Few titles of monographs describe their contents as accurately and comprehensively as this erudite study. Dr Hone maintains that the cultural and political significance of the accession of Queen Anne has been underestimated by previous scholars who have simply regarded it as a foregone conclusion. He offers a wealth of evidence to suggest that, by reading the political literature of the early eighteenth century in its ‘original and immediate contexts’, it can be appreciated that, for contemporaries, ‘the precise nature of Anne’s right to the throne was a hotly contested topic’ (p. 2). Coverage is largely confined to the year 1702 itself, to such an extent that it might be said to consist of the sort of ‘thick description’ advocated by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. (I shall return to the concept of ‘thick description’, to which Dr Hone gives a qualified nod in an early footnote in his Introduction.) Five chapters follow on from this succinct Introduction: on contemporary positions on Anne’s accession to the throne on 8 March 1702; on her coronation on 23rd April; on arrangements for and responses to the royal progress on which she embarked to Oxford, Bath and Bristol on 26th August; on the treatment in newspapers, pamphlets and poems of early events in the War of the Spanish Succession which began when England declared war on France and Spain on 4th May; and on the General Election, occasioned when the last Parliament of William III was dissolved by the Queen on 2nd July, and the ensuing controversy over occasional conformity. A brief Conclusion seeks to explore the ‘impact of this unsettled political culture on literature’ in the following decades. Finally, an Appendix usefully lists the publication dates and prices of works published in 1702 alongside political events. While there are advantages in not following the strict chronology of the year 1702, there are corresponding disadvantages. This is particularly apparent in the final chapter, which considers Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, the first volume of which was published in early July, and Sacheverell’s The Political Union and his Oxford sermon of 2nd June as election propaganda, before going on to discuss Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, which appeared around 1st December. Although Dr Hone also includes short sections on the Tory and Whig campaigns, he adds only a few details on election propaganda per se to what James O. Richards concluded in Party Propaganda Under Queen Anne: The General Elections of 1702-1713 (1972). In his Introductions, Dr Hone identifies two main aims: ‘firstly, to demonstrate to literary scholars how thorough contextualization can illuminate the sophistication of neglected and supposedly minor texts, and, secondly, to reinterpret some important texts by major writers in their original political contexts’ (p. 4). I am convinced that he is right about the first of these contentions: to grasp what is going on in topical pamphlets and poems on affairs of state, ‘a tight historical focus’ is required. Whether an appreciation of context is sufficient to make a poem such as the anonymous imitation of Virgil, The Golden Age, more than a ‘minor’ text is debatable. Despite it being reprinted along with a couple of responses by Frank Ellis in Volume 6 of Poems on Affairs of State in 1970, it has continued to be ‘ignored by literary scholars’ (p. 77), as Dr Hone points out. He makes a good case for its political significance ‘within the context of Anne’s accession’, but I suspect that, along with the majority of the poems he mentions, it will continue to be neglected by critics. Nor, with the exception of Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, am I persuaded that the sort of ‘thick description’ of the year of Anne’s accession offered by Dr Hone has the ‘far-reaching implications’ (p. 4) for our understanding of ‘important texts by major writers’ such as Defoe and Pope which he claims. This brings me to what I regard as the real value of this excellent addition to the Oxford English Monographs series. Dr Hone is theoretically astute, noting, with reference to Robert D. Hume’s seminal study, Reconstructing Contexts (1999), that ‘[c]ontexts are, of course, constructed by the scholar’ (p. 2). This is an insight of paramount importance as far as any attempt to practise a theorized historicism is concerned, and Dr Hone is right to assume that his monograph will be of interest to historians. It certainly should be, although I wonder whether, given the huge amount of evidence he has accumulated relating to the year 1702, he might have taken one stage further his consideration of the implications of what Geertz, following Gilbert Ryle, suggests about ‘thick description’. This is most apparent in Dr Hone’s discussion of The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters. ‘Defoe was writing in two different roles’, he argues: ‘firstly, and most pressingly, he was writing as an agent provocateur, his pamphlet a clandestine polemic designed to alarm moderates away from Tory policy; but, secondly, he had an eye to posterity and was conscious that this topical pamphlet could be rebranded once the political circumstances surrounding its initial publication had passed’ (p. 156). That Defoe offered earlier and later accounts of both his intentions in writing and publishing The Shortest-Way and his assessment of what it actually achieved has been noted before. What I find of particular interest is that Dr Hone’s proposition chimes with Ryle’s distinction between ‘thin description’ (a wink as a rapid contraction of the eyelid) and ‘thick description’ (a wink as a conspiratorial signal to a friend). Defoe subsequently claimed that what he had been doing in The Shortest-Way was ‘making other People[’]s thoughts speak in his words’, and that High Churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, Charles Leslie and Philip Stubbs had already said the same thing ‘in terms very little darker’. If this was indeed the case, then Defoe’s conspiratorial wink to the Dissenters was badly misinterpreted. Little wonder, then, that he tried to appease all those ‘who have taken offence at the Book, mistaking the Author[’]s design’, by explaining what he had been trying to do. ‘’Tis hard, after all’, he complained, ‘that this should not be perceiv’d by all the Town, that not one man can see it, neither Church-man nor Dissenter’. Were we to apply the terms employed by Ryle and considered by Geertz, we might want to view Defoe’s pamphlet as a conspiratorial wink to readers he expected would be able to interpret his complex cultural nuance correctly, particularly the Dissenters, whereas those who read The Shortest-Way as the genuine proposals of a High Church bigot evidently thought it was just a contraction of the eyelid! It is here that Dr Hone’s attention to the political and cultural contexts of the year of Queen Anne’s accession pays dividends. By offering such a detailed and informed account of literary and cultural events, he succeeds in demonstrating the potential value both to literary critics and historians of what might reasonably be called ‘thick description’. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: May 16, 2018
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