I know what you’re thinking – this sounds like a dreary story about one man’s catalogue of sins and exhortation to keep on the straight and narrow. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the title, this story by James Hogg turned out to be a humorous, even laugh out loud, Scottish gothic tale set during the 1600s. First published in 1824, the story begins with the Laird of Dalcastle, George, who marries a young heiress called Rabina. Unfortunately the marriage is not a success, although the wedding night is quite hilarious.
At the wedding George drank and danced with glee, while his betrothed sat primly, looking “with pity and contempt towards the old inadvertent sinner, capering away in the height of his unregenerate mirth.” Later on, when George is keen to consummate the marriage, Rabina speaks to him of the “follies of aged men and something of the broad way that leads to destruction,” to which George promptly replied “whether the way was broad or narrow, it was time that they were in bed.” His new bride, however, is a very pious young woman and while she is praying long and hard, she hears the thundering “sound of a nasal bugle of no ordinary calibre – the notes being little inferior to those of a military trumpet.” Her dearly beloved has fallen asleep.
Things don’t go much better in the morning, either, because on awakening George discovers that his wife is gone and proclaims “God save the King-I have lost my wife!” After a little hide and seek around his castle George manages to locate Rabina, however at this point he probably should have taken a more contrite and conciliatory tone instead of attempting to woo her with, “you sly and malevolent imp…you have played me such a trick…come along, you baggage you!” Ah, a man of so much grace and charm.
As can be expected, things progress from bad to worse and within 6 months they are living separate lives in separate quarters of the castle. Eventually two sons are produced, although you may wonder how, but George refuses to acknowledge the second son as his own. You can make up your own mind about that. Sadly, the two brothers are brought up separately and never meet until many years later.
This is where the story takes a decidedly mysterious and gothic turn which ends in the death of one brother, and the ascension of the other to Laird of Dalcastle.
The story is written in two parts. Part one is the story thus far and is written by a fictional editor, while Part Two comprises a retelling of the story from the point of view of the surviving brother. This is his confession and it is a tale of religious austerity, deception, confusion and malevolence, as well as the lurking presence of a shape-shifting demon. Sadly, there is no happy ending for anyone in this story. The surviving brother continues narrating his version of the story right on to the grisly end, where the editor picks up the story again.
At times it was not always an easy read. The Scottish brogue of some characters can be a bit tricky to decipher and there is also a strong religious theme which deals with Calvinism, religious fanaticism and distortions of Christian doctrine, which I actually found really interesting. Considering that James Hogg started his life as a “poverty-stricken shepherd”, the book is certainly a major achievement, although I believe it didn’t receive the attention and credit it probably deserved at the time. Familiar story that. Apparently he also wrote some works of poetry, as well as some books about sheep diseases – just in case you’re interested.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is listed in the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “gothic comedy, religious horror story, mystery thriller, and psychological study…- both terrifying and terrific.”