By Lisa-Marie Griffith
Last July when I finaly submitted my PhD I found myself with a long list of ‘to do’s. Things that I had put off over the previous four years with the iron clad excuse ‘I’d really like to but I’m writing a PhD- I will do it when I finish’ now piled up in front of my eyes. Last summer while attending the annual Eighteenth-Century Ireland Conference I was inspiried by some of the papers given by scholars of English to become more familiar with the cannon of eighteenth-century novels and added this to my ‘to do’ list. I will have to admit that when I started this I was a bit unsure of how far I would get but I knew that I was certain to progress further on this then my ‘start jogging’. I decided to try moving alphabetically through and I have reached ‘h’. Ok- I haven’t quite completed the task at hand while writing this, and I have to admit my head has been turned by other books, I am currently reading Joe Queenan’s Closing Time, but half way through my task one book in particularly, James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, I was prompted to write this post.
There are some fantastic eighteenth-century novels that have stood the test of time and should be read but of course, like contemporary fiction, there is a lot of rubbish. James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner certainly falls into the former. It includes everything needed for a thrilling modern day story and yet was written in 1824. The book is well ahead of it’s years and deals with some themes that are very relevant today. Adultery, religious mania and schizophrenia as well as morality and the family unit are all themes explored in this thriller.
The book is set in the opening decades of eighteenth-century Scotland. When a devoutly religious woman marries a womanizing laird she attempts to make him reform and turn to the Calvinist church. Bearing one son by the Laird she separates from the unrelenting sinner, takes up with her Minister, and bears another child outside of her marriage (the first great contradiction of one of the novel’s characters). The two sons are separated until adulthood until chance brings them together. When Robert, the younger brother, decides to murder George, his older brother, the mind of a killer is opened to the reader. Hogg raises many questions about the motivations of Robert who believes that as God’s elect he is justified in all his actions. But- is he driven by his religious zeal, mental illness, immorality or his jealous nature? It is up to the reader to decide.
This novel is Jekyll and Hyde meets Crime and Punishment. And yet the reader must remember that it pre-dates both of these novels by over forty years. Ian Rankin in the preface to my edition puts this alongside Fight Club and Angel Heart and he is right to do so. I would recommend this novel highly and it is not, like most novels I have encountered so far, written in the often heavy style of eighteenth century novelists. This is of course explained by the date that it is written- 1824- but I would argue for the long-eighteenth century!
This novel, as well as some others that I have read so far, have really confirmed that my attempts to tackle the eighteenth-century novel is rewarding on two counts: educational- I have managed to pick up quotes and references that I can not believe I did not have when writing my PhD AND entertaining- I have read some really riveting novels.
As I am stumbling my way through the alphabet of eighteenth-century novels (missing many I am sure) tips on what to read or avoid would be great. I am, after all, a historian, not an English scholar so all recommendations would be received gratefully. I’m sure that I am missing things working my way through the Hodges Figgis book shelves…