Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

A Printing Devil, a Scottish Mummy, and an Edinburgh Book of the Dead: James Hogg's Napoleonic Complex

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

A Printing Devil, a Scottish Mummy, and an Edinburgh Book of the Dead: James Hogg's Napoleonic Complex

Article excerpt

IN DON JUAN, BYRON MENTIONS A FRENCH JOKE THAT EXPLOITS ACCENT TO mispronounce "Wellington" as "Vilainton" and, thereby, "pun[] down to this facetious phrase" the name "France could not [] conquer." The joke, Byron shows, allows a defeated France to attain a satiric superiority over its English conqueror: "Beating or beaten [France] will laugh all the same" (IX.1). A similar type of Francophonic humor occurs in the work of James Hogg, the rustic Scottish novelist--also frequently given to puns-whose origins in the Border country likewise ensured that accented English would be a personally-meaningful issue. In an 1823 letter to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, for example, Hogg misidentifies the term "phenomenon" as "a French word." (1) In fact, this curious Gallic emphasis by Hogg further resembles Byron's in anti-imperial feeling. Where Don Juan repeats the French joke against Wellington, Hogg sides with the Duke's defeated opponent by invoking a specifically Napoleonic interest in Egyptology. The Blackwood's letter describes the phenomenon of a "Scots mummy," an undecayed, century-old corpse unearthed in the Borders. This tale of a Scots mummy, of course, also surfaces in the conclusion to Hogg's enigmatic novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824); hence both letter and novel beg the question of what French Egyptology has to do with the rural Scottish region from which Hogg and his fictional mummy both hail. One answer to this question lies in Hogg's echo of Byron's Napoleonic humor. That is, the similar preference for French language and culture that Hogg's Blackwood's letter exhibits suggests his comparable animosity to the sites of British imperialism. His antipathy to (the) English extends to literature itself and, as I will show, is both the subject and discursive characteristic of Hogg's best-known, and most baffling, work.

The Private Memoirs is usually interpreted as an autobiographical allegory of Hogg's experience with Blackwood's Magazine, when Hogg, who was satirized in a character in one of the magazine's series, had to compete with the notoriety of his fictional alter ego. (2) While this essay concurs with these interpretations and, particularly, the conflict between oral and print literature that Ian Duncan locates in Hogg, it does so by elucidating Hogg's thematizing of French Egyptology--a curious aspect of the Gothic novel which has not yet been accounted for. (3) That Egyptian antiquities are emblems of literary immortality for Hogg is evident in both The Private Memoirs and in the earlier "Translation from an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript" (1817), Hogg's first contribution to Blackwood's. In the novel the aforementioned mummy surfaces bearing a manuscript whose "yellowing, tightly wound" pages resemble papyri; the body itself is said to have survived solely "for the preservation o' that book" (252-53). (4) Similarly, the Chaldee Manuscript purports to be one of the "many admirable pieces of writing ... supposed to be lost forever," but which the "present age seems destined to witness the recovery of." (5) As I will argue, this "present age" that the Chaldee Manuscript invokes is both the contemporary craze for Egyptology spurred by Napoleon's recent North African campaigns and the fierce competition in the current magazine industry that definitively formed the Blackwood's culture. In this conceit, Hogg's Egyptian metaphors suggest the epochal moment that he occupies, where expanding print capitalism transforms obscure authors into "admirable pieces of writing" whose "recovery" are triumphs that the industry imagines are tantamount to Napoleonic discovery itself.

These political dimensions to the tropes of Hogg's literary ambition reveal the author as a more complicated instance of Scottish resistance to English colonization by way of print capitalism, such as has been detailed by Leith Davis and others. (6) As an autodidact and former shepherd whose second career as an author was partly necessitated by the Highland clearances conducted by England to consolidate dominion in Scotland, Hogg was ambivalent about the vibrant literary environment that offered cultural ascendency at the cost of individual and national autonomy. …

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