Tackling the eighteenth-century novel

By Lisa-Marie Griffith

hogg canongateLast 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…

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5 Responses to “Tackling the eighteenth-century novel”

  1. Patrick Walsh Says:

    That book sounds great and very modern too! If 1824 is eighteenth century then so is Austen, Shelley etc, and even Walter Scott, when does your short 19th century start? Oh and can you post up Books A-H for your readers to comment, read?

    Regards recomendations 2009 is the 250th anniversary of reputedly the greatest 18th century novel, Laurence Stearne’s Tristram Shandy. I have always to read it but must try again to celebrate. Also this year is 250th anniversary of Guinness incidently, whicjh needs proper celebration.

    My vote for best book of the century goes to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which apparently being filmed at the moment with Jack Black in the main role. Intruiging!!

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    I suppose it is all about how you date the eighteenth-century novel and as I don’t have enough of a grounding in literature I chose to encompass what interested me and so omitted ‘Austen, Shelley etc, and even Walter Scott’. Hogg caught my eye because it was set in the eighteenth century and included in the Hodges Figgis sale!

    I don’t know what the eighteenth-century literary canon is either so just tried to pick what sounded familiar and interesting!

    I have read most of Swift’s stuff (not including letters)- I still have to his Direction’s to servants- I have been trying to avoid him as everyone talks about Swift especially in Ireland.

    I have read Boswell, Defoe, Edgeworth- I quite liked Belinda- Goldsmith- I struggled through the Vicar of Wakefield buy really like Citizen of the world, Feilding and Tobais Smollet (a couple of years ago). i am sure I am forgetting a few- I am mentally scanning my book shelf as I write this….

    Is there somewhere I can get an idiots guide to tell me what to read?


  3. A Few of my Favourites… « Pue’s Occurrences Says:

    […] a question out and get a response almost immediately. In response to Monday’s post on the eighteenth-century novel Christina Morin, whose research interests centre on late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century […]

  4. Patrick Maume Says:

    One of Maurice Leitch’s novels, GILCHRIST, is a contemporary reworking of MEMOIRS with a central character (very loosely) based on Ian Paisley.

  5. Patrick Maume Says:

    Two points that strike me about this post on re-reading it:
    (a) the summary doesn’t mention that the Devil is one of the major characters (there is a minority view that he is the figment of the disordered brain of another charaacter but I think the novel doesn’t really sustain it).
    (b) It also doesn’t mention that the novel is divided into two parts; the memoir of the “justified sinner” written in the early eighteenth century and an account of the same events written by a rather condescending and arrogant antiquarian in Hogg’s own day. There’s a debate about how far the fictional editor is shown to be an unreliable narrator, but the theme certainly raises questions which are relevant to any historian about how far the past can be reconstructed by later writers.
    There was a radio adaptation a year or two back which sets the story in contemporary Scotland, but it doesn’t work because it just becomes the story of an isolated madman. Much of the force of the original tale derives from its being set at a time of party conflict and recent civil war, when both Tory/Jacobite/Cavaliers and whig/Covenanter/Hanoverians had each been on top in the recent past, and “kill them in God’s name or they’ll kill you first” had a dreadful plausibility. That’s why Northern Ireland is a better setting for any contemporary reworking.

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