The English Rogue (Part 2)

“When this piece was first published…the author intended and endeavoured to possess the reader with a belief that what was written was the Life of a Witty Extravagant, the author’s friend and acquaintance. This was the intent of the writer, but the readers could not be drawn to this belief, but in general concurred in this question, that it was the life of the author… They holding this opinion caused him to desist from prosecuting his story in a Second Part, and he having laid down the cudgels I took them up. My design in doing so was out of three considerations; the first and chiefest was to gain ready money, the second I had an itch to gain some reputation by being in print, and thereby revenge myself on some who had abused me, and whose actions I recited, and the third was to advantage the reader and make him a gainer by acquainting him with my experiences.”

Of course, which Richard Head wrote the line, There are knaves in all trades but book selling, he hadn’t yet met Francis Kirkman.

One of the odd things about this course of reading has been the way that certain names have kept reappearing in the background, and always in connection with dubious activities: plagiarism, copyright infringement, the selling of unlicensed works, and so on. Francis Kirkman’s first overt appearance upon this particular stage comes when his publishing partnership with three other men, including one Henry Marsh, fell apart over accusations that they had sold pirated copies of The Scornful Lady, a play by  Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher first published in 1616, It was a favourite of Charles II, and a revival production became one of the first great theatrical successes of the Restoration.

It was Henry Marsh who had the good fortune, in 1665, to publish Richard Head’s The English Rogue. The book was in constant demand, and Marsh reissued it several times before his death in 1666, after which (in circumstances too murky to be deciphered) the rights to this highly profitable publication fell to Francis Kirkman, who likewise issued it in several editions. We can only assume, however, that in time the profits began to dwindle. In 1668, Kirkman tried to revive his cash-cow by persuading Richard Head to write a sequel (plus ça change), but having been badly burned personally over his book, and being for once in a comparatively comfortable situation financially, Head refused. It does not seem that this refusal created any particular ill-feeling between the two men, who collaborated on other projects around this time; and it was presumably with Head’s blessing that Kirkman sat down to pen his own second part of the tale.

Reading this second volume of The English Rogue has been an interesting experience—but only, I hasten to add, because I’ve read the first one. In purely literary terms, Kirkman’s contribution is quite as worthless as its predecessor, and at times an equally dreary read (though overall, much less so); but when the two are compared some rather intriguing and, indeed, amusing impressions begin to emerge.

In short—the main thing I shall take away from the second part of The English Rogue is a sense that Francis Kirkman was a much nicer person than Richard Head. Though he does not seem to have been any more honest an individual, it is clear that his mind ran in very different channels. For one thing, while to Head writing was never more than a means to a handful of cash, it is very apparent from the course of his life, even, bizarrely, from his choice of illegal activities, that Francis Kirkman had a genune love of literature.

Although his life was a round of enterprises and failures, cheats, manoeuvrings, bankruptcies and debt, through it all Kirkman never lost his determination to be involved in the world of books. From an early age he collected manuscripts. His passion for drama led him to compile a comprehensive catalogue of some 800 plays that had been published in England, claiming in its introduction that he had read them all; while many of his illegal dealings involved the issuing of plays for which he had a particular enthusiasm—if not copyright. Kirkman also wrote a play himself, as well as several works of fiction. In The Unlucky Citizen, published in 1673, which was sold as fiction but is in fact an unacknowledged autobiography, he gives a disarmingly frank account of the ups and downs of his life. However, in historical terms Kirkman’s most significant contribution was his practice, begun in 1660, of lending out his collection of manuscripts on a short-term basis—in effect creating an early public library, possibly the first in London.

The differences between the first two volumes of The English Rogue are extremely telling. One highly significant aspect of the second is that it is relatively free of the sheer nastiness that is the outstanding characteristic of the first. Granted, there is some anti-woman ranting;  scenes of seduction and abandonment; practical jokes involving laxatives; and moments when someone loses control of their bowels (I swear, the only thing these people enjoyed more than a chamber-pot scene was an absence-of-chamber-pot scene); but these are isolated incidents scattered over some 200 pages, and not the bulk of the text. There’s also a half-heartedness about them, as if Kirkman accepted their necessity but didn’t much care for that style of writing.

More tellingly still, it is evident that Francis Kirkman could actually conceive of there being such a thing as a decent human being—if only in an “honour amongst thieves” kind of way. His characters sometimes help each other without hope of personal reward. They even keep promises. His men and women are occasionally faithful to one another. (Not his married men and women, of course; let’s not get carried away.) And when an individual is cheated or defrauded, his way of retaliation is generally not some grotesque act of violent revenge, but simply to take the other party to court.

