Confessions of a mass public: reflexive formations of subjectivity in early nineteenth-century British fiction.
The author of these Confessions fell a victim to the prevalence of typhus fever, some time ago, leaving, in the hands of the Editor, the production, now submitted to the public. It was, evidently, intended as an exposure of the real mischief, which the levities, so frequently, not to say generally practised [sic], during a residence at college, are calculated to produce. (1: i-ii)
Here, Little describes the Oxonian as emblematic of a type: the mischievous university student. Just a few sentences later, however, Little undermines this characterization by bringing attention to the Oxonian's individuality:
[A]lthough the author related the various follies and vices, which it is his object to condemn, as taking place in his own character, it is a question of doubt, whether, in the actual commission of them, he could have, himself, borne a part, since his high sense of morality, and a religious principle, unconsciously often, and often, designedly, evinces itself, in the course of his work. (1: ii)
Little's objection to the Oxonian's pretense of representing the typical student is articulated in terms that also draw attention to the fabricated quality of the work; the Oxonian reveals himself to have exemplary morals "unconsciously" as well as "designedly," so that his singularity is at once unintentional and deliberate. In this description of the confessor's subjectivity, then, lies a paradox that is germane to the genre of the fictional confession itself; it asks to be read as both real and fabricated, as both the intimate disclosure of a single individual and as a commercial good created for public consumption.
This is a paradox that persists across an entire set of novels published in early nineteenth-century Britain that, until now, have been neither widely known nor widely accessible: (1)
* R.P. Gillies, The Confessions of Sir Henry Longueville (1814)
* Thomas Little, Confessions of an Oxonian (1826)
* Edmund Carrington, Confessions of an Old Bachelor (1827) and Confessions of an Old Maid (1828)
* The Countess of Blessington, Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman (1836) and Confessions of an Elderly Lady (1838)
* John Ainslie, Antipathy: or, the Confessions of a Cat-Hater (1836)
* Charles Lever, The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839) Together, these works form a subgenre of the novel that brands itself "confessions" while featuring formal and thematic traits that are conspicuously fictional. It is a curious mode that differs sharply from the traditional confession (exemplified by Augustine and Rousseau) in that it rejects the imperative to tell an essential truth about a self. It also differs from Romantic works (by Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley) that employ confession as a literary technique designed to "achieve authenticity in the depiction of characters, and vividness and immediacy in the fabrication of scene and situation" (Stelzig 18). Instead, the fictional confessions listed above seem to provide no discernible writerly subjectivity to which readers might direct their interest, let alone "bond" to such an extent that "life and art, the reader's and the speaker's experience, appear to be aligned on the same plane" (19). If, as Susan Levin has argued, "Romantic confessions revise the autobiographical convention in which the subject of the text is identical in name to the author in the text" (7), these works take this revision to an extreme.
This is not to say, however, that they are entirely unfamiliar. Each of these works can be seen as fitting into the broad generic category of the "confession" as it is identified by Stephen Behrendt: "a candid and impressionistically organized outpouring of information about the formation and development of the author's sensibilities" (147). It is just that this information is so patently fake, the development so obviously contrived, the authors so clearly not the confessors, that it is difficult to imagine the possibility of an actual confessor at all. Unlike James Hogg, who created buzz for The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by publishing a letter in Blackwood's describing the excavation of a grave visited by the novel's "Editor," or Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which clearly purports to be based on Thomas DeQuincey's own life, these works enjoy no relationships to any real-life events whatsoever. In short, each of them fails to demonstrate any obvious evidence of a subject, the very element that seems most essential to any confession. As Foucault reminds us, "the confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement" (61). The subjects traversed in these confessions are many, but seldom are they the confessors themselves. How, then, are we supposed to read them?
This essay addresses this question by contextualizing these fictional confessions within the history of reading, taking into account the dynamic and interactive relations between texts and people at a moment in which the rise of literacy paved the way for a new mass readership. Scholars such as Patrick Brantlinger, Andrew Franta, and Paul Keen have considered the dynamics of the mass reading public and its disparate effects on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature. But while these scholars' work has emphasized the influence of mass literacy on the writing and production of texts, this essay will focus instead on reading and reception. In particular, it will introduce a new archive of primary texts that make explicit what Michael Warner has identified as a fundamental condition of public discourse:
only when images or texts can be understood as meaningful to a public rather than simply to oneself, or to specific others, can they be called public ... this strategy of impersonal reference, in which one might say, 'The text addresses me' and 'It addresses no one in particular,' is a ground condition of intelligibility for public language. ("The Mass Public and the Mass Subject" 378-79)
These fictional confessions manifest this "ground condition" in the confessional subject itself, creating a reflexive mode of subjectivity in which the massification of the reading public develops alongside, and along with, the massification of the literary confessor. "Character," Deidre Lynch argues, "has no autonomous history" (11), to which I would add, neither does the confessor. And when we take into account "the plural forces and rules that compose the field in which reading and writing occur" (11), including those of the mass reading public, the confessors under consideration here seem less alien and more akin to their readers.
Historically, the confession has been predicated upon a "depth model" of subjectivity that posits the existence of an inward self, constituted by layers of understanding that might be accessed and made visible through oral or written discourse. It is a means by which, Rousseau tells us, one might bear a "secret soul" to an audience both human and divine (17). It relies on the disclosure of some aspect of the self that is private and fundamentally different from what appears on the surface, yet at the same time, more authentic and true: "we have passed from a pleasure to be recounted and heard ... to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage" (Foucault 59). (2) Together, the fictional confessions under discussion here offer a noncanonical model of subjectivity that both rejects this depth model and configures identity in ways that differ from the theological model of confessor-God, or the Foucauldian knowledge-power formation, by locating subjectivity within a public.
