The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor is a novel by the Scottish author James Hogg, published anonymously in 1824.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Brocken spectre with a glory, an atmospheric effect of light which has powerful instrumental effect in one of the scenes from the novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
AuthorJames Hogg
LanguageEnglish, Scots
GenrePsychological mystery, philosophical novel, satire
Publication date

Considered by turns part-gothic novel, part-psychological mystery, part-metafiction, part-satire, part-case study of totalitarian thought, it can also be thought of as an early example of modern crime fiction in which the story is told, for the most part, from the point of view of its criminal anti-hero. The action of the novel is located in a historically definable Scotland with accurately observed settings, and simultaneously implies a pseudo-Christian world of angels, devils, and demonic possession. The narrative is set against the antinomian societal structure flourishing in the borders of Scotland in Hogg's day.

The first edition sold very poorly and the novel suffered from a period of critical neglect, especially in the nineteenth century. However, since the latter part of the twentieth century it has won greater critical interest and attention. It was praised by André Gide in an introduction to the 1947 reissue and described by the critic Walter Allen as 'the most convincing representation of the power of evil in our literature'.[1] It has also been seen as a study of religious fanaticism through its deeply critical portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination. It is written in English, with some sections of Scots that appear in dialogue.


Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; first by the 'editor', who gives his account of the facts as he understands them to be, and then in the words of the 'sinner' himself.

The story starts in 1687 with the marriage of Rabina Orde to the much older George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle. Rabina despises her new husband because he falls short of her extreme religious beliefs, his love of dancing and penchant for drinking alcohol. She initially flees him but her father forces her back, and they live separately in the one house. Rabina gives birth to two sons. The first, George, is indisputably the son of the Laird, but it is strongly implied – though never confirmed – that her second son, Robert, was fathered by the Reverend Wringhim, Rabina's spiritual adviser and close confidant.

George, raised by the Laird, becomes a popular young man who enjoys sport and the company of his friends. Robert, educated by his mother and adoptive father Wringhim, is brought up to follow Wringhim's radical antinomian sect of Calvinism, which holds that only certain elect people are predestined to be saved by God. These chosen few will have a heavenly reward regardless of how their lives are lived.

The two brothers meet, as young men, in Edinburgh where Robert starts following George through the town, mocking and provoking him and disrupting his life. He appears to have the ability of appearing wherever George is. When on a hill-top, George sees a vision of his brother in the sky and turns to find him behind him, preparing to throw him off a cliff. Robert rejects any friendly or placatory advances from his brother.

Finally, George is murdered by being stabbed in the back, apparently during a duel with one of his drinking acquaintances. The only witnesses to the murder were a prostitute and her despicable client, who claim that the culprit was Robert, aided by what appears to be the double of George's friend. Before Robert can be arrested, he disappears.

The second part of the novel consists of Robert's account of his life. It purports to be a document, part-handwritten and part-printed, which was found after his death. It recounts his childhood, under the influence of the Rev Wringhim, and goes on to explain how he becomes in thrall to an enigmatic companion who says his name is Gil-Martin. This stranger, who could be seen to be the Devil, appears after Wringhim has declared Robert to be a member of 'the elect' and so predestined to eternal salvation. Gil-Martin, who is able to transform his appearance at will, soon directs all of Robert's pre-existing tendencies and beliefs to evil purposes, convincing him that it is his mission to "cut sinners off with the sword", and that murder can be the correct course of action. From Gil-Martin's boasting of the number of his adherents and size of his dominions, Robert falls into the delusion that he is Peter the Great of Russia, who visited England about that time.

The confession traces Robert's gradual decline into despair and madness, as his doubts about the righteousness of his cause are counteracted by Gil-Martin's increasing domination over his life. Finally, Robert loses control over his own identity and even loses track of time. During these lost weeks and months, it is suggested that Gil-Martin assumes Robert's appearance to commit further crimes. However, there are also suggestions in the text, that 'Gil-Martin' is a figment of Robert's imagination, and is simply an aspect of his own personality: as, for example when 'the sinner' writes, 'I feel as if I were the same person' (as Gil-Martin).

Robert flees, but is pursued and tormented by devils and can find refuge only as a shepherd. Finally he hangs himself with a grass rope – in which it is suggested that he is aided by devils.

The novel concludes with a return to the 'Editor's Narrative' which explains how the sinner's memoir was discovered in his grave. Hogg appears as himself in this section, expressing scorn of the project to open the grave.


The Private Memoirs and Confessions was published as if it were the presentation of a found document from the previous century offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. The structure thus is of a single, self-contained publication offering a historically contextualised story, but the effect is unsettling. When taken together, the different elements create an impression of ambivalence and inconsistency, as if they were intended to present the reader with a conundrum. Because Hogg's novel appears to test concepts of internal validity, historical truth or a single rational world-view, contemporary critics sometimes regard it as an early anticipation of ideas associated with postmodernism.