It seems that Francis Kirkman was a man ahead of his time.

The other great difference between the first two volumes of The English Rogue is their content, as indicated by their relative subtitles: whereas Richard Head offered A Compleat History Of The Most Eminent Cheats Of Both Sexes, Francis Kirkman promises an account of The Most Eminent Cheats Of Most Trades And Professions—a promise he keeps. Wrapped within the 200 pages of the second volume of The English Rogue is nothing less than a 150-page treatise upon white-collar crime in the late 17th century. And if it happens that Francis Kirkman dwells with a little more feeling upon the disreputable practices that flourished in the world of bookselling than upon those in other trades, well, perhaps we can’t be too surprised about that.

When Francis Kirkman took up his pen to continue Richard Head’s story, he was of course confronted by a significant problem: namely, that Head had been so minutely circumstantial in his account of the life of “Meriton Latroon”, there was really nothing more to be said. Unable to go back, Kirkman was compelled to go on; and the volume opens with Latroon updating us on his Indian marriage, his success as a businessman, and his conquering of the nausea brought on by sex with non-Causcasians sufficiently to start frequenting the local brothels:

“What they wanted in beauty they supplied in respect and willingness to comply with and please me in all my desires; and though many times they have the pox, by reason of their heat and activity, yet they value it not…”

Nor anyone else, apparently. The book then takes an unwelcome turn (that is, even more unwelcome), as Latroon sits back to reflect upon (and give us us a potted version of, presumably for the benefit of those few individuals who might have missed it the first time around) his life so far, which induces another one of his rare fits of reformation:

“This consideration took me up much time, and possessed me with some virtuous thoughts, believing that I had not been preserved and reserved from so many hazards but for some good end; and now I had a fair opportunity of declining vice and living virtuously, I not being likely to be exposed to any such roguish shifts or courses as formally. These thoughts of virtue made way for those of religion…”

Here, I hope I may be forgiven for crying aloud, “Oh, God, no!” And in truth, things rapidly go even worse than I anticipated, as Latroon passes from thoughts of Christianity to the “absurdity” of the local religious practices, of which he then gives us “an account” which stretches for pages and which is, without exaggeration, one of the most numbingly boring things I have ever read, a kind of Hindu version of “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob…”, only much, much longer. (No offence to any Hindus intended; it’s the way he tells it.) At one point, as I struggled through, I began to suffer from horrifying visions of the entire volume being of the same sort of material. Rarely have I been so grateful to arrive at the conclusion of anything.

“Rarely” meaning that, yes, I was more grateful to reach the conclusion of The English Rogue Volume 1.

In spite of his virtuous thoughts, Latroon contunues to pine for the sight – and feel – of an Englishwoman; indeed, for the companionship of any white person; and he gets his wish with the arrival of a merchant-ship bearing six young Englishmen, with whom he quickly becomes intimate. Latroon entertains [sic.] them with his life history, and induces one of them (briefly introduced as Gregory) to give an account of his own life, and to explain why he and his companions left England.

And here this second volume takes a revealing turn, as the bulk of its narrative is taken over by Gregory. From this early point onwards, up until about fifty pages from the end, Latroon simply disappears from the story. He then reappears briefly, only to be pushed aside yet again as two other characters tell their stories. This device for continuing the tale is one that carries with it the tacit admission that, in Francis Kirkman’s mind at least, the character of “Meriton Latroon” was essentially irrelevant. There’s also, I think, the possibility that although he was prepared to exploit him for financial gain, Kirkman found Latroon a repellant character: his own narrator is, if little more honest, a great deal less offensive.

The other notable aspect of Kirkman’s tactic, one that was in all likelihood unintentional, is the growing – and in the end, almost postmodernistic* – absurdity of his story structure. Gregory’s account of his own life, as told to Latroon, quickly turns into the repetition of the experiences of others, as told to him by the individals in question, which in turn consist of stories told to them by another set of people altogether. In conjunction with Kirkman adopting Richard Head’s habit of never bothering to give his characters names, this Chinese puzzle-box approach makes it very nearly impossible – at points, literally impossible – to keep track of who is talking at any given moment. Gregory’s own habit of calling everyone he knows “my friend” doesn’t help, either.

(*Putting aside the question of whether you can have “postmodern” before you’ve had “modern”— While Tristram Shandy is probably the first true postmodern work, inasmuch as its author knew what he was doing, it really does seem here that Francis Kirkman stumbled into postmodernism quite by accident.)

