The fun of deceiving your readers – and being found out

It must have been so much fun being a C17th wit hanging around your favourite tavern or coffee-house thinking up tall stories, scribbling them down and waiting to see how your readers reacted. Would they really believe that shepherds had found the remains of Moses his Tombe (1657) on Mount Nebo, or that Dutch sailors had discovered a new island in the Pacific Ocean – shortly after the Anglo-Dutch war – that was populated by various tribes of savage English people? Some would, others would not. The questioning, the incredulity, the surprise and the discovery of the hoax was all part of the fun of ‘shamming’. In particular for opposition authors after the Restoration, it was also a way of expressing political and religious dissent without falling foul of the government censors.

However, it would be naïve to believe that the public just took these stories at face value. Early modern readers were ‘sceptical readers’, who knew well how to question the texts they were being offered and who had as much fun discovering hoaxes as their authors had writing them. ‘(T)he complexity of readers’ responses should not be underestimated’ (p. 197) is the key message of Kate Loveman‘s exciting ‘investigation into deception and reading habits’ (p. 175) in early modern England. Reading Fictions, 1660-1740 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008) offers a number of case studies of literary and political deceptions in roughly chronological order, from the Interregnum, via the Popish Plot Crisis to the mid-C18th. Looking at a range of authors from the lesser known republicans Thomas Challoner and Henry Neville to celebrated satirists and canonical authors such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, Loveman analyses shams and readers’ responses, explores strategies and motives for hoaxing, grappling with the  unstable category of ‘truth’ and the relationship between political lying and the rise of the novel.

While literary scholars might be well familiar with the debate about the ‘authenticity’ of Robinson Crusoe, the satirical attacks of Swift’s Mr Bickerstaff, or the Pamela/ Shamela controversy, Loveman adds a new dimension to the history of prose fiction by linking it to contemporary political discourse. The allegations by the ‘discoverers’ Titus Oates, William Bedloe and Miles Prance of a Catholic Plot to kill Charles II and destroy the Protestant religion in the 1670s, for instance, in many ways resembled earlier literary shams and seized the public’s imagination in similar ways as deception became ‘part of mainstream political discourse’ (p. 87). As Loveman says, historians ‘have seen in the debates of this period a growing acceptance of the necessity … of appeals to public opinion in politics and the beginning of a party system’ (p. 86). The public meanwhile knew well how to deal with political propaganda and not be taken in by it. Political propaganda, like literary hoaxes, was a way of engaging the people in a public debate about truth and deception and about literary and political authority. In a period familiar with public ‘lies’, ‘the analogy between shamming and the activities of informers, pamphleteers and politicians’, Loveman points out, ‘must have appeared a natural one’ (p. 98).

Loveman’s book is an amusing read that benefits from well-chosen examples, close textual analysis, helpful contextualisation and extensive footnotes. It contributes to our understanding of early modern literature and political culture and raises our awareness of ‘continuities between “literary” genres and other forms of writing’ (p. 198). It also reminds us of one thing we should never forget: authors of the late C17th and early C18th might have been ‘skilled in ludic deceit’, but ‘their readers were sometimes equally skilled in adopting roles and elaborating fictional scenarios’ (p. 202). Modern readers, watch out! Never trust an early modern author.

Kate Loveman, Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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