The Confession (which comprises the middle section of the novel) is an autobiographical account of the life of Robert Wringhim and, passim, his statement on the crimes with which his name was associated. The document is revealed to be in part a printed document intended for publication[2] and in part a handwritten manuscript. The first section narrates events retrospectively. It is followed by events recounted "in real time", describing events during his last days on earth. It has been proposed that the evangelical Lady Colquhoun and her husband, James, were the models for the character of Rabina and George Colwan.[3]

The Editor's Narrative "introduces" this memoir with "factual" descriptions "from local tradition" of events associated with Wringhim up to the murder of his estranged brother, George Colwan. This Editor's Narrative later resumes at the end of the novel as a post-script appending further details that supposedly comment on the text. This includes the transcript of an "authentic letter" published in Blackwoods Magazine "for August 1823" by a certain James Hogg.[4] The ending finally places the novel in the present time by relating the mystery of a suicide's grave, the exhumation of its remains and (only on the very last pages) the "recovery" of the manuscript. In effect, this post-script reveals what a real "editor" may more properly have set at the beginning, and casts it as the "conclusion".

Discounting any transcendental inferences, there are two time-frames in the novel. The events of the memoir are set in a carefully identifiable period of Scottish history between the late 17th century and early 18th century. (The first date on the opening page is the year 1687.) The editor's narrative is even more concretely dated and situated in present time, external to the novel, through the device of the letter by Hogg included by the fictional editor (which was in fact published in Blackwood's Magazine as described).[5] Hogg's brief cameo role in the final pages of the novel is effectively his "signature" appended to the otherwise anonymous original publication.


The book since I read it in black, pouring weather on Tweedside, has always haunted and puzzled me. It is without doubt a real work of imagination, ponderated and achieved.

  • In 1988 the Scottish film maker Bill Douglas (d. 1991) created a screenplay treatment of the novel that has as yet not been filmed.
  • The novel Gilchrist (1994) by Maurice Leitch is a reworking of Confessions in a contemporary Northern Ireland setting, with a central character loosely based on Ian Paisley.
  • James Hynes' gothic horror novel, The Lecturer's Tale, features a Hogg scholar whose intention to write his dissertation on guilt and predestination in Justified Sinner, is deflected into writing on the more fashionable Conrad.
  • In James Robertson's novel The Testament of Gideon Mack the protagonist Gideon Mack, a minister of the Scottish kirk, comes across a copy of a book on elves, fauns and fairies in his father's study. Gideon learns that the book was signed for his father by one "G.M.". Like the anti-hero of Hogg's novel, Gideon claims to have had an encounter with the Devil and begins to think that his father has met him as well. He suggests that "G.M." might be short for "Gil Martin" (p. 355).
  • Eve Sedgwick, in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, views Robert Wringhim's character as failing to successfully negotiate the demands of the configuration of male homosocial desire existing in his society by being too manifest in his desire for other men.
  • Boucher and McComas described the 1949 edition as a "forgotten classic," praising "this terrifying picture of the devil's subtle conquest of a self-righteous man" as "a masterpiece of the supernatural."[6]
  • The Bad Sister by Emma Tennant is a modern-day version of Hogg's novel with a female protagonist.
  • In the short film Voices, starring Sean Biggerstaff, the central character uses audio extracts of himself reading Hogg's novel to create his final apology.

Theatrical productions


  • A 1986 Polish film adaptation by director Wojciech Jerzy Has, Memoirs of a Sinner
  • Bill Douglas left a script adaptation but died before it could be realised.[8]
  • Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, creator of the famous Inspector Rebus novels, has written a script for a film based on James Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions. According to his website, as of December 2010, his team were 'still on the hunt for the right director.'[9] There were no plans for production as of May 2012.[10]
  • Digby Rumsey wrote a screenplay and was planning to produce a film as of 2009.[11]


See also


  1. Walter Allen, The English Novel, 1954
  2. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ed., John Wain. Penguin, 1983. pp.215–6.
  3. Hogg, James (2002). The private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner (New ed.). Edinburgh: Polygon. p. xxviii. ISBN 0748663150. Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  4. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ed., John Wain. Penguin, 1983. p.230.
  5. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ed., John Wain. Penguin, 1983. Introduction, p.7.
  6. "Recommended Reading," F&SF, February 1950, p.107
  7. Spowart, Nan (18 August 2015). "Ambitious play about Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a love letter to theatre". The National. Retrieved 11 September 2015. Rather than a simple version of the book, it appears to be an adaptation of an adaptation – an ambitious production about a previous play about the novel.
  8. Kate Webb (2012), "Bill Douglas Among the Philistines: From the Trilogy to Comrades (Preview)" Archived 14 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Cineaste, Vol. 37 No.3
  9. "December 2010 Newsletter". Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  10. "May 2012 Newsletter". Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  11. Justified Films website Archived 16 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine
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