Politics, Deception, and the Novel

Sarah Alderfer
Vincennes University

Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, 1660–1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture (Ashgate, 2008) challenges traditional “rise of the novel” narratives by resituating the novel within two new contexts: one of political deception and the other a history of reading habits. Seizing upon Mark Knights’s suggestion that “‘political culture may well have provided a perfect breeding ground’ for the novel,” Loveman “pursue[s] the relations between deception and creativity, genres and politics” (8) as a means to reconstruct how shamming (in the form of pamphleteering and travel narratives, among others) and coffee-house wit may have left fiction writers with a need to safeguard themselves against charges of falsehood from readers who were growing more and more skilled in detecting deceptive wit.[1] This book provides a valuable new approach to understanding the development of generic convention in exploring the relationship between author, reader, and text, rather than the isolated relationship between author and text.

Loveman’s analysis rests on two intriguing and innovative claims, which justify an exploration of deceit as a major contributing factor to the novel’s development. First, shamming served as a means for certain authors to stretch restrictive social mores, to show off their witty skills, and to create social bonds between those who got the joke by excluding those who did not. In the practice of coffee-house wit, for example, which Loveman explores in her third chapter, audiences were willing to continue the “sociable pleasures of fiction” by pretending to believe the witty tale: “while some readers were genuinely fooled, others were likely to adopt a pose of credulity to continue the enjoyable pretence and further the sociable pleasures of fiction” (82). Second, modern criticism has attributed the contemporary anxiety over novels “to concerns about fictions masquerading as fact, to novels’ interest in criminality and to anxiety about the delusive effects of the passions stirred up by romantic fiction,” but such criticism has neglected to considering how political scandals and mistrust may have trained readers to approach a text with a skeptical eye (110).

The first chapter begins with an analysis of how political tensions in the late seventeenth century encouraged what Loveman deems “sceptical reading.” Loveman is careful to qualify the category “sceptical,” noting that contemporary readers “would not have appreciated” the term as it “was a loose synonym for ‘atheistical’” (20). By reading skeptically, readers could “discern the truth-status of a work, thereby avoiding shameful misapprehension and lessening the risk of being deceived” (20). Several social and political factors encouraged readers to approach texts skeptically, including, but not limited to first, a growing news market and a postal service which increased the ease with which scandalous stories could be spread and second, tensions between Protestants and “dangerously deceptive” Catholics, who posed political and religious threats to English crown and the Protestant Church. Skeptical reading habits preserved readers from susceptibility to dangerous political and religious deception. By reading skeptically, Loveman argues, one could distinguish one’s self from the “vulgar” masses, a strategy that was further encouraged by the growth of empirical reasoning in the period as embodied by the Royal Society. To read skeptically placed one above those who ostensibly read without skepticism, namely “Catholics, women, children and ‘the vulgar’” (45).

The next three chapters continue exploring the literary practices that supported skeptical reading, from pamphlets which appeared to follow the path of foreign news through oral conjecture to printed “truth” and political controversies which inspired in-print gossip such as the wide-spread Protestant belief that James Francis Edward Stuart, the Prince of Wales born in 1688 to James II and Mary of Modena, was a “sham-prince.” Together, these chapters provide an excellent analysis of how deceptive practices in print worked to change readers’ interpretive practices, changes that, according to Loveman, affected not only the ways readers responded to the novel, but also how the writers themselves structured the novel in response to readers’ changing interpretive practices.

