DeVeronymous, Defonymous: the venomous, the defamous, the ridiculous

Ron Rosenbaum and have already done enough good work on the Shakespearism related to and brought up by this film.

I’ll only add this small point: if context is sufficient to bring up the possibility of a concealed identity for a writer, in the case of Shakespeare’s – the lack of sufficient education, the writing about a variety of subjects and persons he did not have first-hand knowledge of, a lack of contemporary mention, the contxt of political intrigue – then I think conspiracists have a far better candidate for this sort of mystery in Daniel DeFoe. His education was university level but not Oxbridge, almost no portraits were made of him during his lifetime, he had far less repute or fame during his lifetime than Shakespeare, he wrote during a time of far greater turmoil – the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, the rise of William and Mary – than the Elizabethean stability of the bard’s time, and finally, his writing from so many perspectives, though he was an ardent Puritan, and so many experiences – a prostitute and transported american colonist, solitary castaway, fighter during a the war in Spain – of which he bore no direct witness.

I point this out to make clear that a contextual basis for questioning a writer’s identity is a more uncertain business than these conspiracists assume, and that the obscurity of many writers’ lives, far more obscure than Shakespeare’s who was famous and well-known in his lifetime, allow for this speculation to be made.

I quote a few relevant sections of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel DeFoe by Richard West, a book praised by Allan Massie, Peter Ackroyd, and my humble self.

On his prodigious output, some of which he might be the possible – I will reclaim a word – birther, but whose authorship still remains unsettled:

During the five years between the accession of George I and the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 Defoe wrote lives of Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden, stories of pirates and murderers, bogus memoirs of soldiers and sailors, a history of the Church of Scotland, a manual of Christian family living, as well as dozens of short books and pamphlets. Defoe scholars still cannot agree on which of the hundreds of titles are really his. Occasionally one finds attributions that are inaccurate: the style is not Defoe’s, but more often, he is indeed the author – as in the case of what seems an unlikely candidate, a book published in 1718 entitled A Continuation of Letters written by a Turkish Spy at Paris, Giving an Impartial Account to the Diva at Constantinople of the most remarkable transactions of Europe, and discovering several Intrigues and Secrets of the Christian Courts, especially of that of Paris, continuous from the year 1687 to the year 1693. Written in Arabic, Translated from Italian, and from thence into English. However, the account in ‘Mohamed’s’ third letter of why Louis XIV in 1688 failed to stop a revolt by the ‘malcontents’ of England is pure Defoe in style and quotes one of his favourite maxims, comparing the French and English armies: ‘(viz.) that of the French, if the soldiers will but follow, the officers will always lead; and that of the English, if the officers will but lead, the soldiers will always follow’.

To modern readers, accustomed to thinking of books as either ‘fiction’ or ‘non-fiction’, it may seem odd that Defoe should pose as ‘Mohamed’, a Turkish spy at the court of Louis XIV. The preface to one edition of A Journal of the Plague Year denounces Defoe as a liar for his literary pretence. We like to make a distinction between what we think of as real and imagined, fact and fiction, true and false, news and propaganda. For Defoe the distinction was less clear cut. Just as his works of fiction, such as Moll Flanders, are based on fact, so his ostensibly factual Tour is full of amazing fibs and flights of imagination.

On his contemporary obscurity:

It is only at this late stage, when Defoe is nearing sixty and embarking on his great career as an author, that little by little we start to learn something about his private life and his family. We do not learn much, since almost nothing remains of his private correspondence. With Defoe, we face the problem that no contemporaries seem to have found him worthy of note. In all the letters and journals of prominent men and women of the early eighteenth century we look in vain for a mention of him. Even the hostile lampoonists, who vilified Defoe as a turncoat and devil, never ascribed to him any particular personal characteristic. From The Lives of the Poets we gain an intimate knowledge of Dryden, Addison, Steele, Prior, Pope and Richard Savage, but even if he had wished to, Dr. Johnson could not have filled a page on the character of Defoe.

