The old me would not have written a review of Confessions of the Fox, or possibly even tried. The old me, having such strong—indeed, passionate—feelings about a book, might have regarded the act of corraling them verbally with exhaustion, thinking that there could never be enough time or ink or articulacy to Get It All Down and, moreover, get it all down right, and that therefore, not making the attempt was preferable to doing so and failing. The person I am trying to be, at least for one full month of a new year, is taking the opposite view, and has elected to try to write critically and insightfully about Confessions of the Fox anyway.
It purports, at first, to be the academically edited transcript of a rediscovered manuscript about the life of Jack Sheppard, perhaps the eighteenth century’s most notorious thief and gaolbreaker, who escaped the hands of the law repeatedly and (according to his legend) semi-miraculously until his eventual final capture and death at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Jack had a lover, a London sex worker known as Edgworth Bess; this much is a matter of historical record. Rosenberg, however, remagines Jack as a trans man (a possibility intriguingly opened by the many descriptions of Jack as being of small and slight build), and Bess as Bess Khan, mixed-race daughter of a lascar sailor and a mother from the Fens who raised her as a social radical and died protesting the surveying and draining of their landscape. Black, mixed-race and South Asian people had a presence in eighteenth-century Britain, and, naturally, eighteenth-century London; this, too, is not outside the realm of historical possibility. Rosenberg, or rather his editorial narrating voice, one Professor Voth, notes that whiteness has been the historical default of portrayals of Bess, but nothing in contemporary sources prevents us from reading her a different way: rather like the Virgin Mary, or Hermione Granger. The same is true of what we would now call queer and trans communities, represented in part by “mollies”, or homosexual male sex workers, and in part by reports of a shadowy society formed by mutinous sailors in the South Asian seas, partly founded by women who partake of a “strength Elixir” that seems to be a rudimentary form of hormone therapy. Rosenberg draws explicitly on the work of Saidiya V. Hartman, who is cited both in-text (in footnotes) and as further reading in the back; her scholarship deals with how to historically reimagine individuals or experiences that have been largely left out of “the archive”, which is to say the official record of What Happened And Who Was There. These are postmodern games, so if those aren’t your cup of tea, there you have it; but if they are, it’s tremendously exciting to be invited to participate in the gameplay, as a reader. We are absolutely reading a novel, with dialogue, structure, foreshadowing, and so on; we are also, in parallel, contemplating the grounds of that novel’s very existence as a document which, though avowedly fictional, attempts to interpret and reimagine historical individuals and events.
If Confessions of the Fox therefore seems rather odd, with patches of what we’d think of as twenty-first century concerns (the ethics of policing, surveillance culture; even, rather alarmingly, the idea that quarantine and lockdown under the guise of plague is a hoax perpetrated by the elites to keep the common people ground down) in eighteenth-century clothing, it becomes increasingly obvious that that is the point. Voth’s footnotes, which start as vocabulary aids or references to further reading, reveal ever more about the world in which he lives as the book goes on: he is summoned to a meeting at his down-at-heel university campus with the sinister Dean of Surveillance Andrews; the manuscript and his work on it is requisitioned by the even more ominous P-Quad corporation, which more or less owns the university; a representative of P-Quad, the distressingly cheery and all-caps’d Sullivan (“LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUE! CAPS SETTING NON-NEGOTIABLE”), demands ever more control over the manuscript and, at the same time, their interest becomes ever more prurient. Further nods both to Hartman and to eighteenth-century literary forebears here: a description that seems sure to lead up to an illustration of Jack’s unusual genitalia leads us to nothing more illuminating than a marbled page (as in Tristram Shandy). Sullivan, convinced that a page has been removed, demands that Voth reinstate it forthwith. His curiosity is disproportionate, and here Hartman is also relevant: she writes of the ways in which people who escaped slavery declined to use the graphic, gory details of their bondage and their escape to satisfy the grim voyeurism of Northern whites. (Frederick Douglass, who is also quoted directly in the text, is characteristically coy about how he escaped, saying that he did not want to jeopardize the route he took for others still trying to escape. At the very end of the book, we learn that Voth has escaped with the manuscript to a kind of fantastical Borgesian library; he will not tell us how he got there, saying only: “Dear Reader, if you are you—the one I edited this for, the one I stole this for—and if you cry a certain kind of tears […] you will not need a map.“) It is a question of being a vulnerable person, a person who might, in the wrong time or place, be put on display in a menagerie, and of refusing to lay your trauma bare for people who cannot be trusted to deal with it respectfully. It’s profoundly political in Confessions, and it was political when Douglass did it too.
However, although they may seem distinctly contemporary to us, it’s also obvious that these concerns about society and money and how we live together have their roots in the eighteenth century. The 1714 Vagrancy Act, which comes into force during Jack’s apprenticeship to a brutal carpenter, widens the definition of vagrant to almost anyone who was considered a lower class of citizen and didn’t have some kind of proof of employment. This swept up women, children, and poor-looking men: anyone unable, in fact, to “give a good account of themselves” (an obviously un-quantifiable requirement). It is designed to promote the alienation of labour; if you have no master, work for yourself in a small capacity, are a sex worker, are an unmarried woman who looks like a sex worker, are a woman of indeterminate status who looks like a sex worker, are a foreigner (foreigners were also blamed for plague), you are liable to be imprisoned. If you do have a master, like Jack, he has no responsibility to treat you well, and your hopes of career advancement are entirely pinned upon his goodwill. (This is why Dickens’s Scrooge is so awful, and why his memory of his old master Fezziwig’s kindness is so potent: until robust labour laws were instated, men who employed others were petty gods, virtually unaccountable.) Capitalism, mercantilism and imperialism—the trading of goods for money; the forced export of goods for money; the seizure of lands and peoples and resources to produce goods for money—are all starting to assume their modern forms in this century. The values of people’s lives are changing accordngly. What Rosenberg (and Voth) drives at is that some people’s lives have always been valued at a low price, but that, though they may have found a way to live—like the mollies and the bats (sex workers)—the capitalist turn deliberately made that way much harder.
I’ve not even scratched the surface here; Bess’s childhood in the Fens is particularly worth more time, as is the fact that Rosenberg writes sex so well, hot and yet delicate: the eroticism and the hesitancy here intertwine, as Jack and Bess discover each other and gain each other’s trust. It would be interesting to read Fanny Hill, which is much more deliberately explicit, alongside Confessions of the Fox; I wrote about it a few years ago, considering it both liberating in its frank descriptions of female sexuality and constricting in the sense that it’s entirely focused through the (male) desire and voyeurism of its author and early readers. Confessions does not constrict in its depictions of sex, though its characters may feel constrained; their transports of delight are not designed to arouse us, even if they sometimes do. (Or are they?) Confessions isn’t going to be for everyone, but if a mishmash of eighteenth-century history and queer theory is your thing, then read it right now.