Putting Down the Rising

John Barrell

  • The Collected Works of James Hogg. Vol. I: The Shepherd’s Calendar edited by Douglas Mack
    Edinburgh, 287 pp, £29.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 7486 0474 X
  • Collected Works of James Hogg. Vol. II: The Three Perils of Woman edited by David Groves, Antony Hasler and Douglas Mack
    Edinburgh, 466 pp, £32.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 7486 0474 X
  • Collected Works of James Hogg. Vol. III: A Queer Book edited by P.D. Garside
    Edinburgh, 278 pp, £29.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 7486 0506 1

Early 19th-century Edinburgh had a lot less time for James Hogg than for the Ettrick Shepherd, the literary persona created partly by Hogg himself, partly by the tight circle that ran Blackwood’s Magazine. Comic, bibulous, full of naive folk-wisdom, easy to patronise, the Ettrick Shepherd was invented as a souvenir of the pastoral Lowlands, a survival whose presence among one of the Edinburgh literary élites could represent both the continuity of modern Scots culture and the impolite past it had left behind. The Ettrick Shepherd, though perhaps more pliable, certainly more reassuringly conservative than Burns had been, could not always be relied on to play this part, and had occasionally to be reminded of his place by editors, reviewers, even by himself. But he was much more comfortable to be with than James Hogg, the author of obsessive, experimental fictions which either satirised or ignored the decencies of polite letters. To some degree even these could be bowdlerised and domesticated, as many of them were in the Victorian collections of Hogg’s fiction published after his death, and passed off as written by ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’. But one in particular, and for my money the best of them – The Three Perils of Woman – was immediately recognised as irredeemable by its first reviewers, and until last year had never been reprinted.

South of the border Hogg has survived almost exclusively as the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which has been reprinted in two editions since the war, with introductions by André Gide and John Carey. It is arguably Carey’s edition that has been chiefly responsible not only for the high reputation of the Memoirs and Confessions in England but also for the assumption that none of Hogg’s other fictions is worth bothering with. Carey dismissed them all as ‘amateurish’. In Scotland, however, and mainly thanks to the enthusiasm and industry of Douglas Mack, modern editions of two of Hogg’s novels, The Three Perils of Man and The Brownie of Bodsbeck, have been published in the fairly recent past, together with various selections of his poems and of the shorter fictions he contributed to Blackwood’s and other magazines. The new interest in Hogg that Mack’s editions in particular have stimulated has been supported by an excellent annual periodical, Studies in Hogg and His World; and now Mack has persuaded Edinburgh University Press to start publishing a collected edition, which, if the earlier volumes are as successful as they deserve to be, will eventually run to some thirty volumes. The first three came out last year, and are magnificent: spaciously designed, scrupulously edited and thoughtfully introduced, with Antony Hasler’s Introduction to The Three Perils of Woman especially illuminating.

The two volumes published along with The Three Perils of Woman are much less disturbing than that book but immensely engaging. The Shepherd’s Calendar is a volume of anecdotes and sketches of rural life in the Borders, at once a nostalgic and more or less comic evocation of shepherding communities, and a record of supernatural events and beliefs whose origin in fact is meticulously evaluated by a series of inscrutable narrators. A Queer Book is a volume of poems, some ballads and some in octosyllabic couplets, some in standard English, some in Scots, others in a language of Hogg’s own invention, a factitious, Chattertonian version of Henryson. There is a strangeness about some of these poems that recalls the self-consciousness of Hogg’s best fiction; for example when he interrupts himself, as he does in two different poems, to discuss the meaning and success of his own extended similes, or where his medieval dialect suddenly acknowledges its fakery by referring to the Bank of Scotland and the impermeable qualities of ‘Mackintoshis patent wairre’.

Both The Shepherd’s Calendar and A Queer Book were thoroughly scoured and polished by Hogg’s contemporary editors when they first appeared in volume form, and they present far greater problems to their modern editors than The Three Perils of Woman. Mack has published the sketches from The Shepherd’s Calendar largely as they first appeared in Blackwood’s. In A Queer Book Peter Garside has chosen to use Hogg’s manuscripts as his copy-text, where these seem to offer something like a final version. On occasion, however, he produces composite texts put together from more than one manuscript, or from a manuscript combined with a magazine printing of the poem. Some of his editorial decisions will be controversial, but they certainly establish that Hogg’s manuscript texts are much more vigorous and fluid than the heavily punctuated versions in which the poems originally appeared.

The Three Perils of Woman was published in 1823, a year before the Memoirs and Confessions. It pretends to consist of three novellas, each devoted to a separate moral failing by which the happiness of women is undermined: love (or loving too young and too thoughtlessly), leasing (or lying) and jealousy. In fact the last two novellas form one connected story, which has been divided to make the book look like a sequel to Hogg’s earlier extraordinary romance, The Three Perils of Man. The narrator, whose attitudes and motives become increasingly sinister towards the end of the book, may be as unreliable a guide to what happens in these stories as he usually is in Hogg’s fiction. He has a hard time making the stories fit the title: each story is a compendium of all three perils, and in the second, two-part story his sententious insistence on the dangers of lying and jealousy aligns him with the character he most satirises, a minister of religion in love with his maidservant and given to lecturing her on her moral failings.

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