The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a remarkable novel published ano-nymously in 1824 by James Hogg (1770-1835), must be high on most people's lists of books to read one day. And James Hogg, the "Ettrick shepherd", is one of the very few writers better known by his nickname than by his real name.
I confess to being an unjustified sinner in this respect myself. I have tended to approach Hogg from the wrong angle: not directly, but as little more than an adjunct to a contemporary Scottish writer who was his (sometimes uncomfortable) friend and mentor for 30 years - his fellow Borderer Sir Walter Scott. In the shadow of Scott, Hogg's real light as a poet, novelist and essayist has been dimmed; he be-comes little more than an eccentric extra not only in the rural society of the Borders, but also in the more rumbustious literary circles of Edinburgh, where he earned himself the celebrity of being a "personality".
Now Karl Miller, the Scots-born doyen of English literary critics, encourages us to think again about this remarkable, complex and often contradictory character.
Hogg grew up poor and semi-literate in a country rich in history and oral tradition - and with a consciousness of an eerie parallel world where past and present intermingled. He had his mother to thank for that: a strong, almost witch-like woman, full of ancient lore and hereditary connections with the spirit world. Hogg had very little formal education. He taught himself to write by copying letters from a printed book and would travel remarkable distances through all weathers to attend meetings of a literary society he founded.
Hogg spent his youth in stark poverty, working as a shepherd, yet he always had an ambition to become a great sheep farmer - indeed, he wrote an important treatise on diseases in sheep. This was one side of him, the "wild man" from the southern hills. But he lived another life, too, as one of the Edinburgh literati of the early 19th century, the clever young men who wrote for the new Blackwood's Magazine. In Edinburgh, he enjoyed playing the "untutored shepherd" role, just as Robert Burns had enjoyed playing the "heaven-taught ploughman" part before him.
Hogg's literary output was prodigious: novels, short stories, poems, sketches, articles, parodies, reviews. But it was his association with the Blackwood's Magazine circle that stamped his public reputation. The main feature of the magazine was the "Noctes Ambrosianae", imaginary conversations between the principal contributors conducted in Ambrose's Tavern in Edinburgh's Picardy Place (a precursor to the Private Eye weekly lunches, perhaps). In these, Hogg was satirised by his friends as "the Ettrick Shepherd", full of uncouth jokes and boisterous, ill-regulated enthusiasms. It was a private joke that became a public misconception, and it stuck. Certainly, it made it difficult for others to take him as seriously as he deserved. Indeed, for many years some critics denied that Hogg could possibly have been the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner because it was considered too good to have been written by him.
Hogg's reputation is currently enjoying a revival, and the Memoirs is now regarded as one of the greatest of all Scottish novels. And that is one of the many reasons why Miller's mellow, thoughtful book is so welcome. (The title of Electric Shepherd, by the way, is a subtle literary pun, because the notion of figurative electric shocks - through poetry, through kissing, through any emotion - was becoming fashionable in literary circles in Hogg's time.)
This is a very personal, affectionate book by a man who feels intimately connected with his subject. Miller brings his scholarly precision to bear on many of Hogg's lesser-known works. He sees the Memoirs as "a response to the Christianities of his time, and as an outcome of his experience of the double life of poet and peasant, and of the multiple personality of the Blackwood's collective."
Miller does not call his book a"biography", nor a "portrait", but a "likeness". He builds up an allusive picture of a blithe, warm-hearted, energetic and lovable man whose writings merit far more of our attention. This immensely readable book will help to ensure that they get it.
Magnus Magnusson is the author of Scotland: the story of a nation (HarperCollins)