At the outset, it seems horrifyingly likely that Gregory’s life will prove to be a simple reworking of Latroon’s, as many of the same sorts of juvenile incidents make an appearance. It is Gregory, for example, who commits the prank with the laxative, and he who in a separate incident loses control of his bowels. (I was sure you were all anxious to know that.) But before long, Francis Kirkman begins to make his own voice heard—and surprises us with some of his story choices, and even more with some passages of genuinely effective writing, such as Gregory’s chillingly matter-of-fact account of his childhood passage into thievery, after the budding criminal career of his brother is abruptly terminated:

“My eldest brother at seven years of age attained to such ingenuity that he seldom carried home any mended shoes to a gentleman’s or citizen’s house but he would filch either linen, silver spoons, or something else of worth, which by negligent servants was not laid up safely. Which trade he drave for some space of time, being by reason of his childish years not in the least suspected. But the pitcher goes not so often to the well but at length it comes home broken. In process of time he was taken with the theft, and for the same was carried to Newgate, where the poor little angel (peace be with him) he died in prison, under the penance of a discipline which was applied to him with a little too much rigour.”

Compelled by his father to take his brother’s place and so help support his family, Gregory involves himself in various criminal enterprises; but disaster follow: his father is press-ganged, and his mother dies, leaving him alone in the world but for an uncle, who reluctantly takes him in. A course of the by-now standard “roguery” and “revenge” follows, until at the age of twelve Gregory begins a series of unsuccessful apprenticeships, by which his eyes are opened to the various abuses of the different professions: that of the chirurgeon, the tapster, the baker, the astrologer, the nurse, the tailor, and the plasterer. Gregory gets along well with the last, but then, mistakenly believing he has accidentally killed his master, he runs away.

Taking to the road, Gregory falls in with a band of beggars—and Francis Kirkman takes the opportunity to insert yet another lengthy “thieves’ dictionary”, which fills a whole chapter. The beggars instruct Gregory in their own profession, but he never really gets the hang of it – he can’t get the tone of voice right – and when he turns to chicken-stealing, he is lucky to escape with nothing worse than a savage beating. This, however, on top of the grim and conclusive fate meted out to some of his less fortunate thieving companions, makes him pause and consider his way of life; and at the end of his ruminations, Gregory decides—to get an honest job.

Yes, I nearly fell off my chair, too.

“Being now come to London, I was resolved not to be idle, but settle myself to some one trade, that I might be able to get a living…[and] did now resolve to fix upon one that should do my business, and whereby I might at all times and in all places be able to live by my hands…”

Gregory binds himself to a tailer and commences his work. He also begins to make friends among his master’s friends and their apprentices, many of whom are engaged, and assist one another, in fraudulent practices. So begins the bulk of the narrative, in which Gregory is generally only an onlooker – or a listener – rather than a participant. In place of the earlier, brief sketches of criminality, here we get lengthy and detailed accounts of how the members of the various professions set about deceiving and defrauding the public. In particular, Gregory becomes intimate with a scrivener, a bookseller, and a drugster (who will later be three of his companions on his journey to India), and with their respective apprentices; and these are the source of his information about the criminal ways of London’s tradesmen.

One of the more unexpected trades under consideration here is that of preacher: the drugster, before finally he takes up that profession, makes a tidy living amongst the Puritans and the Dissenters, where he moves from congregation to congregation and becomes, “Very famous, and a great disputant.” At length, however, he wearies of the job; but fortunately, an excellent excuse for throwing over his, ahem, “beliefs” is at hand:

“As for my preaching trade, finding that it had already done me as much service as I expected from it, I left it…especially finding that it grew every day into disesteem, it being about the time of His Majesty’s happy return; when instead of a preaching fanatic, I quickly faced about, and leaving my congregational friends, I enquired out and procured cavalier acquaintance, so that I who a little before the King’s coming home was used to wear short hair, and was modest and precise in my habit, now had a large periwig, a great plume of feathers, and all other accoutrements accordingly…”

God save the King. This passage, by the way, puts this second volume of The English Rogue completely out of chronological synch with its predecessor, although I’m sure we’re not supposed to be worrying about details like that. And certainly not after Richard Head’s own chronological blunder in the first.

It is noticeable that of all the various discourses on the various professions, that of bookselling alone concerns itself not only with the overtly illegal habits of its practitioners, but also with their day-to-day activities, including the endless manoeuvring and bluffing that was, evidently, a necessary part the trade. We also notice – and this is almost the only point in all of this where the position of the victim is considered – how the triumphant account of the  financial successes of the bookseller is severely undercut by a note of resentment over the exploitation of the professional writer:

“I have thought my master a man cunning and crafty enough, and did believe that he who deals in books could not be outwitted… As he formerly had sought for and courted authors to write books for him, now they (knowing his way of preferring and selling of books) followed, and courted him to print their books. If a stranger came with a copy to him, though never so good, he would tell them he had books enough already. But, however, if they would give him so much money, he would do it… If he had a desire to have anything writ in history, poetry, or any other science or faculty, he had his several authors, who for a glass of wine, and now and then a meal’s meat and half a crown, were his humble servants, having no other hire but that…”

A bookseller divided against himself?

