The History Woman's Blog

The fun of deceiving your readers – and being found out

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on January 30, 2010

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. (more…)