In so doing, these works push traditional notions of subjectivity in general, and the confessional subject in particular, so far that to apply the term subjectivity may seem erroneous. Yet to denote the narrators of these works as mere characters or personas does not do justice to the ways in which readers are asked to imagine the narrative voices of these works as connected to embodied selves (while at the same time remaining cognizant of their fictionality). (3) That is, the marker "confessions" asks readers to suspend their disbelief and imagine that the narrative is an actual person's account of his/her thoughts and actions, while the form of the novel simultaneously indicates to readers that such a person does not exist. In examining the reading dynamics at play in this strange situation, the term subjectivity is useful because it is broad enough to recognize the notion of a human person as well as all the social and philosophical ways in which a self may be constituted by its engagement with the world around it. In the works examined here, this engagement is with the mass public, and it manifests itself in subjects' fragmentation, externalization, mediation by social categories or generic conventions, and subversion of decorum.
Works such as Lady Blessington's companion novels, Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman and Confessions of an Elderly Lady, feature narrators that, in the words of one contemporary reviewer, are glimpsed in a "succession of scenes of real life, or quite as strong as reality" that shift "before the public eye with the rapidity of a theatre" ("Lady Blessington's Elderly Lady" 432). This rapidity is a product of the confessors' writing processes. Each novel is composed of short chapters that describe the confessors' recollections, purportedly jotted down as they come to mind. Their "writing" can be rough and disjointed, and some recollections are clearer than others, but these confessors do not write for comprehension, breadth, or depth. As the Elderly Lady tells us, "every one now writes, and the occupation may serve to amuse me ... I who love to live in the past, may borrow from it the means of rendering the present less insupportable" (10). From the start, this confessor feigns no interest in her audience's affective reaction to her narrative, nor any interest in her own self-edification or examination; she will, instead, merely "amuse" herself.
The Elderly Lady uses the occasion of her confessions as a way to cope with what she calls "the degeneracy of the age" (3), manifest in politics, manners, and--above all--popular writing:
[T]he matter of these magazines--how infinitely inferior are they to those of my youth! ... The editors of the ephemeral productions to which I allude, ambitious to contain in their pages some attractive article, and knowing the craving appetites of their readers for personalities, dress up a forgotten anecdote, or obsolete scandal, with the sauce piquant of inuendoes [sic] and exaggerations; or else with tales professing to treat of fashionable life, with characters that bear no more resemblance to living ones, than do the figures on which milliners and tailors display their garments for sale. But their conclusions satisfy the crowd, who, unable to penetrate the sanctuaries of aristocratic life, cannot judge of the coarseness and want of truth of the pretended representations. (4-5)
The Elderly Lady's indictment of magazines is predicated upon the gluttonous mode of entertainment for which they are designed, in which "personalities" feed the appetite of the "crowd." In this scenario, "fashionable" figures remain as opaque to the mass readership as the mass readership must have been to nineteenth-century writers. Not only does the "crowd" have bad taste, but they are ignorant and incredulous. Because these readers do not, and never will, know better, "pretended representations" of the fashionable will do just fine. (4)
According to the Elderly Lady, the growth of the reading public has lowered expectations for just about everything, a belief that emboldens her as a writer: "Shall I then take courage, make my confessions to the public, and trust to it for absolution. It is an indulgent monster, after all, which swallows much that is bad. Why, therefore, should I fear it?" (10). Here, and elsewhere in the novel, the Elderly Lady presents herself as a character wholly determined by publicity, a "set of conditions--or condition of possibility--for public action and expression" (Franta 21). The action she imagines is expressed in vulgar terms, but, in essence, all she expects is the most cursory attention of an "indulgent monster." The "absolution" she seeks is not forgiveness for actual sins but instead the consumption of her persona, crafted specifically for a mass audience that will "swallow" it whole. In order to create a public within which her text might circulate, she need only emphasize consumption at the expense of veracity: "A public is constituted through mere attention.... The cognitive quality of that attention is less important than the mere fact of active uptake" (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics 87). The uptake, or "swallowing," of the Elderly Lady's narrative is an inextricable part of her subjectivity, regardless of taste.
Similarly, The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer by Charles Lever dramatizes the creation of a confessor by means of the reflexive circulation of discourse. Lever's novel was featured serially in Dublin University Magazine between 1836-1837 before being published on its own, in monthly installments, with illustrations by "Phiz." (5) In the "Prefatory Epistle" to the eventual single-volume edition of Harry Lorrequer (1839), the confessor admits that his confessions began as "stray and scattered fragments as the columns of a Magazine permit of," and have now resulted in a book of "hastily written and rashly conceived sketches" (viii). Indeed, the layout of the pages and chapter headings are reminiscent of magazine columns, and the bound volume features, as an appendix, the advertising sheets and covers for each earlier monthly installment. It is a form reminiscent of a scrapbook, which primes readers not for introspection (as in a diary or journal) but instead for quick, surface-level glimpses of the novel's title character over a period of time.
