James Hogg, A Queer Book, edited by P. D. Garside (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), xlix + 287pp. ISBN 978-0-7486-3291-6; £9.99 (pb).
The long-awaited EUP paperback reprint of James Hogg’s A Queer Book has finally arrived after its 1995 debut, as part of the larger StirlingSouth Carolina Research Edition of the Collected Works of James Hogg . So finally readers interested in Scottish or Romantic period literature can afford to browse Hogg’s engaging collection, and discover the wealth of poetic gems contained within.
Today, Hogg is best known for The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824),while his other work, with its diversity of topic and genre is largely ignored. This volume helps prove that there is much more to the Ettrick Shepherd’s work, with its rich collection of ‘Romantic ballads and Pastorals’ (p. xxviii). All the poems (with the exception of two) were published individually in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and the popular annuals of the time between 1825 and 1831, so are a representation of reading content during the period. As Hogg pointed out in his dedication, it is a ‘vade mecum’ or ready reference book to all that is good in his work. Not surprisingly therefore, ‘Elen of Reigh’ was written in the style of one of his most acclaimed poems, ‘Kilmeny’ from The Queen’s Wake (1813). Hogg believed it to be of similar merit, telling William Blackwood: ‘I hope you will acknowledge Elen of Reigh as my masterpiece Kilmeny excepted’ (p. 233). ‘The Witch of the Gray Thorn’ is also reminiscent of another Queen’s Wake poem, ‘The Abbot McKinnon’. Hogg often explored the relationship between sexual and spiritual love, and this topic is represented in ‘A Sunday Pastoral’ and ‘Love’s Jubilee’. Yet, as is typical of Hogg, these serious topics are balanced by the inclusion of comic ballads, such as ‘Jock Johnstone the Tinkler’, and verses on the supernatural, among them ‘The Origin of Fairies’.
Ten of the twenty-six poems were written in what Hogg called his ‘ancient stile’: this was a hybrid blend of ancient Scots, as used by the Scottish Makars such as Robert Henryson, as well as Hogg’s own rhythmic invention. The writer claimed that ‘it will be a grand book for the Englishers for they winna understand a word of it’ (p. xiv), and the reaction from England suggested this was true. The Monthly Review in particular claimed it contained ‘strange and uncouth expressions’ (p. xxvi), while Blackwood himself argued: ‘Your orthography however I have the same complaint against as at no period whatever was the Scots language so written’ (p. xv). In his introduction, Peter Garside highlights, how the language of ‘Ringan and May’ in particular was extensively altered for the publication of A Queer Book. The poem was written in the style of Henryson’s ‘Robene and Makyne’, and contained daring sexual terms, but was changed from Scots into a more anglicised diction: ‘Gif he kend quhat the bonnye burde wals synhan?’ altered to, ‘If he kend what the bonny bird was singing?’ (p. xxii). Blackwood, as publisher, wanted A Queer Book to reach a wider audience outside of Scotland, especially during such an uncertain period for booksellers, with the unrest surrounding the 1832 Reform Act. One of the plusses for today’s multicultural reader however is the attached Glossary to the edition, as well as the extensive topographical, historical, and biographical annotations provided by Garside. It is also extremely useful, and of interest that a Chronology (prepared by Gillian Hughes) is attached to all the Stirling and South Carolina paperbacks. This helps a reader place the present volume amongst Hogg’s wider body of work.
Overall, this volume highlights the importance of the editor in the production of a book. Garside presents a fascinating insight into how Hogg’s work was changed by various editors, publishers, and printers before publication. He does this by comparing the original 1832 Queer Book with manuscripts found in Scotland, the United States, and New Zealand, as well as published versions of the stories in Blackwood’s and the annuals. Hogg certainly experienced a great deal of frustration throughout his career with the editorial changes he was made to suffer. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine was one of the main culprits responsible for altering his work (often substantially), such as in the case of the infamous ‘Chaldee Manuscript’, which caused a scandal in the Magazine’s initial number. Hogg reinforces his connection with this often-controversial periodical though in the volume’s dedication to ‘Christopher North and Timothy Tickler’, two of the characters of the Noctes Ambrosianæ series.
We can see in this volume, however, that Garside has exercised his own editorial intervention of Hogg’s work. He does this by producing a version of A Queer Book that the writer intended rather than a facsimile of the 1832 published volume. Just under half of the collection is reprinted from manuscript sources, while the remainder are all published from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and various annuals. The result of this editorial intervention, however, is not the suppression or dilution of Hogg’s voice and message, as we have previously seen, but a truer representation of the author’s intent. The editor highlights that ‘the effort to restore texts closer to Hogg’s original intentions has so far been conducted in a relatively sporadic fashion, with the textual history of the Queer Book poems largely remaining obscure’ (p. xxvii). This new emphasis on the publishing and editorial technicalities of A Queer Book, though,should not detract from the pure enjoyment a reader will gain from this book. As Garside summarises nicely, A Queer Book ‘was above all, a demonstration of [Hogg’s] versatility as a contemporary author: a testimony to a varied output […], which had appealed to diverse literary audiences (p. xxviii). This new edition ensures that it will continue to do likewise.