This week begins with my contribution to the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Clishmaclaver, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Amateur Reader is kindly reading along with me, so visit Wuthering Expectations for his posts as I spend the next three days with this delicious Scottish Gothic novel.
For lack of knowing better where to begin, I’ll start with the title. That “justified” is very important, but its meaning here is specialized and probably opaque to many. It’s the door to so much that is Scottish about the book. Robert Wringhim, the eponymous sinner, “was now a justified person, adopted among the number of God’s children—[his] name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and…no bypast transgression, nor any future act of [his] own, or of other men, could be instrumental in altering the decree.” Predestined to be saved through God’s grace and the atonement of Christ, Robert believes his sins will be forgiven no matter what. His memoirs and confessions form the middle of the novel, bookended by two “editor’s narratives” introducing and concluding his story.
Briefly, that story begins with the wedding of Robert’s parents, and ill-matched pair. His mother, a pious adherent of the strictest Calvinist doctrine, effects a separation from his father, a religiously casual laird, after just six months of marriage. She first delivers George, likely the product of the unhappy couple, who will be raised by his father. Later, she gives birth to Robert, suspected of being her minister’s son and largely raised by that man. Robert is a cunning and deceitful child, and after the minister’s pronouncement that Robert is one of the elect he begins to be visited by a mysterious personage who calls himself Gil-Martin. Persuaded by Gil-Martin of the antinomian doctrine that the elect can commit no sin which will not be forgiven, Robert becomes a sort of avenger of the lord, helping the unregenerate along to a quicker end than they might naturally have reached. He is supposed to have killed his brother, his mother, and a girl he seduced, but after George’s murder Robert finds himself with no memory of large spans of time and increasingly confused and persecuted by Gil-Martin. Hounded by the public and his own friend, eventually Robert reaches a tragic end, anonymous in the Scottish countryside.
Robert is impressively despicable. In the initial editor’s narrative we are set against him: his mother is a fanatic and a shrew, and he is his mother’s son. His first encounter with his brother occurs when they are teenagers in Edinburgh, and the former objects to the latter’s playing tennis. This kicks off an extended period where Robert shadows his older brother, sullenly appearing whenever he is at leisure with his friends, and spoiling everyone’s fun. Robert portrays himself in an equally bad light when we reach the memoir, though admittedly not on purpose. His confessions include more detail of his early life, and he recounts incidents that reflect very badly on his character. There is a boy who does better in school, so Robert steals his notebook and draws in it caricatures of their teacher. A servant of Robert’s adoptive father, the minister, gives Robert a piece of his mind and Robert contrives to have him fired. And through it all he maintains his own rightness in the most supercilious way imaginable. He’s just the sort of person who would end up thinking himself not bound by moral law and therefore licensed to kill.
But in spite of his arrogance, avarice, envy, obsession, and self-centeredness, Robert is not entirely unsympathetic. As his confusion and despair build, his audience is able to pity him, and while we may initially have sentenced him to worse, by the end his torments seem sufficient. He still believes his motives have been correct, but he is lost and knows that he is very much a sinner.
This is only the beginning. Who is Gil-Martin? What is the verdict on predestination? This week, I will fail to answer either of those questions.