In Reading Gossip in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Nicola Parsons identifies Queen Anne’s reign (1702–14) as a pivotal moment of political reorganization wherein a residual absolutist ideology predicated on state secrets (arcana imperii) completed its transition to a new order in which there was a demand that political processes be subjected to public scrutiny. In this respect, Parsons follows in the hallowed footsteps of Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (German 1962; English 1989) and its most eminent recent endorsement, Michael McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity (2005). Parsons supplements McKeon’s extensive narrative of the protracted dialectical process of privatization leading to modernity by offering a focused account of the specific agencies at work in the first fifteen years of the eighteenth century.
Parsons contends that “reading gossip” tests the neatness of the public / private split in this period. Those words—“reading” and “gossip”— are extremely loaded. Reading, we know, was taking off in response to the print revolution that scholars in the wake of Habermas have insisted was instrumental in the emergence of the virtual space of the public sphere. Equally, however, historians tend to think that reading was becoming an increasingly personal, private activity, disconnected from political engagement in proportion to the rise of aesthesis: the separation of literature from mere writing. Parsons sets herself the task of explicating these changes in how people read and why. Gossip, meanwhile, may intuitively seem like feminine, irrational, transient, and non-instrumental discourse, the direct opposite of Habermas’s characterization of what distinguishes the public sphere. However, Parsons argues that in works by Delarivier Manley, Sir Richard Steele, Daniel Defoe, and Jane Barker gossip functioned to negotiate the as-yet-tenuous split between public and private.
The shift that Parsons discerns is subtle and elusive, yet crucial. It amounts, I think, to a concerted effort to restructure the control of politically-charged information whereby, after pre-publication censorship was replaced by arguably more negotiable taxation and libel laws, there was a fairly brief window in which gossip in print was extremely powerful. Readers no less than authors consequently had to be either distracted or disciplined into complaisance. Manley’s New Atalantis (1709) stands here as a secret history that “enacts a complicated double movement between secrecy and openness” (38). Readers were very much involved in creating political meanings from the partisan gossip that Manley brought to public attention. Gossip was a strategy well-suited to Manley’s purposes, because it allowed for both the dissemination of information and the disavowal of intent: a political agenda could always be denied, topical satire passed off as trivial entertainment. Manley’s aims were, however, narrow and partisan. Parsons shows that she was trying to undermine Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne’s Groom of the Stole, and to restore certain members of the nobility to the status of insiders. This was not expressly an attempt to facilitate wider public involvement in state matters but rather to ensure that “the right people” were the custodians of secret affairs.
The crux of Reading Gossip is, in many respects, the development discussed in Parsons’s chapter on the fall-out of the Sacheverell riots in 1710 and Defoe’s modification of the secret history genre in response to the backlash against his patron, Robert Harley, following Anne’s death. In line with Rebecca Bullard’s recent Politics of Disclosure (2009), Parsons resists analyses of the secret history that produce a neat account of the rise of liberalism, instead proposing that the Sacheverell riots posed a dilemma for the Whig party, which needed to adopt Tory anti-mob rhetoric to maintain civic order, while maintaining its traditional stance that vox populi dictated polity. The Tories and Whigs therefore unwittingly “collaborated in the rhetorical construction of a more or less unified ‘public’” (78) and consolidated a political class with its own interests over against the public at large. The test case is Defoe’s sequence of three pamphlets entitled The Secret History of the White-Staff (1714–1715), and The Secret History of the Secret History of the White-Staff (1715), which purported to expose the real motivations behind the Secret History. Defoe focuses readers’ energies on the process by which Harley was being defended and away from the precise terms of that defense. Like New Atalantis, then, the White-Staff pamphlets have effects that go beyond their immediate purpose, which for both Manley and Defoe was to support particular politicians. While purporting to denigrate rumor and gossip in order to show that the Harley administration was candid, transparent, and accountable, Defoe actually serves to maintain that statecraft necessarily relies on secrecy, because when Jacobitism loomed large the “national interest” demanded a division of public and private knowledge. In the textual strategies of Defoe’s White-Staff, the reader is rendered external to political events, figured as a private citizen and consumer, as “part of a discursive world whose existence is limited to the circulation and critical consumption of texts” (87). The extremely ludic Secret History of the Secret History extends the “paper chase,” and points to “the increasing separation of reading from forms of active involvement in political matters” (88, 91).
