Readers and writers beware: Good reading requires much help
Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature by Abigail Williams. Princeton University Press, 2023. 328 pp., $37.00
Undergraduate students in my eighteenth-century literature classes will often state in their end-of-semester reflections that they didn’t expect to learn quite so much about history. Historical context, I have long argued, is imperative for understanding Augustan literature—or the literature of any period that is not one’s own.
Yet it is no less necessary for understanding the literature of one’s own time, as Abigail Williams shows in her excellent new book, Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature. Williams challenges the idea that the original readers of eighteenth-century literature understood precisely what they were reading. Just like us, sometimes they needed notes to explain word choices, phrases, or even whole ideas. Williams’s argument has ramifications for more than just eighteenth-century literature. Too often we assume that readers, past or present, understand much more than they likely do, and our current interpretations—and teaching—of literature are shaped by this misconception.
Williams articulates this concept best in her first chapter, “The Good Reader.” She writes, “I think that many of us still teach, analyse, and edit the historical texts we work on in the assumption that their contemporary political and cultural referentiality was understood by most historical readers in their own time, and that the people struggling to piece the jigsaw puzzle are the benighted folk who came after them, disoriented by their temporal distance from the prime movers.”
What Williams’ book presents is a new framework for considering eighteenth-century literature. How might an exploration of the history of misunderstanding and misinterpretation offer fresh insights into our engagement with historical literary culture? Why do we often presuppose that the original readers of texts understood them perfectly, especially during the eighteenth century—a period when satire, known for its potential for misreading, held a prominent position? Furthermore, the eighteenth century not only heralded the era of satirical literature but also witnessed rapid transformations in the world of print and its readership. More readers meant more opportunities for misreading.
The rise in literacy rates in England, along with a shift in the print industry from “aristocratic patronage” to a more decentralized market system, set the stage for reader confusion. Williams references a historian who noted that “the number of printed items increased tenfold after 1640, from an average of 300,000 volumes per year between 1576 and 1640 to two million or more between 1640 and 1660.” This flourishing marketplace incited both new opportunities and anxieties, akin to the concerns we face in today’s digital era.
It’s common to compare the internet’s emergence with the invention of the printing press. Williams points out, however, that changes in online media present a more apt analogy, one that better mirrors the evolution of early eighteenth-century print media. In both periods, challenges arose (and are arising) in comprehending and trusting written content. One such challenge involves dealing with a deluge of information—or “content collapse,” as it is often called today. In layperson’s terms, content collapse describes the difficulty in discerning the reliability of information as different types of content meld together, resulting in a perplexing landscape of mixed messages. Readers in the eighteenth century, like so many readers today, were muddled when it came to the content available to them. So were authors who could no longer know for certain precisely who their readers might be.
Throughout her compelling study, Williams illuminates authors’ dwindling control over how readers read and misread their works. As often happens in today’s media, some individuals merely misunderstood written content, while others intentionally misinterpreted ironic political commentary in order to discredit or harm. A striking example of this phenomenon on both ends involves the plight of the Daniel Defoe.
In 1702, Defoe penned a satirical pamphlet titled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It humorously advocated for the extreme measure of death as a solution to the problem of religious dissent, targeting nonconformists and Catholics. However, many readers initially misinterpreted it as a serious call for persecution, not understanding the tract as satire. Even when Defoe clarified the jesting nature of the pamphlet, British authorities still took an uncharitable view of Defoe’s intent. The satirist found himself arrested and confined in Newgate Prison. During his trial, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three days in the pillory, in addition to a substantial fine.
While the above episode involves readers genuinely confused by Defoe’s satire, pamphlets he wrote about Queen Anne’s succession indicate what happened when eighteenth-century audiences intentionally misread and misunderstood texts. The end of Queen Anne’s reign witnessed her declining health and thus the declining prospect of an heir to the throne. This circumstance caused significant concerns regarding the future governance of Great Britain, particularly regarding the issue of Protestant succession. According to the Act of Succession in 1701, in the event of Anne’s childless death, the throne would pass to the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs. The Act aimed to eliminate uncertainty regarding the continuation of a Protestant succession and thwart the Jacobite claim to the throne, represented by the exiled James III.
Like many Protestant subjects, Defoe vehemently opposed the Jacobite challenge. Yet he was also aware that a mere piece of new legislation might not suffice as a bulwark against the combined forces of a potential French and Jacobite intervention. In the spring of 1713, he published a set of three satirical pamphlets concerning the succession, presenting arguments in favor of the Jacobite succession, despite his actual beliefs. These pamphlets served as a thought experiment in which he envisioned the likely outcomes of a French monarch, the erosion of democratic processes, and the imposition of Catholicism as the national religion.
Three of Defoe’s Whig rivals deliberately chose not to recognize the apparent irony or sarcasm within these pamphlets, opting to exploit the potential for confusion to his detriment. A warrant was issued for Defoe’s arrest, and during his court appearance the indictment accused him of being a Jacobite with the intent to subvert the Protestant succession. In response, Defoe wrote a petition to Queen Anne in which he defended himself and his publications, offering her a concise lesson on the art of irony. Again, Defoe was misread and had to defend himself—this time because of pernicious and targeted misinterpretation. For Williams, these different instances of misreading of Defoe’s satirical writing—one purposeful misreading and the other unintentional–serve as an ideal example of how a writer’s true intent could be misconstrued and his reputation sullied because of “wrong” reading.
Misunderstanding and befuddlement, whether put on or real, defined much of eighteenth-century reading practices. Williams explores not only the politics of this type of reading, which Defoe’s experiences show, but also how Christian and Classical readers holistically found themselves grappling with the ways in which authorial intent did not always align with readerly understanding. Beyond Defoe, Williams includes writers like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift to make her case for the benefits of studying the phenomenon of wrong reading.
Williams ends with an afterword in which she acknowledges the difficulties students feel in the classroom when they encounter eighteenth-century texts—a feeling to which I can attest from my own teaching experience. As mentioned at the start of this essay, my students often feel they have encountered a history class overlayed onto their literature one because there is so much background for them to learn to be able to appreciate the texts for their own aesthetic sake. Williams writes that eighteenth-century texts “are challenging in the seminar room for many reasons, but one of them is surely that they are generally considered ‘books written by clever Dicks for clever Dicks.’” However, if we, like Williams, acknowledge that these texts were not only regarded as perplexing in their own times but also often misread, we can make this context-laden writing feel less abstract, and perhaps even more “likable” to students, who can envision themselves in the shoes of readers encountering them for the first time. In this way, accepting wrong reading can feel very right.
LuElla D’Amico is an Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is co-editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century. Her current book project examines exploring the Catholic faith through the wonder of children’s literature.
Image courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society