Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner Summary and Analysis of Pages 5-49

The Editor’s Narrative

The Colwan family possesses the lands of Dalcastle. The laird, George, is a rich man and about to be married. During this time the principles of the Reformation had led to a split; the laird is much more relaxed in his faith and his bride-to-be is strict. She is a gloomy, bigoted woman with rigid principles.

At the wedding the laird is joyous and flirtatious, but his new wife, Rabina, only seems happy when she talks to her favorite pastor, the Reverend Robert Wringhim. That evening the laird tries to take her to bed but she heaps a torrent of abuse on him and refuses. She begins to pray assiduously but he simply falls asleep and snores in extremely loud tones. She weeps and goes to sleep in her cousin’s room.

When George wakes he finds her, rolls her up in a blanket, and carries her away, despite her protestations.

Rabina flees to her parents’ home in Glasgow and complains of her husband, and her father decides to beat her, Colwan’s wife, for hurting his daughter. Rabina is startled and upset. Her father locks her up to try and make her prefer the Laird of Dalcastle. She is finally ready to go home when he arrives.

Back at home, Rabina tries to convert George and he refuses. He questions predestination and they cannot agree. Finally she has separate arrangements made in the home.

One day she asks her maid, Martha, the identity of a lady who has come to visit the laird. It is Miss Arabella Logan, who becomes the laird’s mistress. Rabina is horrified and calls Wringhim. He listens to her and suggests he talk to her husband of his wickedness, and will “lay the strong holds of sin and Satan as flat before my face, as the dung that is spread out to fatten the land” (13).

Wringhim confronts the laird and Arabella, accusing him of violating his bonds. The laird retorts that Wringhim is conceited and presumptuous, and stirs up trouble. The reverend responds with a tirade so passionate and so rebuking that its metaphors cannot be printed here. Miss Logan leaves and the laird is ashamed. Wringhim feels proud of his conquest.

Wringhim continues to visit and talk points of theology with Rabina. Unfortunately, Miss Logan moves in with the laird, caring nothing for his wife’s distress and horror.

Rabina delivers one son, and he is acknowledged as his father’s heir and given his name of George. A year later another son is born but the laird will not acknowledge him, although he does support him. Rabina calls the second son “Robert Wringhim” after her friend and sponsor of the boy.

George is brought up by his father and Miss Logan, and is a handsome, amiable boy. Robert is brought up by Wringhim and grows up hating his father and brother. He begins to abhor them and pray against them. He is smart and passionate, while George is charming and elegant.

The laird and Miss Logan do not want the two boys to meet, fearing Robert will taint George, so the lady is sent back to Glasgow.

George accompanies his father to a session of Parliament in Edinburgh. Wringhim and his revolutionary principles are there as well; his ward Robert also attends.

There the brothers meet for the first time. Robert attends a tennis match, in which his brother is playing, and makes himself a nuisance by cursing and getting in his way. George notices this young man with black clothes and an evil look on his face. He begins to attend him like a shadow, and comes to another tennis game where George is so frustrated with his aggression that he hits him in the face with his racket. Robert’s nose and mouth gush blood, which he does not even try to clean up. George learns from an onlooker that it is his own brother, and he is shocked.

Robert’s disgusting presence ruins the game. George tries to be a better man and apologize, but his brother kicks at him. Later that night Robert tries to get into the tavern where George and his friends are dining, but the landlord prevents him. Robert is arrested and Wringhim has to get him out. He enlists help of the Whig faction.

Edinburgh is already tense with political turmoil, and this event lights the match. George and his friends are of the Jacobite order, leaning to the Episcopalian side. They participate in the mob and are beaten up. The matter is taken to court but it quickly proves to be a farce, and that not only one side was guilty.

Wringhim is unsatisfied and irate at the laird, whom he blames for the attack on his ward and namesake. Robert stays with a family of a Mr. Miller. There he prays for wrath to be poured on the head of a certain sinner but tries to justify it with scripture.

The next day George and his friends are about town and they begin to feel that people are angry towards them. Robert appears and dogs their steps. George asks him to leave but he refuses, saying it is his right to be there.

George begins to have to seclude himself, because the populace does not like him and Robert is everywhere he goes. He has no idea how Robert can be everywhere he is, as he often chooses where to go on a whim. He is almost completely indoors now, and thinks of his brother as a malevolent demon.

George begins to wonder if his brother actually wants reconciliation and decides he will try and talk to him, but after he comes to this realization he does not see Robert for a few days and begins to feel comfortable being out in the city again.

One morning he decides to go to the top of Arthur’s Seat to see the sun rise. It is a beautiful, fairytale morning full of haze. He is delighted to see a halo amidst the haze, and concludes it is the sun’s rays behind it. At the top of the hill it is the same, although he cannot see the sun, only light and a rainbow.

His mind darts to his brother, and suddenly to his great terror he sees his brother’s face and torso in the cloud before him, twenty times its normal size and wearing an expression of incredible malice and murderous intent. George is convinced it is a spirit and flees, but he suddenly runs into the real-life brother and they scuffle.

Robert screams “Murder” and George feels compelled to quiet him before someone misunderstands. He hits him in the temple and Robert bleeds again. George asks what he is doing, and since he is threatened, Robert begs him to spare his life and that he is only trying to make him good. George also asks how he knew he’d be atop the hill, and Robert says a friend told him but will say no more. George releases him, and sensing victory, Robert spurns his attempts at reconciliation and leaves.

George is still disturbed by the apparition and tries to talk to his father, but the laird is impatient. George’s friend Adam Gordon listens, though, and tries to tell his friend it was his brother’s shadow. George is unconvinced.

George and Adam plan to go to the Highlands to get away, but George is arrested for attacking Robert. The case is dismissed, though, when it becomes clear Robert had been stalking George. Robert is told to keep the peace.

George and his friends prepare to go on their trip once more, and celebrate at the Black Bull tavern. George is in fine spirits, although he gets in a little fight with another friend, Drummond. Drummond leaves.

Someone raps on the door and a waitress answers it. She cannot see who it is, but the man asks for George. The party assumes it is Drummond, and George goes outside.

The next day George is found dead. The laird’s spirit is broken and he dies not long after. Drummond is suspected, and he hides from the authorities and eventually flees the country. Robert Wringhim comes into possession of the estates as the lawful son of the laird; his mother moves back in as the Lady of Dalcastle.

Miss Logan cannot stop thinking of how the laird had said before he died that he hoped Heaven would illuminate his son’s true cause of death. She wonders whether the Wringhims were responsible, and fixes her attention on the Lady.

One night Miss Logan comes home to find her house broken into and items stolen. She is required to go to town and make an affidavit, but before she can do that a young woman approaches her and tells her to go into the prison where she will find a woman whose life is in her hands but who has wronged her.

Miss Logan is curious and enters the prison, where a stately, stern woman tells her that if she denies that the goods are hers, the woman’s life will be spared and she will get their value back. If she instead claims them, the process will cost half their worth. Miss Logan is confused and does not agree. The woman also sees that Miss Logan will not forgive her.

The woman, who announces herself as Bell Calvert, is someone Miss Logan had always wanted to meet. She seems to know something of the night George was murdered, but she spitefully refuses to tell Miss Logan, and says the secret will go to the grave with her. Miss Logan thus learns nothing.


The novel begins in a straightforward fashion: the Editor presents his knowledge of the events that surround the memoir that he will present shortly. It is objective, culled from records and testimonies, and its tone is rational. After he introduces the manuscript, though, it becomes clear this is no ordinary novel. The reader expects Robert’s memoirs to clarify some of the things the Editor lays out here, but it is simultaneously the same story and completely different stories, with truth buried somewhere in between. The realities cannot be reconciled, the doubling and divergences perplexing and piquing.

Scholars have looked at the origins and influences of this text, pointing to numerous examples authors from whom Hogg borrowed or to whom he alluded. First, it is related to the English “terrorist” Gothic strain of Romantic fiction such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Second, Hogg would have definitely been familiar with Goethe’s Faust and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Gil-Martin is also similar to the Devil in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Third, it is related to American works such as William Godwin’s Things as They Are, or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which deals with doubling and pursuit, and Wieland (1798), a novel replete with horror and fanaticism. Fourth, it builds on the popularity of works of fiction using a memoir or confessional structure, and is similar to Irish and other Scottish works that use the trope of an objective editor presenting a firsthand account. Critic Ian Duncan also notes the linguistic variance in the text, pointing to the “polite dialect of literary Edinburgh…an idiom dense with scriptural echoes and allusions…[and] demotic utterances of Scottish laborers and servants”.

In terms of the historical context of the novel, Hogg was purposeful in choosing to set it in the years 1687-1712. Politically, the Scottish Parliament was dissolved in 1707 and replaced with a joint English and Scottish assembly held in Westminster. Whigs ruled the day, and the Tories/Jacobites were excluded; they advocated for complete control of the Crown over Church and State. The mob scene in the novel references these tumultuous years. The religious reality of the day is also significant, of course. The main debate is over predestination and the infallibility of the elect. Antinomianism, embraced by Wringhim and Robert, takes that to an extreme position, saying that the elect are exempt from moral law–even from the Ten Commandments. The Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian establishments deemed it heretical; those hardened against repentance cannot be among the elect. Hogg was theologically moderate, distrusting “enthusiasm” but supporting certain more radical groups.

In terms of fanaticism, which is a theme that Hogg threads throughout his novel, the Editor is dismayed and frightened by the type that is exhibited in the memoirs because it threatens the norms of civil society. Duncan writes that Hogg’s novel “represents fanaticism as a modern phenomenon, a radical alienation from traditional forms of belief, rather than as some primitive psychic force or historical leftover…[it] rebukes the bad faith of those more recent fictions that cast the fanatic as the enemy of the liberal imagination and at the same time claim to understand him in its terms.” Protestants deemed those who preferred private revelation to God’s word and who desired to abolish civil society and establish God’s Kingdom on Earth as fanatics; this is dangerous, clearly, but also because “the idea of a fraternity forged through ideological uniformity, rather than kinship or voluntary association, overrides the liberal conception of a civil society based on differences among individuals formulated by the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers.”

Returning to the Editor’s narrative itself, we receive a straightforward narrative but one rife with questions and mysteries. How does Robert know where George is? What does George see up on the mountain? Who actually kills George? A strain of the supernatural seems to underlie this otherwise objective account. Indeed, while “Arthur’s Seat” is actually a real place in Scotland, what happens there is not so concrete. Duncan explains to readers that there was an epidemic of these “apparition” sightings in the 18th century, especially in the northern altitudes because people claimed the air there could support such forms. He writes in the footnote to George’s encounter, “The phenomenon described here is a version of the famous ‘Broken Spectre’, the seemingly gigantic shadow of a human figure cast across a low cloud-bank by the sun shining from behind, observed in the Harz Mountains, Germany, and much discussed in the Romantic period. Early nineteenth-century Edinburgh saw a flurry of materialist explanations of apparitions as optical illusions or physiologically induced hallucinations.”