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.

Both stories are generically diverse, self-consciously impure. Hogg described them as ‘domestic tales’, apparently soliciting a female readership whose delicacy he then assaults with speculations about promiscuity and prostitution, and with prayers so chattily informal that reviewers found them blasphemous. Both stories modulate suddenly from comedy to tragedy, though one – but which? – struggles through to what may be a happy ending. Both seem to be imagined as critical versions of the genres they most nearly inhabit: the first is – or at least begins as – a comic and delightfully impolite version of the novel of polite sentiment, the second is a historical tale in the manner of Scott but arguably without the consolations of romance or the safety of historical distance. But among all these other things they are both versions of the early 19th-century genre, the ‘national tale’, a genre that imagines the coming-together of opposed communities, usually in Ireland or Scotland, and thus the constitution of a new national unity.

The national tale usually imagines this rapprochement through the figure of a mixed marriage whose offspring will represent the future unity of a now divided nation. Agatha (‘Gatty’) Bell in the first story, Sally Niven in the second, are Lowland women who marry Highland men, though in circumstances which involve the rejection, with fatal consequences, of a third lover, a rejection which risks the success of the union, both marital and national. Both women bear children, but though Gatty’s son is alive and thriving at the end of her tale, apparently the vigorous embodiment of the future of modern Scotland, Sally’s daughter dies at birth or shortly after. The order in which the stories appear is important here. Gatty’s tale is set in Hogg’s own time; Sally’s story is about a few months either side of the battle of Culloden. In terms of historical time, therefore, the happy ending of Gatty’s tale – the survival of the child, the recovery of Gatty after her apparent death and years of mental illness – seems to repair the tragedy of Sally, who dies along with her daughter, as if the divisions of North and South, Tory and Whig, Catholic and Protestant, which had been re-opened in 1745, could be healed in the early 19th century. In the order of reading, however, Sally’s tragedy seems to re-open the wounds which Gatty’s tale had closed, as if questioning the tidy optimism of the national tale, or suggesting that the history of Scotland is a history of divisions which can never finally be repaired.

The move by which Gatty’s tale is transmuted from comedy to tragedy culminates in a moment of grotesque horror which, though versions of it occur throughout Hogg’s fiction, is nowhere else so terrifyingly elaborated. For years the Highlander McIon has been in love with Gatty, but she, out of a mistaken delicacy, has given him no clear indication that his love is returned. When he becomes engaged to her cousin Cherubina the true state of Gatty’s feelings is revealed, and Cherubina, a dependant, is persuaded to allow the engagement to be broken so that McIon and Gatty can marry. But the cost of this sacrifice is more than Cherubina can bear; she dies of a broken heart; and Gatty, apparently overcome with guilt, becomes convinced that she too will die, though she seems to be suffering from no physical illness. On the very day she has named, she appears to breathe her last, and is laid out in her shroud; then, suddenly, the corpse jerks up into a sitting position, so violently that it collides with her father, sitting on the bed beside her, and nearly knocks him out.

McIon uncovers her face and immediately wishes he hadn’t: instead of the calm composure of death he discovers the wild, rolling eyes, ‘the dead countenance of an idiot ... in the very lowest state of debasement’, ‘a degradation of nature’, as if the soul had abandoned the now uncontrollable body. Soon, however, the body becomes dormant again, but the terrible expression remains. Gatty is consigned to an asylum, where, still dormant, she gives birth to a son; after three years she wakes, with no memory of her convulsion, and no sense of the time she has lost. She is now more beautiful than ever, her face that of an angel. The narrator predicts long life and happiness for Gatty, her husband and son.

The image of Gatty’s horrifying resurrection and relapse is so powerful that it has inevitably come to dominate critical accounts of the novella. It has been read as an instance of the danger of imposing, as the national tale does, the task of national reconstruction on the female body which, in the sentimental novel, is so often represented as frail in proportion to the virtue of the soul that inhabits it. The resurrection has been explained by invoking contemporary interest in galvanism, in animal magnetism; it has equally been suggested that to explain it is to miss the point, which is, precisely, that it is an instance of the uncanny, or of Hogg’s canny determination to resist the rationality of the Scottish Enlightenment with images which, like the popular superstitions he refuses to renounce, refuse explanation. All this seems to make sense, even in its contradictions; but the multiple implications of the image look still more complicated when we attempt to read them in comparison with the host of other such apparent resurrections which occur elsewhere in Hogg’s writings, as Ian Duncan has recently begun to do in a brilliant essay, ‘The Upright Corpse’, from which I partly borrow, partly depart.

Throughout Hogg’s fiction, bodies that are dormant or apparently dead or, according to the narrator, really dead, have the unnerving habit of sitting up, or at least of refusing to lie down. As Duncan has pointed out, one such upright corpse appears in his early novella The Adventures of Basil Lee, where the narrator, returning from the War of American Independence, makes landfall on Lewis, and half-sceptical of, half-fascinated by the popular superstitions of the Hebrides, spends a night in the cottage of an old woman reputed to be visited by spirits. During the course of a hideous night, the corpse of her dead son materialises in a corner chair; shortly after that, the mother dies too, and promptly sits up in bed, shaking her head, stretching out her withered arms.