On a possible reason for the this obscurity:

As a Dissenter from the trading class, Defoe may have felt an outsider even before his bankruptcy in 1692, but it was this that most probably turned him into a loner. Like all chronic debtors, Defoe was obliged to withdraw from the feasts and receptions of his liveried company, from his favourite coffee house or club, from the ‘treats’ of colleagues and even the dinner tables of friends and neighbours. He would not accept hospitality that he could not return.

His bankruptcy could even have meant excommunication by the Presbyterian Church, which equated financial failure with sin.

One last quote on Defoe, which gives an idea of a writer’s gifts for simulacrum, that he is able to fool even those who were there at the event, that, yes, he had known what it was like to be there, when he was nowhere near the place at the time. It is an anecdote that is a useful remedy in our era, when the only authenticity considered possible is autobiography, when in fact the gifts of writers and actors lie with creating whole truths and images, out of things partially known or heard of second hand.

In 1728, Defoe wrote Memoirs of an English Officer, purporting to be by Captain George Carleton, who is said to have gone to Spain with the Earl of Peterborough’s expedition in 1705.

Much of The Memoirs of an English Officer concerns the Spanish campaign which began with the capture of Barcelona and then pushed south to Valencia.

Captain Carleton is wounded and spends three years in ‘Sainte Clemente de la Mancha, rendered famous by Cervantes’, which enables Defoe to air his views on Don Quixote as well as on bull-fighting, nunneries and many other aspects of Spanish life.

Defoe’s Memoirs of an English Officer fooled even Dr. Johnson, who prided himself on detecting literary forgers, such as James Macpherson, the author of bogus translations from the Gaelic. On Sunday 27 June 1784 Boswell and Johnson dined at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s home in the company of Lord Eliot, whose tutor had also instructed the family of Lord Peterborough. Boswell records that Johnson asked Eliot:

‘Pray, my Lord, do you recollect any particulars that he told you of Lord Peterborough? He is a favourite of mine, and is not enough known; his character has been only ventilated in party pamphlets.’ Lord Eliot said, if Dr. Johnson would be so good as to ask him any questions, he would tell what he could recollect. Accordingly some things were mentioned. ‘But (said his Lordship) the best account of Lord Peterborough that I have happened to meet with, is in Captain Carleton’s Memoirs. Carleton was descended from an ancestor who had distinguished himself at the siege of Derry.’

The editor of this 1887 edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, George Birbeck Hill, adds a puzzled footnote on Lord Eliot’s remarks: ‘Carleton, according to the Memoirs, made his first service in the navy in 1672 – seventeen years before the siege of Derry. There is no mention of the siege in the book.’ Defoe’s authorship of the book was not revealed until the twentieth century.

Lord Eliot had obviously not questioned the authenticity of the Memoirs, and nor, as we now discover, had Johnson, for Boswell’s account continues: ‘Johnson said he had never heard of the book. Lord Eliot had it at Port Eliot; but, after a good deal of enquiry, procured a copy in London, and sent it to Johnson, who told Sir Joshua Reynolds that he was going to bed when it came, but was so much pleased with it, that he sat up till he had read it through, and found in it such an air of truth, that he could not doubt of its authenticity…’

Defoe never travelled to Spain and had no involvement in the military campaign there.

A coda on Shakespeare as Shakespeare, from David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, quoted in turn from David Aaronovitch’s useful poison antidote, Voodoo Histories (I believe this would fall under “#8. The Snobbery” in Rosenbaum’s list),

The purpose of the [conspiracy theorists], and by extension the purpose of their readers, is somehow to make themselves greater than even the greatest poet, partly, of course, by making him lesser. In this, says Mamet,

they invert the megalomaniacal equation and make themselves not the elect, but the superior of the elect…They…consign the (falsely named) creator to oblivion and turn to the adulation of the crowd for their deed of discovery and insight…They appoint themselves as “eternity” – the force that shall pass on all things…The anti-Stratfordian, like the flat-earther and the creationist, elects himself God – possessed of the power to supervene in the natural order – and the most deeply hidden but pervasive fantasy of the above is the ultimate delusion of godhead: I made the world.

They also understand what everybody else doesn’t, what everybody else would most like to deny. They are the lonely custodians of the truth, and they got there through the quality of their minds – and by being brave enough to read a book.

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