Chapter two looks at the ways in which Thomas Chaloner created the appearance of authorial credibility in A True and Exact Relation of the Strange Finding Out of Moses his Tombe (1657), a pamphlet which purported to know the whereabouts of Moses’s tomb, focusing on what contemporary readers’ reactions to the pamphlet illustrate about interpretation in the period. The success of Moses his Tombe as a hoax—a term that Loveman notes is anachronistic as it “was not coined until the early nineteenth century” (8)—relies heavily on the fact that the story/gossip seemed to have followed the typical path for foreign news and that the author borrowed heavily from other travel narratives’ descriptions of the East. A successful hoax, according to Loveman, was one that was “recognised as such” and Chaloner’s borrowings were the clues skeptical readers needed to recognize the tale as a deception (47). Despite the fact that the pamphlet was “associated with disreputable London tavern society” (50), Moses his Tombe established its authority in multiple ways. First, it possessed a reputable publisher’s mark (though Loveman notes that Chaloner’s publisher, Richard Lowndes, was likely aware of the sham) and its title page claimed to have been “Communicated by a person of quality” (49–50). Moreover, the pamphlet reflected several political, social, and religious concerns, namely philo-semitism and the ever-popular fear of Catholics. Once it was found out to be a hoax, the successful pamphlet was not only a testament to the author’s ability to construct a well-crafted tale, but also a lesson in skepticism for readers: “A reader duped by Moses his Tombe might choose to cast a more cautious eye over texts which made similar or related truth-claims, including printed letters of news, The Publick Intelligencer and possibly even the Bible” (59). The significance of Moses his Tombe, Loveman claims, is that it illustrates how an author might reestablish himself as a significant public figure. The two subsequent chapters provide similar discussion of contemporary practices of deception and its social and literary ramifications.

In chapter three, Loveman analyzes the practice of coffee-house wit and jest books before a moving on to a discussion of Henry Neville’s The Isles of Pines (1668) as an example of a sham travel narrative influenced by jest book culture. Chapter four analyzes the social repercussions of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis on practices of wit. The ability to discern the truthfulness behind allegations of plots against the King and government were crucial to England’s political fate: “a wrong decision about whether these were true or false might ultimately lead to England’s becoming a Catholic kingdom or to another civil war” (86). Loveman considers the various modes of deception deployed, the political contexts that shaped the deception, and the ways in which deceptive wits ensured the believability of their shams by considering the responses of their audiences.

While Loveman spends time in each of these chapters focusing on a small number of works, at most, it isn’t until the last three chapters that she finally begins to work directly with “the novels.” Chapter five seems to bridge the gap between the first several chapters and the last, looking more directly at the relationship between novelistic prose and political intrigue. Questions over the legitimacy of the James II and Mary’s son spawned several pamphlets, and Loveman notes that Aphra Behn’s work, particularly Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–87), seems to have influenced a number of writings addressing concerns over an illegitimate heir in both its serial publication and its epistolarity. The Amours of Messalina, Late Queen of Albion by “a woman of quality” (1689), Loveman notes, was published in five installments, the fourth of which was followed with a supplement entitled Love Letters between Polydorus the Gothick King, and Messalina, Late Queen of Albion (1689).

In chapter five, Loveman also reasserts the broader justification for her study. In fact, the concluding section of the fifth chapter presents the most succinct assessment of what is at stake by examining the influence of skeptical reading habits on the novel’s rise: “sceptical reading habits were to have long-term consequences for authors who wished to present their pseudo-historical narratives—their novels, we would say—as having a moral content and a finesse which elevated them above political in-fighting and gave them claims to be an art form. By the late seventeenth century, novels were noted for misrepresenting fact and for suspect morality” (125). This delayed articulation of the book’s central argument is indicative of both the greatest advantage and biggest burden of Loveman’s study. Her study is ambitious, the approach engaging and unique, but it requires that she spend a large portion of the book establishing the history of skeptical reading prior to her analysis of the novel’s use of wit and deception. Because of this, the book seems to operate under two separate, though mutually beneficial, purposes—explaining why early readers read so skeptically and analyzing how readers’ skepticism affected novel writing.

This is not to say that the first two-thirds of the study lacks any coherent or compelling argument. Loveman takes great care to convincingly connect the development of skeptical reading practices to contemporary politics and culture, and she even explains the shift from pamphlet polemic to novelistic forms by connecting it to the scandal over the sham-prince (111). However, the last third of the study relies on the comprehensive portrait presented in the first two-thirds, a portrait Loveman can only rely on herself to give.

Loveman’s readings in the final third of the study present new ways of viewing the novels of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding as part of a culture of shamming, raillery, and deception. In the case of Defoe, Loveman explores his career as pamphleteer, which contributed to what Defoe called “ill-disposed readers” toward his fiction: “Nowadays, Defoe is commonly enrolled alongside illustrious canonical novelists, but his contemporary placement in distinctly disreputable company typifies the fact that these said illustrious novelists were frequently enmeshed in disputes over political deception and authorial roguery” (127). Loveman asks that we reconsider the responses of Defoe’s contemporary readers, whose interpretations, she claims, seem “misguided, trivial, or downright bizarre” in light of Defoe’s modern reputation (127). They are, however, in Loveman’s analysis, important in reconstructing the context in which Defoe was writing and how it informed his authorial choices.