There are upright corpses in a number of Hogg’s other novels and stories, including the most famous of all. The first victim of Robert Wringhim the justified sinner, and his diabolical shadow Gil-Martin, is a minister who sits up when shot; and when Wringhim’s own body comes to be buried, it has stiffened into a sitting posture, so that one of the burial party, in a passage expunged in Victorian editions of the novel, has to trample it into a recumbent position, driving its nose into its skull. When Wringhim’s body is first exhumed, it jerks back up into a sitting posture.

Corpses sit up everywhere in the second story of The Three Perils of Woman. They appear first as actors in a comedy, as if in grotesque parody of Gatty’s apparent resurrection. A mysterious Lowlander, perched on the edge of a grave being dug to receive the body of a murdered Highland woman, is shot in the mistaken belief that he is a stag. He starts upward before collapsing on top of Davey Duff, the excitable and superstitious parish sexton who is digging within the grave. When the Lowlander’s friends come to retrieve his body, they think Duff is dead as well, until he sits bolt upright among them. The obsession with upright corpses is shared even by the minister’s horse, who is terrified of bodies that lie dormant, not because they might be dead, but because they might not be, and so might suddenly spring upward.

The first half of this story, by treating these upright corpses as comic, seems to exhaust any inclination in us to find them funny. When they start turning up in the second half – more unobtrusively than my review can suggest – they are much more sinister, and much more evidently charged with meaning: it is as if Hogg is tracing the figure to its imagined source, as if he believes it conceals the origin of his imaginative power. Sally, searching the Highlands in the months after Culloden for her husband, her second lover, arrives at a cottage and attempts to sleep in a bed on the first floor. She thinks she hears her husband’s name ‘breathed through female lips’; she feels dizzy, gasps for breath and sits up in bed; through a gap in the floorboards she discovers her husband in the arms of another woman, who, much too late for the peace of all concerned, is revealed to be his sister. When Sally dreams that she has found the corpse of her first love, Peter Gow, on the battlefield, it suddenly starts up at her. She dreams that she too has been killed, and, waking, finds Gow himself, alive, beside her bed; she springs up into a sitting posture, nearly colliding with him. They spend the night together without, the narrator assures us, any impropriety, for she slept in the bed and he beside her on the floor. But we have long learned to be wary of the narrator’s account of things, especially where Sally’s virtue is concerned. The other inmates of the cottage are less certain: some say the two slept together, others that they didn’t; some that they lay naked together, others that they took off only their brogues.

Uncertain intimations of sexual congress, bodies that bump into each other, heavy breathings, overhearings, spyings on – the contexts in which these dormant bodies suddenly jerk upwards seem now to be composing the miseen-scène of primal fantasy. This is still more the case when Sally is apparently found dead, though in fact she has a page and a month or two still to live. The passage repeats, detail for detail, the apparent death and resurrection of Gatty. Both of course are beautiful, Lowland women in love with Highlanders; both are believed to be dead, in fact alive and, unknown to everyone, pregnant with the nation’s future. As Gatty lies stretched on her bed, her husband puts his hand on her breast in the desperate hope that she is still breathing; as Sally lies stretched on the ground, Davey Duff fumbles at her breast in search of the money tucked into her stays. Both women suddenly jerk up; both collide into the men who hover above them; both wear a mad expression, or a look of demonic possession. And in the narration of both scenes there are secrets not disclosed, either too harrowing or, in the context of tragedy, ‘too ludicrous to be described’.

In the careful symmetry by which Sally’s apparent death repeats Gatty’s, there is a sense that the obsessive figure at the heart of each narrative has at last discovered its final form. And yet at exactly this moment, when the figure seems to have been shrunk by the very process of its elaboration, and to have become the vehicle of meanings specific to a personal rather than national history, it becomes something much more as well. Can the identity of Scotland, as at once its own nation and united with England, be based on the disavowal, the concealment of its past wounds, or must they be acknowledged? By what right, and with what motives, does the historian presume to force the nation to confront what it might be better to forget? The figure of the upright corpse, of the resurrection of what we think – even wish – safely consigned to the past, becomes the main means by which the novella conducts its ambiguous meditations on how modern Scotland should regard its violent history.

The novella has been read by some of Hogg’s critics as a deliberate attempt to undo the decencies of Waverley, as a story intended to restore to the history of Scotland what Scott had chosen to delete, the terrible aftermath of Culloden. To some degree it does this, in its description of Sally’s journey through the scorched and desolate landscape of the Highlands, in its account of Duff’s prosperity increasing with increased oppression, and of how jocularly familiar he becomes with death and dismemberment. It needs also to be read, however, in the light of Peter Pattieson’s anxieties, in the opening chapter of Old Mortality, about the wisdom of dragging the injuries of the past from oblivion into the light of day: the solace he finds in walking among graves, so long as the traces of death are ‘softened and deprived of their horror by distance’; his implicit relief at the death of the old stone-cutter, which has ensured that the monuments he tended are now hastening to decay; above all his admonition, borrowed from Home’s tragedy of Douglas,‘ Oh rake not up the ashes of our fathers!’

