Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early 18th-Century Literature 
by Abigail Williams.
Princeton, 328 pp., £30, November 2023, 978 0 691 17068 8
Show More
Show More

Cut out​ the right bits (that scene where Gulliver extinguishes a palace fire in Lilliput by urinating on the roof) and Gulliver’s Travels is the perfect children’s book, a supremely accessible work of imagination. But what does it actually mean? Swift thought (or affected to think) its subtextual implications so dangerous that he dealt only pseudonymously with his publisher, Benjamin Motte, and had the manuscript ‘dropp’d at his house in the dark, from a Hackney-coach’. Motte fretted about several details, including the blue, red and green ribbons for which Lilliputian ministers compete by dancing on ropes. In the published text, he changed the colours to purple, yellow and white; blue, red and green were the colours, respectively, of the Orders of the Garter, Bath and Thistle – coveted prizes in Robert Walpole’s repertoire of patronage and sleaze.

This didn’t deter the hack who blustered that Swift’s intention ‘could be no other than to ridicule our three most noble Orders’, abuse of which by kings or ministers, he added, could never happen ‘thanks to the Happiness of our admirable Constitution!’ But what about the overarching questions posed by Swift’s satire? Are the Houyhnhnms exemplary models of harmonious civility or – as George Orwell thought – robotic proto-fascists? Do the bestial Yahoos embody Swift’s ideas about human depravity, or does he also integrate, in what’s sometimes called the ‘soft’ reading of Gulliver’s Travels, the tools to allow us to escape the novel’s apparent misanthropy?

Similar interpretative challenges surround Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729), a spoof policy pamphlet on the famine in Ireland, with its mellifluous advice from ‘a very knowing American of my acquaintance … that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled.’ Was Swift deploring the voracity of landlords and their parliamentary backers, or offering a brutal fantasy at the expense of the native poor, with a casual slander about Native Americans thrown into the mix? Or was it all these things at once, equal parts compassion, disgust and satirical aggression?

Things don’t get any easier with Pope. Like Swift’s uncompromising prose, Pope’s teasing poems inspired commentaries, observations, explanations and keys, ranging in style from exercises in elucidation to malicious attempts to incriminate their author (who gleefully collected them all). As Abigail Williams points out in her fine history of readerly misprision, Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1714) is one of the few 18th-century satires still deemed accessible enough for classroom anthologies and survey courses. But the poem also endlessly frustrates readers anxious to pin down determinate meaning. It can be read as a dazzling exercise about nothing, an empty display of technique that Hazlitt thought the purest form of jeu d’esprit – ‘the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery or folly’ – or as either celebrating or castigating a modish culture of luxurious refinement. Where does it stand on the threat of sexual violence or the spoils of colonial expansion? Does it matter that the monarch it features can’t distinguish between taking counsel and taking tea, or that in the city, far from the rarefied court, ‘Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine’? Does the poem point, in short, to a skull beneath the flawless skin, or is the flawless skin the only thing that counts? As if such indeterminacies weren’t enough, Pope’s next move was to sneak out a bogus commentary of his own, written in the guise of an apothecary called Esdras Barnivelt, a splenetic pioneer of the hermeneutics of suspicion for whom The Rape of the Lock was a seditious allegory on affairs of state. That Pope may have planned this last twist from the outset is suggested by the pamphlet’s inevitable title: A Key to the Lock, or, A Treatise proving, beyond all Contradiction, the dangerous Tendency of … The Rape of the Lock to Government and Religion.

Even Swift sometimes struggled with Pope, and wondered what readers twenty miles from London would make of The Dunciad, with its teeming, perplexing density of satirical allusion. He also admitted to missing the play of intertextuality in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a satire shot through with innuendo and obfuscation: ‘I did not understand that the Scene of Locket and Peachum’s quarrels was an imitation of one between Brutus and Cassius till I was told it.’ Nothing approached the confusion Swift generated himself, however, with A Tale of a Tub, which satirises biblical exegesis and theological controversy between Catholics, Anglicans and Dissenters. Swift complicated the religious satire with a bewildering range of further disruptions: irrelevant paratexts, bogus allusions, otiose or actively misleading annotations and, above all, the fatuous commentary of a cynical, self-satisfied authorial persona whose only real interest is in multiplying print commodities and, therefore, his income. The aesthetics of obscurity is his greatest resource. ‘It is with Writers, as with Wells,’ he tells us. The thing to do with a shallow well, and equally a shallow text, is to keep it muddy, and then ‘it shall pass … for wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason than because it is wondrous Dark.’ Critics finding fault with the Tale played into Swift’s hands, and in later editions he added deadpan footnotes deploying quotations from the most hostile of them, a hapless classicist called William Wotton, with mock approval. Wotton, who was in fact a formidable scholar, came off looking fussy and dim. Another critic, the Swiss theologian Jean Le Clerc, enjoyed Swift’s textual pyrotechnics but craved stability of meaning: ‘An odd game … goes on throughout the book, where we often do not know whether the author is making fun or not, nor of whom, nor what his intention is.’