Lorrequer's confessions consist mostly of anecdotes regarding his military exploits during the Napoleonic Wars, featuring a cast of other loquacious (and usually drunk) characters who could have stepped out of Blackwood's' "Noctes Ambrosianae." (6) Lorrequer insists that he has "neither story nor moral" (4) and seems unconcerned about the effects his experiences have had on him. He glosses over periods of emotional tranquility ("I have ever found that the happiest portions of existence are the most difficult to chronicle," he tells us ) in favor of tales of more communal chaos and frivolity. Sometimes he relates these stories himself, but often he quotes friends such as Dr. Finucane, a character who, in chapter 25, recounts what he calls Lorrequer's "mail-coach adventure." It is a curious moment, as Lorrequer describes Finucane as enjoying a knowledge of Lorrequer's feelings of which Lorrequer himself seems unaware:
I need not tell my reader, who has followed me throughout in these my Confessions, that such a story lost nothing when entrusted to the Doctor's powers of narration; ... When he came to describe my open and undisguised terror, and my secret and precipitate retreat to the roof of the coach, there was not a man at table that was not convulsed with laughter--and, shall I acknowledge it, even 1 myself was unable to withstand the effect, and joined in the general chorus against myself. (117)
The effect of Finucane's story is theatrical; he paints a comedic scene for an audience, and Lorrequer (in a kind of out of body experience) laughs. With our confessor laughing at a version of himself created by an ancillary character, this scene delivers a metacommentary on the experience of reading any "confession" that eschews introspection--chiefly by having Lorrequer identify himself as part of a community. He reveals that he was affected by Finucane's story as a result of his inability to resist being part of the group of auditors; what he "acknowledges" is his adoption of a collective, public identity, signified by his decision to join the "general chorus" of laughter "against" his "self." Lorrequer, like the men around him--and like Lever's readers--derives amusement from a version of "Harry Lorrequer" that is neither deep nor authentic; it is not even of his own creation.
In this way, the presence of other characters and other objects serves to outline the presence of confessors like Lorrequer, resulting in identities constituted by their movement among surface-level networks of "flat" personalities. It is this movement (however itinerate) and these exchanges (however superficial) that give shape to these confessors, determining their boundaries and sketching out their existence while also governing the novels' plots and organization. At one point, Lorrequer decides that he has come to the end of chapter 5 simply because he does not want to slight the character of Malachi Brennan, a priest whose home he visits while traveling in Ireland. "We proceeded to make our bows to Father Malachi Brennan," Lorrequer tells us, "but, as I have no intention to treat the good priest with ingratitude, I shall not present him to my readers at the tail of a chapter" (41). Thus begins chapter 6, which features another narrative device that is germane not only to Lever's novel, but to the other fictional confessions examined here: an embedded secondary narrative that has little, if any, effect on the main narrative.
This device emerges during the dinner at Brennan's home when Lorrequer hears another story from Finucane, this time relating to an experience of a North Cork regiment in 1798. This story takes up six pages of the novel and has nothing to do with Lorrequer, save his affective response to Finucane's narration: "Much, if not all the amusement it afforded.... Resulted from [Finucane's] inimitable mode of telling, and the power of mimicry, with which he conveyed the dialogue.... And this, alas, must be lost to my readers, at least to that portion of them not fortunate enough to possess Doctor Finucane's acquaintance" (50). The joke here is that the "portion" not acquainted with Finucane is, in actuality, the whole of Lorrequer's audience. However, this moment also mirrors Lorrequer's externalization of his own subjectivity. Just as the possibility of any reader actually knowing Finucane only becomes amusing when one understands the generic context of the novel (i.e., its fictionality), the construction of Lorrequer as a confessor is dependent upon the context of other characters and how he responds to them. His is an identity situated in at least two publics: the public created by the circulation of the novel and the fictional public described in the narrative itself.
Similarly, Carrington's Old Bachelor, whose protagonist writes his confessions while traveling from London to Gloucestershire, is constituted by his movement among secondary characters and among settings that govern both his sense of self and the arrangement of his narrative. Traveling with his housekeeper, Mrs. Busby, the Old Bachelor shifts between recollections of the past and a narration of his present, with frequent interruptions along the way. In chapter 2, subtitled "Which is No Chapter At All," the Old Bachelor is interrupted by the delivery of a letter, a visit from his tailor, and the bursting of a gas pipe in a neighboring house. As a result, he decides to go to his club for some peace, at which point chapter 2 concludes.
Later, chapter 10 begins with the Old Bachelor's agitation over losing his rough draft: "Good gracious! where can those papers be?--they are lost!--the tenth chapter is mislaid!--what is to be done? I never can think of troubling myself to write it over again!" (102). One page later, the draft is found, "lying on the table," he tells us, "under my nose, under a large sheet of blotting paper" (103). Metanarratives like this one (and there are several) offer no revelations about the Old Bachelor's character, save that he is habitually grumpy, nor do they cultivate any interest in the plot (there is no suspense regarding the recovery of the chapter, since readers receive the story of its loss within chapter 10). Seeming to suspect such readerly ambivalence, the Old Bachelor appeals to convention, not empathy: "[I]f my readers have been willing to laugh with me, they must now for a moment be content to be serious. An old bachelor must be humored" (66).
The Old Bachelor's identification of himself as part of a social category (ostensibly to warn readers against the proclivities of said category) may be seen as related to other contemporary fictional confessions that focus on specific problems (alcoholism, opium addiction, gambling), but works like Carrington's differ insofar as they emphasize normative character types: unmarried women and men, old women and men, soldiers, college students, and other confessors who identify as members of broad, seemingly innocuous categories whose confessions perpetuate the notion that such categories are undifferentiated in nature. "[L]et me assure the reader," the Old Bachelor tells us, "the only motive that has actuated me ... is to unmask the heart of malignity and venom, which is too often possessed by morose old gentlemen, like myself' (325). The aim of his volume seems to be to expose and articulate the character of "old gentlemen" at the expense of his own individual experience--all in a work that, in turn, will be marketed to readers who were being increasingly understood less as individuals and more as part of an undifferentiated mass.
