of him, but Robert denies it and it's only until it's too late that he begins to seriously consider the possibility himself. Hogg is also able to milk this blindness for rather dark comedy. Gil-Martin is given to making ambiguous statements which Robert invariably puts an innocent interpretation on where the reader can see the moustache-twirling villainy. Asked if all his subjects are Christians, he says "All my European subjects are, or deem themselves so...and they are the most faithful and true subjects I have." Robert takes this as evidence that Gil-Martin is...
  • Imaginary Friend: Gil-Martin. Probably.
  • King Incognito: Robert thinks Gil-Martin is Peter the Great of Russia, who actually did visit Western Europe incognito for several years towards the end of the seventeenth century.
  • Louis Cypher: Gil-Martin. Or is he?
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Most of the novel is written in two sections, the first written by "the Editor" who has found Robert's papers on his long-buried body and who recounts the traditions surrounding him and his family and the second Robert's own version of events. Because the traditions derive from third party accounts and Robert is an Unreliable Narrator, it's never entirely clear how far this is supposed to be genuinely the work of the Devil and how far Robert is simply a delusional religious maniac.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: See the page quote. It's also scarily ambiguous, and that's quite deliberate.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Long before Rashomon, Hogg plays up the mystery factor by making the two main perspectives of Private Memoirs inconsistent or even flat-out contradictory. For example, in the scene where Robert kills his brother George, the Editor claims, by drawing on third-party accounts, that Robert stabbed him in the back from the shadows. Robert himself claims that he fought George in a fair duel.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Who or what is Gil-Martin really? Is he the Devil, is he an actual person or is he nothing more than a fabrication of Robert's diseased mind?
  • Servile Snarker: Wringhim Senior's servant, John Barnett, is openly unimpressed with both of the Wringhims. Unlike many of this kind of character, he doesn't get away with it in the end. Later on, Robert's own valet, Sam Scrape, is also pretty outspoken.
  • Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: This fits Robert's attitude to sex to a tee. Accused (correctly) of seducing a woman, he responds, "But the mention of such a thing as amours with any woman existing, to me, is really so absurd, so far from my principles, so far from the purity of nature and frame to which I was born and consecrated, that I hold it as an insult, and regard it with contempt."
  • Sinister Minister: Wringhim Senior, who first puts it into Robert's head that he has been predestined to salvation.
  • Split Personality: One possible theory is that Gil-Martin is this to Robert.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrative from Robert's viewpoint is clearly twisted to show him in a better light, especially regarding the circumstances of his brother's death. However, Hogg goes one step beyond and also makes the "editor's" narrative unreliable as well, since it reflects a strictly rationalist viewpoint that cannot accept the existence of any supernatural elements.

Alternative Title(s):

The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner