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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 93-116
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The Work of Fiction in Romantic Scotland
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts, and Other Evidence, by the Editor was published anonymously in London in 1824. Figure 1 reproduces the frontispiece and title page of the book. The frontispiece is a facsimile extract from a manuscript journal, corresponding to page 366 of the printed text, which turns out to be the penultimate entry in the "Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner." In the book's concluding section, the anonymous editor gives an account of the discovery of the manuscript. He reprints an "extract from an authentic letter, published in Blackwood's Magazine for August, 1823," describing the exhumation of the corpse of an eighteenth-century suicide at a remote location in the Scottish Borders. 1 The letter is signed "JAMES HOGG": a figure well known to contemporary readers as "the Ettrick Shepherd," the author of traditional Scottish ballads, lyrics, and tales and, over the past few years, some more contentious forays into the metropolitan genres of novel and metrical romance. Hogg's letter can indeed be found printed, under the title "A Scots Mummy," [End Page 93] [Begin Page 95] in the August 1823 number of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, to which he was a frequent contributor. 2 The editor of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner comments: "It bears the stamp of authenticity in every line; yet, so often had I been hoaxed by the ingenious fancies displayed in that Magazine, that when this relation met my eye, I did not believe it" (169).
A literary friend of the editor's—who seems to be none other than John Gibson Lockhart, a leading Blackwood's contributor and the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott—assures him that Hogg's letter is indeed "authentic." They organize an expedition to investigate the Scots mummy and track down the Ettrick Shepherd at a local market, where he is busy trading livestock. Speaking in Border Scots, Hogg brusquely refuses to cooperate with the literary gentlemen: "Od bless ye, lad! I hae ither matters to mind. I hae a' thae paulies to sell, an' a' yon Highland stotts down on the green every ane; an' then I hae ten scores o' yowes to buy after, an' if I canna first sell my ain stock, I canna buy nae ither body's. I hae mair ado than I can manage the day, foreby ganging to houk up hunder-year-auld banes" (170). The editor and his party hire another guide, eventually find the grave (it turns out Hogg's letter gave misleading directions), and reopen it. The upper body has disintegrated after the previous exhumation; as the literati inspect the lower half, marveling at its intact state, it too crumbles into shreds. Among the relics they bring back is a sodden roll of printed and manuscript pages: the text of the "Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner" we have been reading.
Contemporary readers were soon in a position to know that the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner was written by Hogg, despite his rather careful attempts to keep his authorship a secret. (Hogg planted clues that it was the work of a Glasgow or west-country author, only to have his identity leaked by his colleagues in Blackwood's.) 3 Hogg's novel presents us with a combination of effects that seems unprecedented even in the era of radical literary innovation and experimentation we call Romanticism. Here is a work of fiction that goes to unusual lengths to reproduce authenticating devices, in the form of documentary evidence—the manuscript facsimile, the letter in Blackwood's—and at the same time to conceal the identity of its author: who then appears as a character in his own book, only to announce his refusal to have anything to do with the work of literary production.
Hogg combines modern conventions of literary production, authentication...