In a suggestive chapter comparing The Tatler (1709–1711) and The Female Tatler (1709–1710), Parsons models some of the transitions she has described and indicates most sharply her departure from Habermas. Parsons argues that rather than simply a synecdoche for the new polite, civic sphere, The Tatler engages with specific contexts hinging on the 1710 General Election. The replication of official information-gathering tactics in the pages of The Tatler, which encouraged Londoners to attempt to decode the supposedly generalized characters and get at the real referents, was part of a Whiggish attempt to use tattle as “a democratising discourse that emphatically lacks a sense of exclusivity” and affirms bonds of intimacy (98). The Tatler shaped individuals as political readers but eschewed debate in favor of consensus, particularly after the Sacheverell verdict, when Steele displays outright hostility to the concept of a politically-engaged, impassioned public. The Tatler’s successor, The Spectator (1711–1712; 1714)—which Parsons astutely notes is usually lumped together with The Tatler as if their agendas were the same—reflects a changed set of circumstances following the Whigs’ rout in 1710, replacing the garrulous, gossipy Isaac Bickerstaff with a detached, objective “virtual print persona,” Mr. Spectator, who makes a virtue of silence and stigmatizes partisan debate as socially unacceptable (107). In a bold move, Parsons resists politicized readings of The Female Tatler as a Tory riposte to the Whiggish Tatler: she suggests such views are based on its mistaken association with Manley. Instead Parsons finds The Female Tatler “curiously apolitical,” remarking on its presentation as “a feminised version of the masculine style and concerns of Bickerstaff’s paper” (110, 112). The Female Tatler rejects the confinement of feminine discourse to private spaces and significance, but it does so at the expense of public gossip, which is devalued: “In this paper, female tattle embodies neither a public nor a political threat, [as] its preoccupations were with private matters and with moral rather than state business” (118). Gossip seems to have been neutralized.
In the final chapter, Parsons juxtaposes Edmund Curll’s commercial exploitation of the “Atalantis trope” (a discourse, or subgenre, that imitates Manley’s roman à clef) around the time of the Hanoverian Succession with Barker’s romances written to reconcile disappointed Jacobites to the reality of the Stuarts’ defeat. The overall pattern traced here follows on from what Parsons has already discussed: a process of domestication and attenuation that turned texts away from explicit political reflection, which in Curll’s case resulted in a focus on the author rather than the text’s contents, and for Barker entailed the development of the novel as a private genre, effeminized and domestic. The impact of legal and political contexts on styles of writing and modes of reading are well explained in these sections. Barker’s patchwork aesthetic cultivated an “affective community” of novel readers, not the public at large (144). The context for imaginative writing, Parsons argues, subsequently becomes a community bound by knowledge of generic conventions, demarcated from political affairs. This is the culmination, Parsons surmises, of “a series of revolutions” that “enabled the public sphere to emerge” (149). In line with this reading of Curll and Barker, Parsons concludes by resisting the progressive view of the 1710 Copyright Act, reading this less as a liberation that freed authors from state control and more as a way of marking off author, reader, and text as virtual, allowing an “abstract notion of the text” to emerge, which disciplined the subversive potential of author and reader alike (150).
This book contributes in significant ways to recent work on political culture, the history of reading, and the rise of the novel. For instance, Parsons’s study suggests a broad agreement with Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions (2008), which contends that a skeptical mode of reading occasioned by partisan political writing gradually gave way to a less guarded, more emotionally open kind of reading, fostered by the novel. Reading Gossip is an extremely satisfying study, which nuances and particularizes some of the more abstract and encompassing work on the political and literary developments connected with the transition in England from absolutism to a more representative democracy. The decision to focus on Anne’s reign lends Parsons’s book unity via a sensible delimitation of the field. At the same time, however, it calls for an extension of these concepts into the reigns of George I and George II. Parsons understandably wants to do away with the view that the enervation of the monarchy after William III’s death was partly responsible for the rise in public involvement that brought about a division of the public and private spheres; her reappraisal of Anne, supported by fascinating archival evidence, achieves this. An investigation of the first three decades of the Hanoverian kings, a time when Robert Walpole dominated political culture, would be interesting in light of this enhanced understanding of reading gossip. Perhaps this would proceed through a consideration of Haywood’s politicized fictions of the 1720s and 1730s, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and The Craftsman (1726–1752), the forefront of the opposition to “Robinocracy.” Haywood’s satirical fictions, such as The Adventures of Eovaii (1736), indulge in a textual play that is significant in terms of both the novel’s formal development and its political engagement, before more obviously domestic themes start to dominate after 1740. The first two Voyages in Gulliver cry out for treatment with this revised understanding of hearsay. Lilliput dramatizes a gossipy body politic that reflects on the reign of Anne (Swift’s political heyday). Brobdingnag perhaps depicts the transition from a mostly benevolent absolutism maintained through arcana imperii to a petty, self-interested world of information-for-sale.
Parsons claims that “the political structure of the Hanoverian era, in contrast [to the reign of Anne], was relatively settled and so the chance that literary texts would have an immediate political impact was greatly reduced” (126). The growth of what J. H. Plumb called political stability brought with it a particular model of dispassionate, civically-engaged citizenship, as well as the domain of imaginative writing increasingly divorced from the political lives of readers. I am doubtful as to whether this is as securely in place by 1715 as Parsons suggests. The benefit of a methodology like McKeon’s is that historical processes become visible in an accretive and diachronic manner. However, it is a testament to the force of Parsons’s argument and approach that reading gossip after Anne, into the 1720s and 1730s, now seems like a necessary task to those who would understand the political importance of this period’s imaginative writing.
Bullard, Rebecca. The Politics of Disclosure, 1674–1725: Secret History Narratives. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009. Print.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: Polity P, 1989. Print.
Loveman, Kate. Reading Fictions, 1660–1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Print.
McKeon, Michael. The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005. Print.
Plumb, J. H. The Origins of Political Stability in England, 1675–1725. London: Macmillan, 1967. Print.