As a result of this intention, the Old Bachelor glosses over what is "singular" in favor of what (we are told) is typical of "old gentlemen":
[A] chasm of about five years will be left unsupplied; it is occupied by the various incidents of a college career, which being very numerous, could not possibly be comprised in the limits of this work. As they are somewhat singular and characteristic, and, I might venture to think, not uninteresting, they shall be, at present, suppressed, with the view of forming a work by themselves, should any further acquaintance be encouraged with the life of an Old Bachelor. (132)
Pages that could have articulated the "not uninteresting" experiences of the Old Bachelor as a person are instead taken up with descriptions of quotidian disruptions and artificial crises that signal his association with a group. The emergence of such a genre at a moment when an "overwhelmingly more numerous portion of the English people ... became day-by-day readers for the first time" seems significant (Altick 7), and indicates an associated relationship between the textual subjectivities of these confessors and the experience of being part of the mass reading public to which these works would be sold.
Although the OED indicates that the verb massijy, from the French massifier ("to make a group of people uniform"), was not widely used before the mid-twentieth century, the notion that one could treat people as "an undifferentiated mass," or adapt a product for a "mass market," was certainly operative during the Romantic era ("massify, v.2"). Works such as Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 and Keen's The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s have examined Romantic writers' responses to a growing, and increasingly unknowable, readership. Considering novels in particular, Brantlinger has elucidated some of the ways in which nineteenth-century novelists reacted to the "assumption of intimacy between writer and reader" as it came into conflict with the "increasing alienation caused by the capitalization and industrialization of publishing and the advent of mass literacy" (13). These reactions were not uniform, and could actually serve to undermine intimacy between writer and reader, despite any profession to embrace it.
One of the ways in which the confessions under discussion here both profess and undermine intimacy between confessor and reader is the adoption of novelistic conventions. The confessions from aging narrators, in particular, are constituted by reliable character types and plot sequences. More interesting, however, are the ways in which the confessors' conceptions of themselves are determined, in part, by these generic conventions--a dynamic that is made possible by the circulation of texts in a public. Franta's metaphorical understanding of the mass pubic (via Bentham) as "less an arena for the passive consumption of ideas than a kind of feedback loop which has a potentially transformative effect on the idea it receives" (2) can help us understand this pattern. The fictional confessions discussed here create a "feedback loop" between the confessors and the very public they create through the act of writing that is evident in the confessors' subjectivities. In addition, the confessors' demonstrated awareness of a reflexive formulation of subjectivity mediated by generic conventions invites readers to consider their own role in the circulation of fiction and shapes their modes of reception.
Blessington's Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman, for example, opens with the Elderly Gentleman (Harry Lyster) casting himself as the protagonist of his own narrative. "The discomfiture of time," he tells us, is his "ruthless enemy," and his latest battle with gout has made him "more than ever sensible of the power of [his] antagonist" (2). Like the Elderly Lady, Lyster will use the occasion of writing his confessions to "amuse" and to distract himself from his pain. After priming readers for a conflict between himself and time, Lyster embarks on his confessions with great speed, using objects that he purports to be looking at in the present (such as a miniature, a packet of letters) as the impetus for six sets of recollections, each of which recounts a romance with a particular woman.
His first love, Louisa, is a docile, virginal young woman with whom he fantasizes about living away from the "busy world" in a cottage, "overgrown with woodbine, jessamine, and roses, sheltered by a wood, with a clear stream gliding in front of a garden" (14). One day, during a walk in a prototypically Wordsworthian landscape, Louisa tells Lyster that in the midst of the "all-enchanting scene" she feels a sudden "sadness" that has caused her to meditate on "the uncertainty of life." "[A]t a few hours' notice," she tells him, "we may be summoned to quit this beauteous, joyous earth" (30). Lyster chides her for her "gloomy forebodings," but Louisa continues, telling him, "though I have dreaded death since I have known you, I still think, that blessed are they who die young, ere yet life has lost any of its charms" (31). Eight pages later, Louisa suddenly falls ill and, in an enactment of the reverie she articulated earlier (which is itself an echo of well-established tropes), she dies. Lyster renders his reaction to Louisa's death in terms that are as cliched as their courtship: "She went down to her grave in the bloom of youth and beauty, a ready made angel, wanting only the wings; and she yet exists in my fond memory as she was, young, and oh, how lovely!" (43). And just as the ancillary characters in The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer determine the organization of that novel's chapters, the death of Louisa marks the end of chapter 1.
The chapter that follows ("My Second Love") recounts another courtship that also comes close to marriage. This time, however, Lyster is taken in by Arabella, who, along with her aunt, devises a plan to marry Lyster and defraud him. Anyone who has ever read a novel would know from her physical features alone to hate the cunning Arabella:
What a profusion of raven tresses fall round that oval face! how rich is the sunny tint of her cheek, and the ripe crimson of her lips; lips that never opened except to smile or give utterance to some sprightly badinage, whose malice, as the French call it, was forgiven in consideration of the beautiful mouth that originated it. (45)
A whore to Louisa's angel, Arabella is an example of the novelistic shorthand that allows Blessington to pack six plots into a single volume, a scheme for which The Monthly Review offered this taxonomy: "Each of the six portraits forms the subject of a naturally-constructed tale, two of them being pathetic, the others lively and humorous, but the whole beautifully diversified and contrasted" (391). While lauding these "portraits" this reviewer also remarked upon the static nature of the confessor himself: "The reader, though instructed and amused by every one of the tales.... Perceives, that to the end of the chapter Mr. Lyster is the same self-complacent and vain egotist that he was in his gayest days" (402). The text is not, then, a bildungsroman, nor is it a "confession" in the traditional sense; instead, it functions as a rapid tour of a novelistic landscape, led by Lyster, who is himself fashioned by the generic conventions one might encounter when reading fiction.
