Lyes, damn’d lyes, and hoaxes

Now, THAT was interesting – if not at all what I expected when I borrowed it. Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture is a fascinating study of a complex and dangerous era in English history. It is, however, far more history-centric than I expected from the title. That’s not a criticism: rather, it’s an admission that I’m weak in history, which is one of the subjects I’m reading for in this course. I didn’t do too badly, overall: I already knew about the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, and even the sham-prince and the warming-pan; but I confess, references to the “Meal Tub Plot” and the “Flower-Pot-Association” (!) sent me scrambling for Google.

Loveman’s book deals initially with the religious and political upheaval of the Restoration, and the battle lines between the various factions: pro- and anti-monarchy; pro- and anti-Stuart; pro- and anti-Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian; and pro- and anti-Tory and Whig. The latter in particular, the rise of party politics, seems to have been key, as it became acceptable (and relatively safe) to be in opposition without necessarily being in opposition to the king. It was a time of plots, false accusations and frame-ups; a time that got a great many innocent people killed, and saw the legitimate heir to the throne forced into exile. There was nothing remotely funny about these particular “shams”.

However, running in parallel with these deadly serious manoeuvrings were three related phenomena: the “bantering” and “raillery” and “biting” that flourished in and around the coffee-houses of London, themselves a relatively new phenomenon; the chroniques scandaleuses and romans à clef that did much to undermine the already-shaky position of James II and Mary of Modena; and the extraordinarily complicated literary hoaxes perpetrated during the same period, some again for political and/or religious purposes, and some, it seems, just for @#$%@ and giggles.

It was the latter that were of the most interest to me, as playing a significant role in the rise of fiction writing. Loveman examines the purpose(s) of these hoaxes; how exactly they were worked; how they exploited the news networks of the day; and most importantly how the reading public reacted to them. What is perhaps most amusing about the whole thing is the way that these hoaxes relied absolutely for their success upon male gossip – the swapping of stories and rumours and theories around the coffee-houses and at the Royal Exchange – although of course it wasn’t called “gossip” then any more than it is now. Women being barred at the time from all of the direct news sources, and largely from acquiring the education required to participate, hoaxing was necessarily a game played exclusively by men.

The most refreshing thing about Loveman’s book is the picture it paints of the reading public of the day. Far too many of these studies dealing with the early days of the novel treat the readers of the time like idiots: “simple” people capable of understanding only “simple” stories. While it is true that a great proportion of the population was only just emerging from illiteracy, it seems also true that the already devoted readers of the day were anything but “simple”: Loveman uses extracts from letters and diaries and reactive publications to demonstrate that the readers at whom the hoaxes were targeted were intelligent, sceptical and capable of intensely analytical scrutiny of the text. Hoaxing, she argues, was a two-way game understood and enjoyed by both parties to it, one in which the authors certainly did not have it all their own way.

The final section of the book looks at how this atmosphere of wary and cynical reading impacted upon the development of the novel in the early 18th century, focusing primarily upon the works of Daniel Defoe. Defoe was known to the public as both a shammer and a party political writer. When Robinson Crusoe was published, a section of the public took its revenge on him for his various deceits by choosing to treat it not as “fiction” but as “a true story” – one therefore demonstrably full of blatant lies. It didn’t matter that Defoe didn’t want to play any more; the public wasn’t done with the game. Loveman goes to to show how the reception of Robinson Crusoe shaped Defoe’s subsequent fiction, with the rapid development of the unreliable narrator; Roxana in particular, who tells lies to the other characters, if not to the reader, withholds information, and sometimes chooses to deceive herself. This approach allowed Defoe to place a critical distance between himself and his creation: it isn’t the author who is lying, it’s the narrator. Finally, Loveman examines Jonathan’s Swift’s “bites” before looking forward to the reaction to Pamela and to Richardson’s pose as merely its “editor”: indicating that the game of hoaxing hadn’t quite run its course even by 1740.

While I heartily recommend this book, it has had the most terrible effect upon my already untenable reading list…

“To read” additions:

The Amours Of Messalina, Late Queen Of Albion – Anonymous
Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister – Aphra Behn
The English Rogue Described, In The Life Of Meriton Latroon – Richard Head/Francis Kirkman
O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island – Richard Head
The Western Wonder; or, O Brazeel, An Inchanted Island Discovered – Richard Head
The Isle Of Pines – Henry Neville
The Perplex’d Prince – Anonymous
The Sham Prince Expos’d – Anonymous

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts Of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction – J. Paul Hunter

“To watch” addition:

Gunpowder, Treason And Plot

(This book has given me an odd affection for the concept of “plot” as a discrete entity: not “a plot” or “the plot” or “to plot”; just…”plot”.)

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