The historian Dror Wahrman has used the term ‘Print 2.0’ to describe this moment in the evolution of the public sphere, when the consequences of the Gutenberg revolution arrive with unmistakable force. Thanks to a convergence of factors (the lapse of Stuart licensing systems, improvements in print technology and distribution networks, expanding literacy rates and a new consumer culture), early 18th-century Britain saw an explosion of print on metropolitan and even provincial streets, and at the coffee houses and tea tables that Addison celebrated in his Spectator papers of 1711-12. Mounds of paper clog the streets in one of the first and funniest satires on excessive print, Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1676); then come the proliferating ‘Journals, Merc’ries, Medleys, Magazines’ of Pope’s updated Dunciad of 1743. Williams follows Wahrman in explaining the disorienting consequences of ubiquitous print by analogy with internet culture. Filter bubbles leave readers oblivious to alternative viewpoints; context collapse causes divergent audiences to respond in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways dictated by prior assumptions; Poe’s Law, where an absence of intention statements and irony markers, or an inability to detect them, leads to radical misinterpretation of parodic material. As erudite satirists with strong ties to the traditional patronage culture, Pope and Swift kept watchful eyes on disruptions of this kind, by turns amused and alarmed by the democratisation of culture, deriding its absurdities and excesses even as they profited from it. Pope’s fantastically lucrative translation of Homer is only the most obvious example.

What did ordinary readers make of it all? Reading It Wrong considers the pervasive 18th-century habit of disguising names in passages of lampoon, either to impede prosecution for seditious libel or scandalum magnatum (defamation of a peer, judge or other dignitary), or to ward off private vengeance: the ‘Rose Alley Ambuscade’ of 1679 saw Dryden beaten up in retribution for a satire he didn’t even write. Sometimes historical proxies or punning nicknames could stand in. Wolsey, Sejanus and ‘Robin’ were all used to characterise Walpole as an ambitious upstart, heading for a fall. More often, names were gutted or (as Henry Fielding put it) ‘emvowelled’, with dashes or asterisks replacing key letters or every character except the first. This technique had rich potential. It could cast a marketable aura of the clandestine over even quite innocuous texts. Or, as with the self-aggrandising Timon of Pope’s Epistle to Burlington, it could indicate a composite target, gesturing towards several individuals at once. An emvowelled name could also be repurposed in future contexts. Two Swift satires of the 1730s, On Poetry: A Rapsody and Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, were printed with whole couplets conspicuously missing. Blank spaces were filled in some copies by what may have been a centralised exercise of scribal supplementation, but in other copies were left for purchasers to complete. Dashed names could also intensify satirical insult. When Dryden authorised a print version of Mac Flecknoe after years of manuscript circulation, the name of his bête noire, the poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell, was dashed after the first digraph, as in ‘loads of Sh— almost choakt the way’. It would have been a feeble attempt at disguise, but disguise wasn’t the point. In a satire alert to the recycling of bad poems as wastepaper for baking cakes and wiping arses (‘Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum’), there could be no defter way to characterise Shadwell’s verse as a load of shit.

It’s no surprise that readers outside the charmed circle – that circumference Swift drew around London, beyond which ‘no body understands hints, initial letters, or town-facts’ – often struggled with the requirements of these texts. Williams conjures from provincial and other archives an impressive cast of mute inglorious Miltons, all doing their dogged best to decode the hints, spell out the letters and tune in to the metropolitan gossip. Historical reading experiences are difficult to reconstruct, but the widely shared habit of filling out blanks and inking in names makes manuscript annotation a rich resource for the analysis of readerly bemusement and conjecture, as well as the occasional eureka moment. Ben Browne, a yeoman farmer of Troutbeck in Westmorland, was irritated to distraction in his copiously annotated copy of A Tale of a Tub: ‘I can’t conjecture ye meaning of this tho’ tis capable of sevral Interpretations.’ An unknown reader of Abel Evans’s The Apparition, a 1710 critique of the deist and republican Matthew Tindal, failed to complete all the gutted names but made up for it with an allegation in the margin that Tindal was known in Oxford for his ‘too great familiarity with his bedmaker’. Another anonymous reader gave a twist to Dryden’s insinuation by noting ‘alias Sh—well’ alongside the words ‘a bad Poet and Fleckno’ in Dryden’s 1680 play The Kind Keeper.