In addition to featuring gendered stereotypes, the novel also incorporates conventional plot devices, each chapter featuring at least one familiar tactic (an overheard conversation, a duel gone awry, a surprise family relation) that advances the narrative. In chapter 2, Lyster learns of Arabella's nefarious intentions by eavesdropping on a conversation between two of her other suitors, Sir John and Lord Henry. Conveniently, these two men describe in great detail their participation in Arabella's scheme, deriving amusement from Lyster's credulousness. "What a flat Lyster must be," Sir John says, "to be gulled into marrying her. I never thought they could have succeeded in deceiving him to such an extent, though I saw they were playing us off against the poor devil" (63). In no time, Lyster confronts Arabella and breaks off the engagement. While Arabella initially triumphs by marrying another wealthy man, she quickly falls into circumstances that better behoove her character:
Two years after her union, Arabella eloped with a young nobleman remarkable for weak intellect and large fortune; ... This unprincipled woman was soon deserted by her lover for some fairer face; and having dragged on a miserable existence of sin and shame for a few years, died unmourned, in poverty and disgrace. (90)
This denouement is hardly surprising; in a text full of novelistic conventions, poetic justice seems quite at home.
While the novel's various plots are governed by the norms of popular fiction, Lyster's conceptions of himself also seem determined by genre. When he begins a liaison with Lady Elmscourt, an aging beauty, only to become infatuated with her daughter Emily, he constructs a plot for them all: "Already a romance was composed in my imagination: Emily, the beauteous Emily, was its heroine, and my unworthy self, its hero. The mother in love with me, and suspicious of her daughter ... my beloved and I were to be exposed to all the machinations of jealousy" (213). What Lyster describes here is similar to Harry Lorrequer's conception of himself as an auditor to his own experience, but on a grander scale. Whereas Lorrequer identifies with the group of listeners privy to Finucane's anecdote, Lyster imagines himself as a protagonist in a "romance," implying unlimited public access. In this way, his self-conception makes explicit the ways in which any address to a public attempts to "specify in advance ... the lifeworld of its circulation: not just through its discursive claims ... but through the pragmatics of its speech genres, idioms, stylistic markers, address, temporality, mise-en-scene, citational field, interlocutory protocols, lexicon, and so on" (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics 114). The pragmatics of Lyster's "confession" (plot, machinations, drama, hero, heroine) are informed here by the intended circulation of Blessington's text--which is, after all, a novel. The "feedback loop" connecting readers with this fictional/ confessional genre results in a confessor who thinks he's a protagonist, a hero in search of a roman. This is a condition made possible by the genre's status as both public and private, intimate and commercial.
At the level of narrative, however, Lyster's imagined plot does not match up to the reality of his circumstance, and Emily marries another: "All the romance I had created in my imagination, of a jealous mother and a persecuted daughter, enamored of me, fell to the ground. Neither of them had ever possessed one particle of affection for me" (238). But while Lyster does not get the opportunity to inhabit his imagined subjectivity, which would have been both personal (Emily's lover) and stock (persecuted hero), his confession does create the opportunity for his readers to inhabit a similar space that Lauren Berlant calls an "intimate public": a "porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline and discussion about how to live" (viii). Because these are not just confessions but also works of fiction, these texts speak to a situation of reading in which one does not just read a confession, but one reads a confession as a text that is also read by others. Even as readers are invited to hear the "intimate" disclosures of each confessor, they are consistently reminded that they are reading a text produced for a mass audience, a "public speech [that is] heard (or read) as heard, not just by oneself but by others" (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics 81). These reminders come in the form of novelistic conventions as well as the particular dynamics of the confessor's own subject formation, which Lyster's experience with Emily makes explicit.
The public that is created by any text's circulation and reception exists within a cultural context that is informed by particular discourses about reading. The fictional confessions discussed here, particularly Confessions of an Oxonian, demonstrate an awareness of the more disapproving modes of such discourse, in particular the "widespread cultural anxiety aroused by novels and novel-reading" (Brantlinger 21). It does so, however, not by sermonizing about the dangers of reading popular fiction, nor by featuring a confessor whose character defects are the result of bad reading; instead, the Oxonian's subjectivity itself is crafted out of a dynamic engagement with the (negative) discourses of novel reading, creating a confessor who circulates in a world of superficial contrivances based on novels' perceived, detrimental effects on their readers. The Oxonian is constituted by the most sordid elements of contemporary fiction, unabashedly reflecting in his self what Coleridge, with a "desponding sigh," acknowledged to be the "vast company.... Whose heads and hearts are dieted at the two public ordinaries of Literature, the circulating libraries, and the periodical press": the "reading public" (Coleridge 45-47).
I argued earlier that these confessors' subjectivities are created by their interaction with other characters, settings, and events, and Confessions of an Oxonian is no exception--save that his interactions push the boundaries of decorum and good taste. In the first volume alone, the Oxonian becomes addicted to gambling, travels to Paris, is seduced by an unhappily married woman, narrowly escapes being murdered by her husband, and attempts suicide only to be saved by a mysterious stranger who (we learn) has been following the Oxonian around for years. At several points, the plot is interrupted by extended meditations on divine providence and the existence of evil, whose philosophic import is undermined by the volume's numerous, vulgar color illustrations. When the Oxonian recounts crossing the English Channel on his way to Paris, for example, he describes a "pursy old woman" who, "by a sudden rock of the vessel," grabs the Oxonian by the throat for support:
[B]esides seizing hold of me,...she, at the same time, discharged a volley, as nauseous as it was plentiful, into my bosom. The effect of this nosegay, it may easily be conceived, was irresistible, and my bowels, which had, hitherto, remained tranquil, were now forced into rebellion, and, accordingly, repaid, with interest, over the old lady's stomacher, the compliment with which she had so highly favoured, and flavoured my waistcoat. (1: 18-19)
Accompanying this scene is a color illustration of the woman vomiting on the Oxonian, to the horror of their cabin mates, some of whom are also actively "discharging a volley." Whereas the silliness of works such as Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman seem entirely playful and even satirical, this incident markedly subverts norms of decency and decorum. Confessions of an Oxonian repeatedly creates situations in which readers (who may or may not consider themselves "genteel") are asked to attend to a grotesque narrative delivered in elegant prose. (7)
While the Oxonian's other exploits are too numerous to recount in detail here, Little's novel, like the other texts under discussion here, features anecdotes related to the Oxonian's travels; a providential discovery of family relations; subplots related to a large cast of ancillary characters; and assorted embedded narratives, usually received second- or third-hand, about characters who have little, if anything, to do with the Oxonian himself. Like Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman, Little's text utilizes this assortment of narrative conventions in a playfully self-referential way. After the stranger explains that he is in search of his long-lost nephew, for instance, he discloses his suspicion that the Oxonian might be that nephew: "[S]o bewildered was I, with the recital of all, I had just heard, that I, for some moments, forgot myself, and who I was, and really believed I was the person; for whom [the stranger] took me" (2: 29). For "some moments," the Oxonian inhabits a subjectivity that requires a forgetting of self in order to fulfill the expectations of the stranger; he becomes a key actor in the stranger's narrative of his own identity. Then, just a few pages later, the Oxonian discovers that he is, in fact, the stranger's nephew, which destabilizes the sense of self he has maintained up until this point; at the same time, however, this grounds his subjectivity in a familiar plot device, thus closing the feedback loop between the confessor's subjectivity and the norms of mass-market fiction.
Another fictional confession that manifests the defects of popular fiction (and its detrimental effects on readers) in the subjectivity of its narrator is John Ainsile's Antipathy: or, The Confessions of a Cat-Hater. The cat-hater in question is Francis Butler, whose life has been irrevocably harmed by his intense, violent, and uncontrollable loathing of cats. "How any man in his senses can calmly sit down and write such trash," The Court Magazine and La Belle Assemblee wrote of Ainsile's novel, "we shall not stop to inquire; but we shall say, that having read the volumes through because we were compelled to do so, the perusal was followed by a headach [sic] and a fit of ennui which a night's rest has not yet overcome" (183). Antipathy features familiar generic conventions, such as the use of an "Editor" who introduces the text as a product of both his and Butler's labor; voyages abroad; subplots and embedded secondary narratives; and self-reflexive meditations on the confessor's subjectivity that call attention to the work's fictionality: "I sit a sombre spectator, as it were, of a series of dramas, sometimes light, sometimes grave; and it is only on laying down my quill--which I am too blind and lazy to mend--that I remember what I now am" (1:5). Where it differs, however, is in its organization; instead of shaping his autobiography around past lovers, or around the places he has visited, Butler assembles his text around his various killings of cats (five in all) and the effects that these killings have had on his relationships with people.
Butler opens his narrative by discussing "antipathies" and reflecting on how "our deepest rooted prejudices are frequently and happily entwined round trifles, which interfere not with the serious welfare of our friends" (1:2). His tone is anthropological, as he categorizes his "prejudice" as a common pet peeve, and, by extension, identifies his self as part of a larger character type. His, like all of "our" aversions, is innate, and belongs to a class of antipathies that, by and large, are relatively harmless. Once he begins to describe the particular nature of his aversion, however, the text becomes less philosophic and more sensational: "Never was man or woman born, damned with such supreme detestation of the race [of cats] as myself; ... Satan has to me no sin compared with the horror conjured up by this odious animal; a demon alights within my soul, and does what it likes with me" (1: 3). Butler's tone here evokes the religious confessional, as he describes his "detestation" of cats as a kind of spiritual possession. Instead of articulating a journey toward absolution (or even exorcism), however, his confession takes a gothic turn.
The following description of Butler's second cat-murder is indicative of the text's larger pattern of graphic descriptions of animal cruelty:
The enemy was positively betwixt my legs, evidently meditating, from its crouching position, a spring into my lap.... With a spasm of premeditated murder, I jerked together furiously my heels, which were armed with long spiked spurs--and the oppression taken from my mind--the negative happiness I experienced, on finding that I had perforated the brute's ribs on either side, cannot by my pen be communicated. The infuriated look which accompanied this determined action, must fully have justified every suspicion of mental aberration. The instantaneous yell--the fluff--the reiterated and more piercing yell the short, husky, and vindictive myaw!--had no success in melting my obdurate heart--for, with inexorable rowels I continued drilling the unlucky wretch's sides, gnashing savagely meanwhile my teeth till the carpet and my boots were disfigured with blood, (1: 93-94)
In addition to describing the gruesome nature in which he annihilated the cat, Butler here imagines what he might have looked like to an outside observer. This being his second violent outburst against a cat, he imagines that his friends' and family's burgeoning suspicions of "mental aberration" are now confirmed. Yet in addition to their gaze, Butler puts himself under the gaze of the reader, whose purview is similarly limited to Butler's outward appearance. For when he attempts to go inward, to articulate his feelings at the moment he saw the cat, he admits that they cannot be "communicated" in writing. As a result, readers are left to observe this graphic description of Butler's carnage for the pure sensation of it, thereby contributing to "the spectre of distracted or deluded masses of readers" hungry for exhibitionism (Brantlinger 3).
Readers are at once asked to imagine themselves as individual readers of Butler's "confessions" while remaining cognizant of their identity as members of a group of strangers--a group that includes the novel's other characters (unknowable because they are fictional), as well as the other individuals who constitute the novel's reading public. It is difficult to imagine readers identifying with Butler, or feeling as though they have gained access to a secret or hidden aspect of Butler's personality; everything he describes is public. His violence toward cats is well known, and his murders are all witnessed by secondary characters. Butler's confession simply makes more public a subjectivity that has been public all along. He widens his audience by bringing readers into a kind of fellowship with his (fictional) friends and family, making explicit a notion of strangerhood that is present when reading any text produced for public consumption, in particular a text purportedly delivering the confessions of a singular narrator to a mass audience:
Public speech must be taken in two ways: as addressed to us and as addressed to strangers. The benefit in this practice is that it gives a general social relevance to private thought and life. Our subjectivity is understood as having resonance with others, and immediately so. But this is only true to the extent that the trace of our strangerhood remains present in our understanding of ourselves as the addressee. (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics 76-77)
Members of the mass reading public, then, are marked by their alienation from one another as well as their association--a quality that, as we will see, is emphasized in the very mode of reading cultivated by fictional confessions.
Just as the discourse of the mass public engenders these confessors' reflexive subjectivities, which reject depth and introspection, these confessors' subjectivities engender particular modes of reading that are predicated on disinterest, or a "freedom from self-interest or selfish bias" ("disinterestedness, n.") this mode, disinterest does not denote a lack of any interest, but instead a lack of personal interest or "self-seeking" (ibid.) in the consumption of literature. This kind of reading favors the public over the private; instead of readers imagining that the text is "talking to me," they instead "consume printed goods with an awareness that the same printed goods [are] being consumed by an indefinite number of others" (Warner, "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject" 380). Disinterested reading not only refuses to privilege intersubjective relations, in which an essential truth about a self is disclosed to another self, but it also rejects other models of subjectivity in which the self (its constitution and its perception) is radically changed by interactions with the outer world.
Instead, these texts are constructed in ways that elicit a social model of reading that allows for readers to imagine an intersubjective experience alongside another, alternative mode that is shaped primarily by public discourse. This scenario may seem, from one perspective, unsatisfactory: What fun is a confession if you do not imagine yourself as the powerful "one who listens and says nothing...the one who questions and is not supposed to know" (Foucault 62)? But viewed in a more historical context, it can also be understood as empowering: "Individuals may still not be able to transcend history," Paul Keen asserts, but "they are none the less able to inscribe themselves within it, and in doing so, to gain a limited measure of autonomy without necessarily reproducing the myth of the self-determining subject" (18). A cognizance of a mass public and an awareness of one's participation in it is, within this framework, a measure of autonomy that can be achieved via the act of reading, even the reading of a "confession."
That this kind of disinterested reading may be the healthiest kind of reading is the lesson imparted by The Confessions of Henry Longueville by R. P. Gillies. Longueville's story, which is flanked by both an Editor's narrative and several letters purportedly written by Longueville's love interest, is, from the start, quintessentially Romantic. Wordsworthian in sensibility and Byronic in passion, Longueville reveals that he was "moulded into that frame in which there exists an inseparable connection between the intellectual and material world" (1: 61), a development that would render him a man of extremes, incapable of any "middle state of enjoyment" (1: 65).
During his solitary childhood, Longueville tells us, he filled his hours with solitary reading in a rural setting, a mode he contrasts with that of the urban population:
They read mechanically. They coldly approve of beauties that seem to them at best only tolerable; ... I knew not what it was to read books in this fashion. I did not reason on what I read. I only felt in unison with the author; and if my judgment was not always correct, my feelings were ever most keen and most susceptible. (1: 75)
This excess of feeling and, more importantly, perceived "unison" with the author shapes Longueville's view of the world in ways that become detrimental later in the novel. Throughout his childhood, Longueville imagines himself experiencing the world from other writers' points of view, a situation that makes it difficult for him to come of age and assimilate into the social order.
Longueville begins to realize this difficulty upon starting school in Edinburgh: "I expected to meet with sympathy, if not in all, at least in many individuals.... I expected--but it is needless to detail the absurd wanderings of my fancy. After such golden visions had fled like the morning cloud, let me not be censured for describing my disappointment as so excessive that it amounted to despair" (1: 180-81). At this point, his worldview is based on a kind of selfish sympathy ("I expected"), his despair the result of a failure to find other "individuals" like him. Put another way, he fails to discover emblems of his private self within the context of a public, and as a result he is perpetually uncomfortable in the company of others: "I hoped to find a scene in unison with feelings, which probably never existed in any mind or frame but my own. I hoped to meet sympathy, with emotions such as those to whose society I was introduced had never felt" (1: 190). Longueville's worldview, formed via an excessive identification with the imagined personas of the authors whose writing he consumed, renders him (ironically) quite selfish. He cannot exist happily in a world peopled by those with whom he cannot sympathize--chiefly because they are too unlike him.
In volume 2 of the novel, Longueville finally finds a kindred spirit in the character of Matilda. Their courtship goes awry, however, and when Matilda marries another man, Longueville becomes deranged. His narrative ends abruptly, at which point the Editor resumes control of the text. In addition to revealing that Longueville's skeleton was subsequently found (in true Byronic fashion) in "one of the wildest and most secluded vallies of the mountains H--" (2: 201), the Editor delivers the following moral:
It is quite obvious that the misfortunes of [Longueville's] youth were caused, in great measure, by the total want of self-controul [sic]. But there was one excuse for his frailties.--He was in SOLITUDE! Alas! it too frequently happens, that he who is obliged to educate himself, becomes wise only by that bitter experience, which carries with it untimely ruin and decay. (2: 202)
Longueville's tragedy is his individuality; reared in solitude, he never learned how to imagine himself as a member of a community, or as emblematic of a category of people. His lone, overly affective reading practices result in "ruin and decay," a complete dismantling of the only subjectivity he has ever known.
