Teaching Godwin and Hogg: Caleb Williams and Private Memoirs and Confessions

Today I finally got my last desk copy of the semester from Oxford University Press. Here it is:


I haven’t turned to Hogg in four or five years—back when I was planning on writing a dissertation on “the double” in modernist literature—but The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) remains one of the oddest, most enticing, and most disturbing novels I’ve ever read. My romanticism students and I will be discussing it in a few weeks.

The opening of the confessions itself, which follows the lengthy “Editor’s Narrative” stood out as I flipped through the desk copy this morning:

My life has been a life of trouble and turmoil; of change and vicissitude; of anger and exultation; of sorrow and of vengeance. My sorrows have all been for a slighted gospel, and my vengeance has been wreaked on its adversaries. Therefore, in the midst of heaven I will sit down and write: I will let the wicked of this world know what I have done in the faith of the promises, and justification by grace, that they may read and tremble, and bless their gods of silver and of gold, that the minister of heaven was removed from their sphere before their blood was mingled with their sacrifices. (Hogg 75)

I had not counted on the resonance between this paragraph and the opening paragraph of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1749) when I planned my syllabus. Godwin begins his novel:

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties, and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name. I have not deserved this treatment. My own conscience witnesses in behalf of that innocence, my pretensions to which are regarded in the world as incredible. There is now, however, little hope that I shall escape from the toils that universally beset me. I am incited to the penning of these memoirs only by a desire to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation, and a faint idea that posterity may be their means be inducted to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse. My story will, at least, appear to have that consistency which is seldom attendant but upon truth. (Godwin 5)

Both novels revolve around the problem of disclosing and of making visible and even intelligible something—a life, an action, a conflict, an injustice, a duty, an absence—that would otherwise remain unacknowledged, invisible, and unthinkable. In the words of Armytage in William Wordsworth “The Ruined Cottage” (1797-98), the narrators of Godwin and Hogg attempt to teach us to “[s]ee around [us] here / Things which [we] cannot see” (Major Works 33). And now that I think of it, so many of the texts I’ve chosen—including “The Ruined Cottage” and all of which revolve around issues of murder, war, morality, justice, sympathy, and the sublime—also involve the problem of telling oneself or another—giving the account of a self—in just such a way that a total stranger (a total reader?) learns to see the unseeable. Not only that: in giving an account of a self, the very accountant in these texts—Frankenstein (1818), The Prelude (1805), and I, Pierre Rivière (1835)—brings about an unexpected and unintended apprenticeship for himself as well.

“The venerable Armytage…”

Reading on . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s