Today, I'll share a tidbit from Sutherland's entry on James Hogg. Hogg, explains Sutherland, wrote his masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, "[i]n a desperate attempt to raise money for family dependants now as numerous as a small clan." Perhaps he should have chosen a more straightforward tale, something like what his friend and patron Walter Scott was retailing from nearby, for Hogg's truly strange, powerful tale of predestination and the devil at his work in rural Scotland,
failed spectacularly to hit the public taste of the time. It earned the author £2 in "profits" (miscalled) in the two years Longman kept the book in print. There were moves on their part to recover the £ advance. The few reviews the novel received concurred in finding it "trash"--and indecent. It was certainly far rawer meat than most fiction offered the circulating libraries. One strains, for example, to imagine Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland reading it together before going off to their morning session at the Bath Pump Room.Even a century later, the book was still dividing readers: Edmund Gosse, in a piece taking up a book published in praise of Hogg, wrote,
When it first appeared, in 1824, it was received very coldly and suspiciously, but it presently found admirers, and has never completely lacked them. Those, however, who have occupied themselves with it have always done so cautiously. They have admitted its incoherence, but have insisted on its vigour and intensity. They have apologised for its faults of construction.Goss, after actually stooping to a "whole Hogg" joke, continues,
But there are many readers who are not affected by inconsistency of handling, and are indifferent to logic if a tale amuses them. They may still find entertainment in the imbroglio of the unfortunate Colwin family, many of whose remarkable adventures are told with great vigour and picturesqueness.Gosse does acknowledge that it is "an extraordinary book," but he closes his essay by questioning Hogg's purported literary bravery--he "was no Moliere."
It seems sadly appropriate that, after skating on the thin ice over poverty for nearly his entire career as a writer, Hogg, Sutherland tells us, "while curling, . . . fell through the ice on Duddingston Loch, below Arthur's Seat, and never fully recovered." For most of the dead, even this nonbeliever can't help but vaguely wish that they spend eternity in something approximating heaven; for Hogg, I find myself also wishing that he at least got to stop off for a bit in Hell and receive the thanks of its monarch for his unforgettable, convincing portrayal.