If only Longueville read disinterestedly, perhaps he would have learned to imagine himself not only as an individual, but also as part of a public. Perhaps he would have learned, by reading, how to identify himself as a subject within an intimate public, a process for which the works under discussion here seem tailor-made. For the fictional confession is a genre that straddles intimate disclosure with the commercialization of goods circulating within a public, making it a prime space within which to imagine (and even advocate for) a new readerly mode. In the case of the works discussed here, this mode playfully jettisons the intention of a private, intimate disclosure in favor of a healthier, disinterested kind of reading that unexpectedly allows for a measure of autonomy within a mass public.
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT NEW PALTZ
Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public. 1800-1900. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.
Ansile, John. Antipathy, or The Confessions of a Cat-Haler. 3 vols. London: John Macrone, 1836. Internet Archive. Online. 12 July 2013.
Behrendt, Stephen. "'I am not what I am': Staged Presence in Romantic Autobiography." Romantic Autobiography in England. Ed. Eugene Stelzig. Burlington: Ashgate, 2009. 145-60.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.
Blessington, Marguerite. Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1836.
--. Confessions of an Elderly Lady. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838.
Brantlinger, Patrick. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.
Carrington, Edmund Frederick. Confessions of an Ohl Bachelor. London: Henry Colburn, 1827. Google Books Search. Online. 5 July 2012.
--. Confessions of an Old Maid. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1828. Google Books Search. Online. 5 July 2012.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Statesman's Manual. London: Gale and Fenner, 1816.
"The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman." Monthly Review 3.3 (1836): 391-402. Google Books Search. Online. 12 July 2013.
"disinterestedness, n." Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd cd. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Online. 16 July 2012.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. 1978. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random, 1990.
Franta, Andrew. Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
Gillies, R. P. The Confessions of Sir Henry Longueville. A Novel. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814. Internet Archive. Online. 12 July 2013.
Keen, Paul. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Klancher, Jon P. The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
"Lady Blessington's Elderly Lady." New Monthly Magazine 52 (1838): 432. Google Books Search. Online. 12 July 2013'
Lever, Charles. The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer. Dublin: William Curry, 1839.
Levin, Susan M. The Romantic Art of Confession. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998.
Little, Thomas. Confessions of an Oxonian. 3 vols. London: J. J. Stockdale, 1826. Google Book Search. Online. 2 June 2013.
"Literature of the Month." Rev. of Antipathy, or The Confessions of a Cat-Hater. The Court Magazine and La Belle Assemblee 8.4 (1836): 183. Google Books Search. Online. 12 July 2013.
Lynch, Deidre Shauna. The Economy of Character: Novels. Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
"massify, v.2." Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd cd. 2000. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Online. 29 May 2013.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. 1781. Trans. J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1953. Stelzig, Eugene L. "Poetry and/or Truth: An Essay on the Confessional Imagination." University of Toronto Quarterly 54.1 (1984): 17-37.
Warner, Michael. "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. 377-401.
--. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005.
(1) While these texts have been out of print for quite some time, Google Books and the Internet Archive have made it possible for many more readers to access scanned copies from libraries across the globe. However, they have not yet been the subjects of any academic scholarship and, with the exception of Blessington and Lever, little information is available about their authors.
(2) The knowledge that this truth may be a "mirage" docs not seem to have satiated our appetite for such disclosure, as modem websites such as PostSecret and TruuConfessions will attest.
(3) In this way, these fictional confessions operate in a manner akin to early nineteenth-century periodicals, a literary form similarly engaged with the mass reading public. Publications such as Blackwood's, in its transmutation of its editors into characters who would go on to populate features such as "Noctes Ambrosianae," also ask readers to sustain a dual recognition of literary personas as both imaginary and embodied. I examine the "Noctcs Ambrosianae" in more detail in "Avatars in Edinburgh: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the Second Life of Hogg's Ettrick Shepherd" (forthcoming in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net). In that essay, I deploy the technical term avatar to interpret the functions of one such transmuted character, the "Ettrick Shepherd." Given the Shepherd's association with an actual person, James Hogg, the term "avatar" is applicable in that analysis in a way that it is not applicable here, given that the confessors of these works enjoy no such corresponding associations with living people.
(4) That the Elderly Lady herself is a fabrication is another indication of the fictional confession's relationship to periodicals.
(5) The pseudonym of Hablot Knight Browne, most famous for his illustrations of Dickens.
(6) Interestingly, an advertisement that appears at the end of Lever's novel attests that The Spectator identified Dublin University Magazine as "The Blackwood of Ireland."
(7) The narrative becomes particularly outrageous in volume 3, which opens with the Oxonian unexpectedly waking up on an East India Company ship bound for Bombay. Among other things, he witnesses a monkey urinating in a fellow-passenger's goblet (illustrated on 3: 50); a Frenchman eating a pregnant cat (3: 79); and child sacrifice (3: 117). He also vomits (again) upon a group of servants carrying him in a sedan chair, which is (again) illustrated in color (3: 87).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
|Previous Article:||Lawtoo, Nidesh, ed.: Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought: Revisiting the Horror with Lacoue-Labarthe.|
|Next Article:||"Looking South": envisioning the European South in North and South.|