Image: Alexander Pope

Dr. Abigail Williams, professor of eighteenth-century studies at the University of Oxford, makes a startling admission in this book.

As a teacher of 18thC literature, she would assign to her students Whig and Tory “conspiracy theories and bizarre society disputes in order to understand what was on the pages before them. I would say that if they read the books in scholarly editions and looked at all the footnotes, then they would be able to read them right. They would get all the jokes, could pat themselves on the back for their decoding. This book shows that I was wrong.”

This will come as cold comfort to all her past students, but it is a bright light of understanding for all her future ones! The book under review is Reading it Wrong; the title is a fine 3-word synthesis of the topic at hand. It is all about mis-reading and lack of understanding of most of the satiric texts of the late 17th century and most of the 18th.  

Thankfully, Williams avoids the gipfelwanderung that is so typical of many scholarly books dealing with the 18thC. Instead of wandering from ‘peak to peak’ (as the German word literally means), which in this case would be concentrating only on the famous writers of the era (such as Dryden and Pope), Williams delves deep, finding such poets as Abel Evans and Richard Poekrich (who wrote The Temple-Oge Ballad in 1730.)  Williams admits that Evans’ poem “The Apparition (1710) is a work neither famous nor particularly remarkable.” But, based on the number of copies that exist (4 authorised editions in 16 years, plus 5 pirated editions), “for a brief moment in eighteenth-century print culture, this pamphlet must have been everywhere. We might now wonder why.”

Williams singles this out as being “typical of many political or topical poetic satires of its time in depending heavily on reader interaction and completion to make its meaning.” This encapsulates what is actually the main topic of the book. Unlike poems written today, the poems of the 18thC “set up a complex network of allusions, with blanked-out letters and italicized references encoding a host of intellectual and classical authorities, contemporary literary works, and recent political and religious events.” As it turns out, virtually nobody actually had the breadth of knowledge implied by all this. And it was said (by Jonathan Swift, no less) that outside of the inner 20 miles of London, virtually nobody could grasp any of it.

Our intrepid author has ransacked many library archives, looking for annotated copies of such poetic works, to see how such poetry was ‘understood.’ I put understood in quotes, because Williams’ conclusion from all this study is the realization that none of the satiric poetry can really be understood. In the case of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, her final assessment will be shattering to anyone who has studied it: “All readers of the poem become dunces.” The incomprehension of the poem generated vast numbers of books and ‘keys’ to tell the potential reader what it all means (she identifies 800 keys to various works). “The effect of the Dunciad is to create a profoundly paranoid reading experience…Pope seems to celebrate both the art of reading and misreading in his poem, and sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.” With this new insight, it is no wonder Williams won’t be teaching it the same way in the future!

A quote from Tristram Shandy (a 1759 novel by Laurence Sterne) is quite apropos here, even though Williams does not mention it in the book: “Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, that the wisest of us all, should thus outwit ourselves, and eternally forgo our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them.”

Williams traces the origin of double speak to the Bible. At least one author “showed the ways in which God himself deployed irony to convey his message.” Irony in this case being a form of deception! Several authors wrote guides to help people unlock the meaning of scriptural metaphor and allegory. From the incomprehension inherent in the Bible, it is no wonder the very same concepts transferred to the satirical and allusive literature of the 18th C.  Even though most modern scholars have implicitly assumed that so-called ‘polite’ readers of the day were able to interpret the prose being churned out (literally two million volumes annually, even as far back as 1640), Williams shows that underlying assumption to be false. Scholars of the 18th C take note!

An intriguing aspect of 18th C prose is the percentage that were published anonymously. “Approximately 50% of works from 1660-1750 list no author.” This is more crucial that it might appear, as the “tension between anonymous publication and readerly desire for attribution underlies the culture of misreading of the early eighteenth century. Without an identifiable author-figure, contemporaries were unable to gauge the significance of a work.”

One important facet of 18th C satire that Williams does not engage with is medical satire, although she does mention a medical satire from 1699, The Dispensary. It’s curious this track was not extended to the following century, but the matter has been ably explored in a PhD thesis by Audrey Hungerpiller (see ref below). At 203 pages plus Bibliography, it is nearly as long as this book by Williams (249 pages plus Notes and Index, for a total of 309): a measure of how much can be said about medical satire!

A really important book, Reading it Wrong should be THE introductory book assigned to every student of the 18th C, and required reading for all those scholars who have based so much on the quicksand of a false premise.

Reference: Hungerpiller, A. “That Old Serpent”: Medical Satires of Eighteenth-Century Britain. The Ohio State University (2022).

Reading it Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature is by Princeton University Press. It lists for $37.

Image: a 1727 painting of Alexander Pope. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.