In the second, tragic half of Sally Niven’s tale, Davey Duff has been promoted: from an impoverished, part-time parish sexton he has become a relatively prosperous, full-time, itinerant grave-digger, employed by the Duke of Cumberland to bury the corpses of those killed at Culloden and in the bloody months of repression that followed. He has become a kind of anti-type of Old Mortality; instead of repairing, as Old Mortality does, the graves of slaughtered Covenanters and thus ensuring the survival of their memory, Davey’s job is to conceal, in unmarked graves, the evidence of Cumberland’s butchery of the Highlanders, as if to wipe it from the record of history. In a story in which corpses continually rise up, Duff’s task is to make sure they stay down – to put down, once and for all, the Rising of the Clans. At the end of the novella one of Sally’s wounded, prostrate, Jacobite lovers tries, the other manages, to – well you know what. Davey buries them both.

A story that figures the concealment of the past as the burial of the dead is committed to figuring its disclosure as their exhumation. If we read Sally Niven’s story as a critique of Waverley, the task of the narrator appears to be to trudge round in the wake of Duff, digging up what Duff conceals. The narrator, however, is much more undecided about whether or not to take on this job, and even about what it would mean to do so. At one point he tells us that he is passing over the worst of the atrocities, at another he complains that those atrocities have been deliberately hushed up. His indecision might be imagined to proceed from his sense of the responsibilities of the historian or from plain squeamishness, but in fact he has a developed taste for the ghoulish, and it is this which sometimes leads him to prefer revelation to concealment. Some think the events of 1746 are best forgotten, he writes, ‘but there is no reason why these should die. For my part, I like to rake them up.’

There is even a suggestion that he might mean this quite literally; that he has been involved in, at least complicit with, the literal exhumation of Sally’s corpse. For an act of special heroism, the Young Chevalier had rewarded Sally with a sum of gold in a purse ‘richly and curiously wrought with silver’. It was this purse, presumably, that Davey had fumbled for but failed to retrieve from Sally’s bosom; she was presumably buried with it; but the narrator tells us that this very purse had later come into his possession, that he had secured it ‘altogether for a very small sum’. Sally and her baby died on the grave of her two lovers and were apparently buried in it. The narrator, visiting it years later, records that ‘it appeared a little hollow, as though someone had been digging in it.’

It is a moment that recalls the macabre delight of the narrator in Memoirs and Confessions at managing to get possession of Wringhim’s blue bonnet, one of the souvenirs taken from his grave by the three waves of resurrectionists who exhume his body, each time dismembering and destroying it a little more. But the comparison with the Memoirs and Confessions also suggests another way of understanding the narrator’s glib talk of ‘raking things up’, as not so much ghoulish as self-protective. The final exhumation of Wringhim was conducted, it seems, not so much to see if he would start up again, as to confirm that he would not. The souvenirs extracted from his grave seem to function as talismans that offer protection against the returning dead, or as picturesque relics which, by standing for, substituting for, the uncomfortable past they call to mind, seem to promise, however deceitfully, that it is truly dead. Seen in this light, a tale like Sally Niven’s, that rakes up the uncomfortable past, may do so in the hope not of making it live and breathe, but of converting it into a harmless keepsake; to exhume the past may be just a better way of making sure that it really is the past.

One of Hogg’s late fictions describes the cholera epidemic of 1831 in three letters supposed to have been written by victims and observers. The writer of the first tells us that he died of the epidemic, but once wrapped in his shroud and placed in his coffin, he of course sits up and recovers. When his sweetheart catches the disease, he prays earnestly for her death, in the belief (or so he tells us) that she too will only recover if first she dies. But when she does die, he is as much terrified at the prospect of her starting back to life as he is eager (or so he tells us) for her recovery.

His ambivalence points back to the chief problem in The Three Perils of Woman, that its upright corpses are inextricably entangled in two different histories, national and personal. Perhaps, as recent readers of the novel seem to believe, the story of Sally Niven insists that the identity of the nation must be based on a confrontation with, an avowal of, what it would rather forget. But if the wounds of history become entangled, as they appear to have done in this figure, with a personal psychic trauma, it’s hardly surprising that Hogg’s best fictions, and Sally Niven’s story in particular, should be ambivalent, as I take them to be, about the desirability of confronting those wounds, however often they force themselves into notice. From this point of view, the death and burial of Sally and her daughter may be at least as happy an ending as Gatty’s recovery.

In the end, there’s no possibility of interrupting the narrator’s dialogue with himself at one point or another, and announcing that here, rather than there, is to be found the true meaning of the novella. What matters about The Three Perils of Woman is not the conclusions it has to offer about the issues it raises, but the fact that these are addressed with such painful urgency. They have become urgent once again, and will continue to be so; and if the book provides an especially useful way of thinking about them, it’s because it offers an ‘unflinching’ account of a violent national past while acknowledging the temptation, the impulse, even the need, to flinch.