Vintage Hogg – old wine in old bottles?

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg,

Introduction, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Vintage Classics, 2009), 211pp, pbk,

ISBN 978-0-099-51904-1

Here’s Vintage Classic’s ‘modern’ spin on Confessions:

Robert is a difficult and disturbed young man. He comes from a troubled family background and turns to his Calvinist faith for solace but finds it hard to get along with other people, particularly his brother and his dissolute father. After he falls in with the mysterious and charming Gil-Martin his actions become more and more extreme. He convinces himself that he is one of the lucky few who have been chosen for heaven and therefore all his actions are automatically right and good … even murder.  [back-cover, 2009]

While it’s right that Hogg’s important nineteenth-century novel remains in print and available to a wide readership, Vintage Classics, in attempting to modernise Confessions for contemporary readers, does a disservice, both to Hogg’s novel and to his image as a professional writer. The dumbing-down continues inside where the new version gives scant attention to Hogg’s biography, disregards the authority of the original text and ignores current research.

James Hogg was born on 9 December 1770 in Ettrick Forest in Selkirk, Scotland. He taught himself how to read and write before being introduced to Walter Scott who helped him in his literary career. His first collection of poems, The Mountain Bard, was published in 1807 and this was followed by The Queen’s Wake in 1813. He went on to work for Blackwood’s Magazine and published his most famous work, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in 1824. James Hogg died on 21 November 1835.

Hogg was baptised not ‘born’ on 9 December 1770. His date of birth is unknown. He was born at Ettrick Hall Farm in the Ettrick Valley, within the ancient Ettrick Forest. His ‘first collection of poems’ was not The Mountain Bard (1807) but Scottish Pastorals (1801), which, as far as is known, Scott did not have a hand in. While Hogg did, in a sense, ‘work for Blackwood’s’, by contributing songs, poems and short stories, he published much more than the titles provided on the ‘Other Works by Hogg’ listing.

 The Mountain Bard

The Queen’s Wake

The Three Perils of Man

The Three Perils of Woman

The Shepherd’s Calendar

Songs by the Ettrick Shepherd

A Queer Book

Tales of the Wars of Montrose

The listing discounts a lot of Hogg’s writing and a lot of what went into shaping his craft. For example, in 1810-11 he edited and wrote the bulk of the material for the Spy, a weekly Edinburgh newspaper. In 1810 he published The Forest Minstrel, his first song collection. He published long narrative poems, Mador of the Moor (1814), Pilgrims of the Sun and Queen Hynde (1823), and a further novel: The Brownie of Bodsbeck and Other Tales (1818) as well as an earlier collection of short stories, Winter Evening Tales (1820; 1821). He also collected and edited an important song collection, Jacobite Relics (1818; 1821) and in his lifetime published numerous short stories, poems, songs and verse dramas.

            Knowledge of Hogg’s publications, especially of the Spy and Brownie of Bodsbeck, help to clarify and contextualise the issues raised in Confessions. For example, the fictional character of John Miller, ‘equipt with a grey plaid, and staff, like a Nithsdale Shepherd […] the son of a poor school-master in a remote part of the country; a good English and Latin scholar, yet uses the broadest dialect of the district’, and ‘the Spy’ are and are not aspects of Hogg himself. Through these figures Hogg comments on Edinburgh society at the same time as he was moving within those same genteel circles: doubling is at the heart of Hogg’s fiction, it isn’t something he adopted for Confessions. The Brownie of Bodsbeck is Hogg’s fictionalisation of the ‘Killing Times’, the period in the late 1680s when strict government repression met with dogged resistance among religious moderates and zealots. In The Brownie Hogg shows how the ‘rage of fanaticism of former days’ (Confessions, 2009, p. 78) affects ordinary Scottish people caught up between opposing sides. At a deeper level, he also comments on the nature of ‘truth’ in the way that he gives equal weight to both recorded documents and oral tales. Both, he seems to imply here as he does through the multiple narrative perspectives in Confessions, should be treated with circumspection:

‘ “Should the truth be tauld or no’ tauld? That’s the question. What’s truth? Ay, there comes the crank! nae man can tell tha’ – for what’s truth to ane is a lee to another […] Truth’s just as it is ta’en.” ’ (The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818), 2 vols, II, 235-36)

            Vintage Classics does not give editorial details about the text that was used in preparation of the new version (the manuscript has never been located). There is no bibliography and the front matter simply states that the book was ‘first published in 1824’. Now, to me, this implies that the text used is that of 1824 but comparison shows this is not the case. Integral to the text is a ‘Fac Simile’ of a manuscript page of the sinner’s memoirs taken from the ‘little book’ found in the suicide’s grave. In the 1824 version of Confessions, this page is printed before the title page and dedication to ‘the Hon. William Smith, Lord Provost of Glasgow’. Neither the facsimile nor the dedication are reprinted as part of the Vintage Classics version. At the end of the 1824 version of Confessions the ‘Editor’ notes ‘I have ordered the printer to procure a facsimile of it, to be bound in with the volume’ (Confessions, 2009, p. 210). Original readers would find the facsimile printed before the text in just the way the Editor claims so that, as well as providing ‘evidence’ of the pamphlet’s existence, it is part of Hogg’s strategy of authenticating both the Editor’s Narrative and the Sinner’s Narrative to reveal that no one has authority on the ‘truth’. Readers of the Vintage Classic edition find a note in parenthesis, ‘[v. Frontispiece]’ which indicates only that it might exist.

[image from scran website ]

There is evidence of editorial interference to the original text but nothing to indicate why it has been done. There are slight changes to the orthography, for example, in the addition or deletion of punctuation marks, as well as more significant changes to the text:

original 1824 -‘ “Then will you be so kind as come to the Grass Market and see me put down?” ’ (p.90)

VC, 2009 -‘ “Then will you be so kind as to come to the Grass Market and see me put down?” ’ (p. 51)

original 1824 -‘to his right leal and trust-worthy cousin’ (p. 274)

VC, 2009 -‘to his right trusty cousin’ (p. 149)]

The textual changes seem to follow those found in modern versions, such as the Campion Reprint of 1924, the Cresset Press of 1942, or the Penguin Modern Classics edited by John Carey in 1969 which all ‘tidied up’ Hogg’s original wording and which suggests that the text was set from one of these ‘derivatives’ and not the original 1824 text. A full discussion of modern versions and a listing of editorial changes can be found in P. D. Garside’s recent research edition (EUP, 2002, pp. 195-199)

            Confessions has enjoyed wonderfully insightful editors, both recently and in the past, yet Lucy Hughes-Hallett mentions only Andre Gide’s 1940 edition. She summarises significant debates and research on the novel but doesn’t offer a bibliography to connect her thinking with previous editors, like Peter Carey, Garside, Adrian Hunter (Broadview Press, 2001), or Karl Miller (Penguin Classics, 2006). While Hughes-Hallett makes the obvious connection between current ideologies, terrorism and fanaticism (as has been made since 1824) she offers no new observations on the text and in parts, is inaccurate. For example, to (wrongly) explain the origin of ‘predestination’ she falls into the trap of deciding that ‘the Scottish Covenanters … are the target of Hogg’s satire’ (p. xi), when this is both untrue and a simplification of a complex issue. A thorough discussion on religion and Confessions is found in Ian Campbell’s ‘Afterword’ in the EUP edition (pp. 177-194).

It’s interesting to compare Ian Rankin’s introduction to the new Canongate edition (2008) of Confessions (already discussed on the blog – click here). Rankin is a professional author who knows how to respect his readers and the text so that he manages to modernise Confessions without dumbing it down.

About Janette Currie

Editor and literary consultant at JC Consultancy. Freelance writer.
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2 Responses to Vintage Hogg – old wine in old bottles?

  1. BookRambler says:

    I’m an advocate of all kinds of publishing but think in this case Vintage are just using the Hogg brand and current popularity to sell books rather than they are really interested in promoting Confessions as a ‘classic’ read. There is a place, I think, for books that come unencumbered with glossary, annotation, footnotes, endnotes and too much commentary but in this case, they put back Hogg studies by 20yrs. Added to all of this, it retails at £7.99 which is pretty steep if you consider that the paperback version of the research edition is £9.99 and the really cheap Wordworth edition is £1.99. I wonder what you’re paying for?

  2. Sarah says:

    This reminds me of the horror I experienced upon discovering that I had been quite innocently reading and re-reading an abridged copy of Jane Eyre. The horrible concept of abridgement had never entered my mind, and it wasn’t until studying Jane Eyre at school that I discovered my mistake.

    This isn’t quite the same thing, but still invokes my horror of unwittingly reading a tampered with text.

    A fascinating post and a salutary warning…

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