Fiction factions

I’ve found Factual Fictions a very useful addition to this course of historical / social reading: it has, for the most part, quite a different focus from most other studies looking at “the rise of the novel”, concentrating its first half upon print media generally, the evolution of news, and – even as early as mid-16th century – social concerns over the truth, or otherwise, of printed material and its possibly corrupt effects. (Looking at this through contemporary eyes, we see that the concern was indeed focused upon the truthiness of news.) Lennard Davis’s study is wide-ranging, and addresses any number of critical watersheds, among them:

    • the infinite definitions of “novel” that existed across the 17th and 18th centuries
    • not just the development of printing, but the lessening of its cost during the 17th century, which put the dissemination of information within the reach of many, and took this prerogative away from church and state
    • the founding of regularly published journals during the conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads for purely political reasons, which saw “truth” redefined in terms of political truth, party truth, and a shift in attitude by the ruling classes towards the population in general, which ceased to be viewed merely as a mob to be repressed and controlled, and became instead a force to be appealed to for support
    • the attempt to control the press in the early 18th century by taxing the publication of news, which forced a separation between “news” and “fiction” (which until then had generally been co-published if not blended, and were frequently both undistinguished and indistinguishable), and sent each entity on its own distinct evolutionary journey

Factual Fictions then considers the widespread and lingering habit of claiming a fictional work to be true, and the question of why, more than fifty years after Aphra Behn and with “the novel” an accepted and recognised form of writing, we still find Samuel Richardson insisting upon the literal truth of Pamela. The gradual shift towards a distinction between moral truth and literal truth that became the justification of the novel is examined, as well as the way this led to the eventual pruning away of the political / amatory writings of Behn, Manley and Haywood from the novel’s history.

At the climax of his study, Davis tags as the key work, the first real novel, Tom Jones – citing Fielding’s habit of repeatedly reminding his readers that the work is entirely fictional (something that profoundly disturbed the critics of the day), his chatty, omniscient narrator, and the artistic breakthrough that saw real-life events threaded into a self-declared fictional narrative, with the closing stages of the story running in parallel with, and occasionally crossing paths with, the Jacobite Rebellion of November and December 1745.

The jewel in the crown here, however, is Davis’s chapter on Daniel Defoe, in which he highlights not only the incredible manoeuvrings to which Defoe resorted in order to avoid ever having to admit anything he wrote was fiction, but links this with Defoe’s, shall we say, malleability of political conviction, which saw him working for both parties simultaneously while repeatedly denying that he was working for either, and even uttering those denials to the people who were paying him to work for them! So convoluted were Defoe’s actions in this respect that I think I cannot do better than simply quote Lennard Davis’s summation of the situation, in which he declares—

…the frames that are involved here are almost mind-boggling. Defoe, originally a Whig writer, was persuaded to write from the Tory point of view for Harley by insinuating himself into the control of a Whig paper. However, Defoe then secretly agreed to push the original Whig position while pretending to write as a Tory infiltrator… As if this were not enough, Defoe also agreed to infiltrate Dormer’s Newsletter, which was a Tory opposition paper, and to cause, “The sting of that mischievous paper to be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory, as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design.” One has only to imagine the subtlety of style required to produce the Whig Flying Post that would allow the Tories to think they had infiltrated it while at the same time expressing the Whig hard-line point of view. And Defoe did all this while writing Dormer’s Newsletter in such a way that the Tories would believe he was writing from their viewpoint while in reality he was infusing Whig ideology…

But he never wrote fiction! Let’s be quite clear about that!

Davis takes at face value the attack upon Defoe and Robinson Crusoe by his contemporary, the author, playwright and critic Charles Gildon (as Kate Loveman does not, arguing instead that Gildon’s response was an example of the faux-outrage with which Defoe’s various shams were punished), and in doing so highlights the fact that, whatever the motive for his outburst, Gildon may have stumbled onto a critical insight about Defoe: that he did, indeed, Think, that the manner of your telling a lie will make it a truth…

“To read” addition:

The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 – Lawrence Stone

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