Now, while all this is going on, Gregory also enjoys various sexual escapades which, however brief, tend to conclude by mutual consent and with no hard feelings on either side. The most significant of these occurs when he falls in with a woman who, along with two friends, has been abandoned by their male companions and left with an unpaid inn bill which is beyond their slender means. Two of the women are held hostage at the inn, while she, the third, has been released in order to try and raise the money. Gregory believes the woman’s story, and lends her what she needs—and not only does it turn out that she was telling him the exact truth, she later tries to pay him back, although he won’t take her money. The three friends are so grateful, they thank Gregory the only way they know how:

“And now we all thought of removing to London, but one night more we lay at our old quarters, where I had the greatest frolic I was every guilty of, for that night I kissed with all three of the women, and pleased them round, by giving them each a trial of my skill. What now could I desire further? I thought myself to be as brave a fellow as the great Turk in his Seraglio, he having but his choice of women, which I now enjoyed to my full content…”

This early incident has repercussions when much later on it turns out that the woman to whom Gregory lent the money is the mistress of his friend, the drugster; and while they have been a constant couple up until then, eventually the drugster and Gregory end up sharing. However, the woman’s affections are steadfast, even if her desires are a little less so; and when the drugster overreaches his swindling practices and gets into serious hot water, her only thought is how to help him. 

The drugster tries to flee the country, but his creditors catch up with him and haul him off to prison. Luckily, he has already taken the precaution of liquidating his assets, giving the entirety into his mistress’s safe care, one hundred pounds in silver directly into her keeping, and the rest converted into gold coin and concealed by being stitched into his spare clothes; so that when the creditors confiscate the drugster’s trunks, it is in ignorance of what they have actually confiscated. At this juncture, the drugster’s friends band together and manage both to get him out of prison, and to quietly reclaim his “clothing”.

The six of them—Gregory, the drugster, his mistress, the scrivener and his mistress, and the bookseller—then decide they’ve had enough of England, and invest in a merchant-ship, on which they embark for India, the two women disguised in men’s clothes. And these are the six “Englishmen” with whom Latroon becomes acquainted.

Hey, you remember Latroon, don’t you?

And in fact, there are a couple of hilarious “waking-up” moments here, when it apparently occurred to Francis Kirkman that this might have been fun, and all, but it was hardly “continuing the life of Meriton Latroon”, as promised. In the voice of Latroon (silent for 117 blessed pages), Kirkman awkwardly interjects between the wrapping up of the “tradesmens’ frauds” section and the “how we came to India” section:

“I being unwilling to hinder the traveller in prosecuting his story, had with much pleasure attended and hearkened to what he had said; and though his discourse was long, and had taken up much time, yet I found so much pleasing variety, that had made me ample satisfaction and amends. And being desirous to know the rest of their adventures, and what fortune had brought them hither, I desired him to proceed, which he did in this manner—“

—while at the actual end of Gregory’s tale, we get this:

“Thus did our relator finish his long story, which was so filled with profit as well as pleasure that I accounted the time I had spent in hearing it the best bestowed of any…”

Uh-huh? Nice try, Francis.

Kirkman then again, as he did at the outset, throws in various bits and pieces to increase the resemblance between this work and its forerunner: some of Latroon’s verses, wearyingly frequent in the first volume; and some random observations about religious dissent in England, including a brief account of the Quakers, and a longer one of the anti-Quaker “Muggletonians”. There is also a mention of Lodowicke Muggleton’s 1663 publication, The Neck Of The Quakers Broken, or Cut In Sunder By The Two-Edged Sword Of The Spirit Which Is Put Into My Mouth.

Don’t laugh. It was a best-seller, and in print for decades.

We get closer to being back on track when Latroon recognises not one but both of the disguised women as amongst those he ploughed his way through in Volume 1. (I’d say “small world”, but he really did get around.) Rather more astonishing is the fact that neither one of them bears him any grudge, in spite of the subsequent misery and degradation suffered by both. Instead, they think of him “affectionately”, as their first lover; while one of them goes so far as to tell Latroon of, “The great love I have borne to you and your memory.”

