Literature: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

FIDELI CERTA MERCES.
"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 is 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.
    • Oddly enough, the first time he meets Gil-Martin, Robert believes him to be an ordinary man (albeit a King Incognito), thus also making Robert an example of …
  • Agent Scully: The Editor, who prefers to dismiss out of hand any supernatural explanations for Robert's experiences. When, for example, Robert allegedly 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 surrounding fog. Although not mentioned by name in the novel, scholarly editions argue that this is most likely a Brocken spectre.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Miss Logan, who deduces that Robert was in fact behind his brother's murder.
  • 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.
    • One throwaway line in the Editor's Narrative suggests that he might not actually be a lawyer, but a convicted felon sent to entrap Robert with the end of bringing him to justice. Said felon was apparently sent "on a pretended mission of legality" to the Dalcastle estate in order to investigate Robert, and hopefully bring up more evidence against him.
  • 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.
  • Cain and Abel: Robert begins stalking and harassing his brother George wherever he goes, and eventually murders him, although Robert claims that he killed George in a fair fight, whilst the Editor believes George was ambushed from behind.
  • Creator Cameo: James Hogg appears at the end of the novel as the shepherd who reports the discovery of Robert's grave.
  • 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.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Gil-Martin's persuasive take on Calvinist doctrine—that God has apparently given Robert free rein to "cut off sinners with the sword"—would not sound terribly out of place in the War On Terror-era Middle East. Or in a Chick Tract for that matter. Or in the Westboro Baptist Church.
  • 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. Maybe.
  • Jekyll & Hyde / Split Personality: Gil-Martin may be the Hyde to Robert's Jekyll. Which makes sense given that Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, written by fellow Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson, cites Private Memoirs among its inspirations.
  • 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.
  • Missing Time: Possibly due to Alternate Identity Amnesia, at one point Robert claims to have only spent a month or so in Lord Dalcastle's house following the deaths of his brother and legal father. One woman, who accuses Robert of sleeping with her daughter (unawares to him), promptly corrects him on that account:
    Mrs Keeler: "Can you deny that you have already been in this place four months and seven days? Or that in that time you have been forbid my house twenty times?"
    • Robert's Missing Time episodes may have added up over the years, eventually to account for the time discrepancies between Robert's journal and the Editor's sources. Robert's final journal entry (and suicide note) is dated September 1712, but the Editor, writing in 1823, cites third-party sources that claim to have witnessed Robert's suicide 105 years earlier—which places his death instead in 1718, meaning Robert's mind might have skipped a combined total of six years.
  • 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.
  • Red Right Hand: Sam Scrape, Robert's servant, tells a local folktale in which the Devil disguises himself as a preacher and fools an entire congregation … until one man exposes his cloven feet.
  • Religious Horror: The religion in this case being Calvinist Christianity—or rather, a twisted, extreme variant on it. Real-life Calvinism does preach predestination, which means that God will indeed guarantee the salvation of a devout few; Gil-Martin, however, convinces Robert that once God has chosen him, Robert is fully insured against eternal damnation, no matter what he does from then on—up to and including murder.
  • 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?
  • Satire: Of religious conservatism and blind adherence to faith.
  • Scrapbook Story: The novel is primarily split into two sets of accounts: Robert's memoirs on the one hand, and the "Editor's Narrative", itself taken from third-party accounts, oral traditions, and documents, pieced together about a hundred years later (in 1823). Naturally, but unexpected of most literary works in this time period, several discrepancies show up in the two sets of accounts.
  • Servile Snarker: Wringhim Senior's servant, John Barnet, 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.
  • Setting Update: Loosely, Faust IN SCOTLAND DURING THE CAVALIER YEARS!
  • 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, and leverages all his political influence to frame George and vindicate Robert whenever the two brothers come to blows.
  • 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.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Gil-Martin can assume the facial features of anyone he meets—in fact, he spends much of the novel impersonating either Robert himself or his brother George, even after the latter is murdered. He is also spotted disguised as another man who is later framed for George's death.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: An Older Than Steam example, and clearly demonstrated in the divergent perspectives composing the novel. The Editor, of course, thinks Robert to be a sort of Christian proto-terrorist, whilst Robert remains convinced that his mission to dispose of reprobate sinners is divinely ordained.


Alternative Title(s):

The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner