Reading Group #35 (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner)
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I reviewed this at one point; but, like most of my reviews, it's more a scant meditation on my own reaction than it is a critical analysis or anything like that. It may help, though, to serve as a litmus test on whether or not this is something you'd like to devote the time to reading and discussing at length...
So now we have two to keep us going: the Le Fanu piece and a little James Hogg. Oh boy!
I'll try to come to the text as "innocent" as possible, so I've skipped the introduction.
I'll report my initial thoughts and impressions when I'm a few more pages in.
It's my fault, no doubt, but I found it almost impossible NOT to mentally cast Sid James and Joan Sims as the laird and his new bride!
It did occur to me, in those early pages, that the treatment of Lady Dalcastle could have been told in the 'Female Gothic' style of Mrs Radcliffe or J. S. Le Fanu, but the tone was too broadly comic, and events moved too fast, for this to be of any importance to the main narrative (or so I supposed, at this early point in the story).
The Rev. Mr Wringham too, is initially introduced as an almost Dickensian comic grotesque, but Dickens's grotesques can of course cause real harm, and Wringham is not ineffectual. He has God on his side - if only because of the laird's "good manners, and...inherent respect.. for the clergy, as the immediate servants of the Supreme Being".
One thing that's struck me, so far, is that the first part - the 'Editor's Narrative' - takes a rather amused, rational, and sceptical tone. It could, I suppose, be described as a very 'Enlightenment' voice.
For all that, there are gaps in the narrative - this gives the piece of faux journalism a sense of verisimilitude I suppose, but is clearly setting up what comes later. In addition, it could also be setting up conditions to undermine the rationalistic narrative.
I think the comedy is certainly there! Which makes the latter half of the novel all the more disturbing...
I haven't managed to give a "running commentary" - but I will try to post something more substantial soon. In the meantime here's a trailer I found for a stage version of the novel, from 2009.
As a matter of fact, the narrative moves at a sprightly pace and is surprisingly modern - both in a frankness about sexual matters that I found surprising in a 19th Century novel (pre-Victorian, admittedly) and with some flashes of what look like post-Freudian insight.
The story is told in three sections, the first editor's narrative sets out the story as if it were a local legend being collected and rationalised by a man of the Enlightenment long after the event, the second and longest section is the confession proper which (to quote the dust-jacket blurb of the Everyman edition) "anticipates Dostoevsky's great dramas of sin, self-accusation and damnation by half a century", and the editor returns in the third and final section. This is in essence a piece of fake journalism (the book was originally published anonymously and Hogg, I believe, "planted" a letter in Blackwood's Magazine the year before publication, and quoted it as genuine.
There is an ambiguity to the story. It's just possible to read it as a non-supernatural tale of a young man whose upbringing in a hothouse atmosphere of sexual repression and arrogant religious superiority drives him to murder and madness. However, if the supernatural reading is accepted then (as Douglas Gifford makes clear in his introduction to the Folio Society edition) the behaviour of Gil-Martin is in accordance with how the Devil tempts mankind, as per the folklore of the Scottish Borders.
ETA - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myEa_G2ikJ4
That's a shame, I see that I gave it quite a build up (and then nobody else read it, or cared to comment)!
Leading up to this title, I had first read Scott's The Lady of the Lake which was dreamy and epic and stellar and captivating, warming me up to the history and geography of Scotland. Then I tackled Paradise Lost at your gentle nudging, which I also loved because it felt so familiar, then last autumn came The Divine Comedy. I also read three others by Scott and although the subject matter brings on bouts of fatigue, his writing is my mug of dark roast (not a tea fan). I read veil's review and found it way over the top. My reaction was stale, to the story and the characters and the writing. Maybe with more research, I might have gotten more out of it, but I'd rather be reading literature right now than too many opinions about the works. I doubt I'd bother with a reread on this. Many more Hawthorne's to get through first. Stalled a bit with Le Fanu, so thought I'd flip from Irish to Scot. Now going back will be a joy. The Scottish dialect can be tiresome. I found scanning it to be fine, without needing to understand the meaning. I read it on ebook though and highlighted notes a lot along the way, so might skim those again down the road. The ending was just bizarre enough to satisfy interwoven ideas of history/myth/supernatural. The RC in me wondered about certain dates being feast days, and the incorruptibility of a saint is sacred stuff, so unsure if he was trying to get a jab in there or not.
I also didn't know that 'justified' was a thing. I had heard of Calvinism but had no idea what it was based on, since studying World Religions in high school at a night school course with my father did not explain the divisions within Christianity. Its focus was on the different major religions and what was in common. Great course, taught by an ordained Anglican minister who was my homeform teacher for grades 12 and 13. He had no parish but wrote a weekly column for the town paper. Lovely guy who taught Classics and Latin and World Religions, etc. with humour and grace and intense intelligence, without looking down his nose at anybody. Reading the book brought him to mind, which was nice, but not understanding the schisms, I found the main character just a deviant spoiled egotistical 'little brother' trying to outdo his parents and siblings and taking it out on women and all the 'lesser-thans' for polluting his perfect world. It kind of turned my stomach.
I guess, for the time, it would have stood out as unusual, thus creating the lasting impact. But now, it feels like a rant, with selfish personal intent, rather than a work of fiction. I can only guess the man's mindset for his age and stage that this purge occurred.
This link to NYU lecture on Puritanism helped define Calvinism for me (the first ten minutes or so).