Because nothing engenders lifelong affection in a woman like a rapid course of lies, seduction, impregnation and abandonment.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy learning about my own sex from these books.

Oh! Speaking of which!—another fascinating thing about women revealed by the pages of The English Rogue is that the vast majority of married women are frigid; and if I’m interpreting the text correctly, this is because  frigid women are the only ones capable of holding off a man’s sexual advances long enough to get him to the altar. However, no man likes to have sex with a woman who doesn’t like it herself (another fascinating touch, in light of our previous reflections upon the societal move from “woman as insatiable” to “woman as sexless”), and he will swiftly flee his wife’s “cold embraces” for the arms of someone a little more enthusiastic; and in fact, most married women can expect their husbands to start cheating on them anywhere from one to fourteen days after the wedding.

On the other hand, those few married women who are not frigid are ravenous beasts who will cheat on their husbands with anything in pants; which is, of course, much. much worse than their husbands cheating on them.

Francis Kirkman was married twice, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.

The two women—who, astonishingly enough are given names here, Dorothy and Mary—are then begged for their life stories; and yes, Latroon does basically ask, “So, what happened after I knocked you up and ran out on you?” The women’s tales take up the final section of this second volume—pushing Latroon off-stage again—and encompass such light, dinner-table topics as prostitution, fake-maidenhood selling, extortion, and child abandonment.

Then, most peculiarly, with Dorothy still in the middle of her story about how she swindled three different men into paying for her pregnancy, the narrative just stops:

“And this shall be the last I shall relate to you in this part, referring the prosecution of hers, and others’ adventures to a third part.”

So what happened? Did Francis Kirkman decide that 200 pages was quite enough? Would a longer book be too costly to publish, and eat into potential profits? Did he run out of ideas? Did he get bored with it?—or just plain sick of it? Whatever the answer, this was what he sent to the presses…and what he saw fail.

Depressing as it is to consider, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this second volume of The English Rogue failed because it was largely free of the violence and ugliness of the first; that Kirkman gave them fraud when they wanted robbery, camaraderie when they wanted betrayal, and mutually enjoyable, consensual sex when they wanted ruination and misery.

Be that as it may, even after this experience Francis Kirkman didn’t quit in his efforts to wring some further profit out of the story of Meriton Latroon – & Co. – although it would be another three years before a third volume appeared. By 1671, Richard Head had passed through his rare patch of financial security, and was once again up to his eyebrows in gambling debts; and when his old friend Francis came a-calling, it was to find him in a more amenable mood…

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9 Responses to “The English Rogue (Part 2)”

  1. Kirkman sounds rather like one of those people who run games shops because they love games (rather than, say, because they’re good at running shops).

    This view of women sounds disturbingly like the beginning of the madonna-whore complex.

  2. Or the guy who breaks the Harry Potter embargo because he’s desperate to read it. I’m sure Kirkman was just as guilty of criminal activities as a lot of the people he describes in his story…but it sure is hard to despise a book-lover. 🙂

    Certainly another twist on women being defined by their sexuality, but one strangely free of any concept of “the good woman”, even if only in the most negative sense of “good”. The London Jilt had essentially the same view of the situation: men married women for what they could get out of it, then spent all their time (and money) with whores. There’s no sense that the wives tried to refuse sex; the husbands just didn’t want it.

    But yes, you can imagine madonna-whore evolving out of a growing need for the men behaving like this to make excuses, which at this time was clearly perceived as unnecessary.

  3. I misread the first line in the third paragraph, “course of reading”, as “curse of reading” (it’s been a very long week). Which actually would apply to the English Rogue.

    Speaking of which, “absence-of-chamber-pot” jokes? plus ca change, indeed.

  4. I guess the upside of this is that I’ll always have a yardstick: “This book is bad, but at least I’m not reading The English Rogue.” Which ironically enough applies to this part of The English Rogue, too.

    Yes, you do sometimes wonder if there’s been any progress at all. I guess the poo-flinging gene is still in there somewhere…

    On the Y-chromosome, of course. 🙂

  5. Sounds more like a recessive allele on the X-chromosome to me. Remember how hemophilia works: a woman would need two copies of the gene for the trait to express itself, but just one would be enough to turn a man into a poo-flinging jackanapes.

  6. A “recessive” allele probably implies that there is actually a recently evolved gene that codes for not flinging poo, and in order to be a flinger you have to get defective copies from both parents. (Or one if you’re male and it’s on the X.)

    I saw a “news” story the other day which claimed they’d taught a monkey to use a robot arm and it proceded to fling poo with it, but I think it was a hoax/spoof.

  7. There’s got to be a PhD in this somewhere…

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