In the following chapters, Loveman argues that Swift’s, Richardson’s, and Fielding’s works are an extension of the tradition of coffee-house wit, in which readers challenge the truthfulness of a tale and authors respond with fantastical detail intended to “prove” a tale’s truthfulness. Though Gulliver’s Travels (1726)is much broader in detail and scope than jest-books, it makes use of multiple conventions of coffee-house wit: the novel features fantastical figures (a common indication that a tale is a sham), the desire to catch the author in his deceptions, and an insistence on the truthfulness of the tale by implying that, in the case of the Brobdingnagian wasps, one “could go [to the Royal Society] and see the proof . . . for themselves” (171). Where Defoe, however, resented the skepticism directed at Robinson Crusoe (1719), Loveman asserts that Swift enjoyed the skeptical practices and used “the shamming tradition [as a means] of winning over” skeptical readers (173). Chapter eight recasts credulous responses to Pamela (1740) within the same tradition that, she argues, informs Gulliver’s Travels. Modern criticism assumes that Richardson’s insistence on its truthfulness is indicative of his anxiety over its reception and that his readers’ credulous responses to the novel were genuine; Loveman, however, contends that Richardson’s claims that he possessed Pamela’s real letters and that he changed the names to protect the innocent would have been recognized by his audience as convention. Furthermore, seemingly credulous inquiries about Pamela’s real identity indicate a willingness on the part of Richardson’s readers “to expand the emotional, imaginative and humorous pleasures of Richardson’s fiction by treating it as fact” (184). Recasting Pamela in the tradition of coffee-house wit allows Loveman to place the anxiety over sentimental responses to the novel in the same context as the seventeenth-century anxieties over the susceptibility of Protestants to the dangerous lies of Papists: “The chief victims of these deceits were routinely described as ‘weak Women, and weaker Men’. In the eighteenth century, an attitude previously held to be characteristic of foolish women was being applauded by some as the means by which sensible, enlightened readers of both sexes demonstrated their moral worth” (191)—Aaron Hill’s celebration of the sentimental reader of Pamela, which “led to Hill being characterised as an overly involved, ignorant and credulous reader in Shamela and Pamela Censured” is one such example (189). The ultimate conflict of the established novel for Loveman isn’t that women could potentially be morally harmed by their reading but that the novel (as embodied by Richardson’s Pamela) signaled a reader of an exactly opposite character from the skeptical reader in the tradition of coffee-house wit.

Loveman concludes her study by presenting the eighteenth-century audience as astute readers who would use their suspicions of a text’s truthfulness to look for inconsistencies in a work only to publicly critique the author and that work. Questioning the portrait of contemporary readers as ‘“ignorant,’ ‘deceivable,’ ‘credulous’ and sometimes little better than ‘half-witted’” (197) as contemporary writers would have had it, the portrait of the skeptical reader allows us to understand the construction of the text in relationship to the audience who would receive it. Loveman’s analysis of the myriad social and political tensions which fed a culture of skeptical reading provides a fascinating foundation from which to view the developing novel. While we have often understood the development of the established novel in relationship to an “interest in criminality and to anxiety about the delusive effects of the passions stirred up by romantic fiction” (110), Loveman’s investment in the political and social contexts that informed the development of novelistic practices in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is refreshing. Her study challenges the idea that readers were susceptible to the immoral influences of a morally questionable genre and posits the reader as an intelligent arbiter of literary culture that the author could not afford to neglect. While Loveman’s study focuses on the major players in the history of the novel, her analysis of skeptical reading practices shifts the traditional power dynamic in the novel’s rise: the focus becomes not how Defoe, Swift, Richardson, and Fielding establish conventions for those who follow, but how the conventions of their work respond to the immediate demands of a incredulous readership skilled in the period’s witty repartee.


[1]  Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford, 2005), 332.