Many​ of Williams’s readers have names and faces, some previously known, others newly discovered: Jane Brereton of Wrexham, an accomplished amateur poet who set up collaborative guessing games in her coterie; Anne Wolferstan of Staffordshire, who used her classical knowledge to annotate Dryden’s politically slanted translations of Juvenal; the Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, an indefatigable diarist, and no less avid reader, who resisted the temptation to fill in blanks but commented at length on the canon from Shakespeare to Richardson; William Blundell, a member of the Catholic Lancashire gentry, who drew up a document of ‘Scriptura Difficultis’, puzzling away at ‘the many appearing incongruityes and other hard things to be found’ in the Bible. Most remarkable of all is John Cannon of Somerset, a resolute autodidact and self-styled ‘tennis ball of fortune’ who started out as a ploughboy and rose to become a notary and schoolmaster. Cannon’s elaborate manuscript memoirs (now in the Taunton archives) illustrate his intrepid approach to reading and interpretation, though he could never meet a Latin motto without mangling it. A textbook warning against scratching one’s genitals in public becomes ‘sing not nor hum in thy mouth while thou art in company.’

Even insiders struggled. The bumptious trainee lawyer Dudley Ryder, who eventually became chief justice of the King’s Bench, was mainly interested in extracting chat-up lines from the books he read, those ‘peculiar thoughts upon gallant subjects such as are proper to entertain the ladies with’. The MP Narcissus Luttrell, whose gossipy diaries make him a key source for parliamentary workings in the period, was often stumped for the name of a target and reduced instead to gratuitous acts of completion. He spelled out not only ‘H—e of L—ds’ and noble titles such as ‘E—l’ or ‘D—’, but also ‘Sh—te’, ‘T—d’ and ‘Fa—ted’. Even Robert Harley, lord treasurer and the consummate political insider of Queen Anne’s reign, may have been nonplussed by The New Atalantis, Delarivier Manley’s secret history of 1709, or so Manley suggested when writing to him with new layers of subterfuge: ‘If any thing Sir moves yr Curiosity, I will explain what you desire, if you send but a note without a name directed to me, and under cover, to Mrs Markham at the Bell and Dragon in Paternostre-row.’ As for Pope, he worked carefully through his copy of Poems Relating to State Affairs (1705), an anthology of satires from the Harley era, sometimes polishing clunky couplets, but mostly devoting himself to explanatory comments: authorship attribution, contextual information, completion of names. Even so, the intricate, heavily encoded satire of these fraught years, when Harley ran an unusually fierce regime of press control, often defeated Pope. He left a poem by his own early patron, William Walsh, strewn with hit-or-miss guesses and unattempted blanks.

As Williams sees it, a positivist bias in literary studies has led us to neglect the uses of confusion and the value of interpretative chaos. She doesn’t deny the theoretical decentring of intention over the past half century, though an opening chapter on ‘The Good Reader’ gives more space than one might expect to I.A. Richards and Bonamy Dobrée, with their assumptions about informed reading and fixed meaning. Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion, Harold Bloom’s map of misreading and Stanley Fish’s interpretive communities all get their due. But Barthes’s plaisir du texte looks like an omission, as does the counterblast to deconstruction entailed by Annabel Patterson’s concept of functional ambiguity, where indeterminacy arises not from inherent linguistic instability but from conscious multiplication of possible meanings to circumvent censorship.

When it comes to editorial practice, Williams makes an unanswerable case, and her study has major implications. Monuments of scholarship such as the seven-volume Yale edition of Poems on Affairs of State (1963-75) are indispensable repositories of historical learning, but they also foreclose games of interpretation that were creative strategies for the writers involved, not just irritating obstacles for readers. A case in point is the Yale text of Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary (1699), with dashed names confidently completed by the editors. Williams’s survey of annotated copies shows a proliferating chaos of possible solutions, but also Garth’s conflation of related targets. A wealth of evidence indicates that for early audiences, the thrill of the chase was part of the fun, and it was better to travel down the byways of interpretation, individually or through social consultation, than to arrive at a fixed conclusion. For writers and publishers, the cultivation of uncertainty, even the sowing of confusion, was a useful resource. At the most basic level, it opened the way to revised or expanded editions, commentaries and keys, dialogues and debates, critiques and pamphlet wars: the raw material of a thriving, disputatious print culture. It enriched the major satires of the day, which, in the definitive versions they incrementally reached (the culminating fifth edition of A Tale of a Tub, Pope’s expanded four-book Dunciad), drew new satirical energy from the confusions and controversies aroused by earlier versions, integrating in these new texts the disorderly trace of their own reception.

Getting the wrong end of the stick, in short, meant opportunity as much as failure. The cleverest inheritor of the phenomenon was Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy (1759-67) intersperses its narrative with explicit rebukes to imagined readers (inattentive ‘Madam’, unruly ‘your worship’) and, in later instalments, converses with real ones (‘Messrs the monthly Reviewers’). The work was there to be grasped or debated as the reader wished, and when one of them sent Sterne a walking stick as a gift, it was, Sterne replied, ‘in no sense more Shandaic than in that of its having more handles than one’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences