cover image Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature

Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature

Abigail Williams. Princeton Univ, $37 (320p) ISBN 978-0-691-17068-8

“Much of the literature of the early eighteenth century created, depended upon, and suffered from acts of imperfect reading and interpretative confusion,” according to this sharp study. Williams (The Social Life of Books), an English professor at the University of Oxford, suggests that rising literacy rates in England and the print industry’s move away from “aristocratic patronage” to a more decentralized model generated opportunities for confusion among the country’s readers. Highlighting authors’ lack of control over how their work was read, Williams notes that novelist Daniel Defoe faced seditious libel charges after publishing a satirical pamphlet skewering Queen Anne’s religious intolerance by writing from the perspective of a zealot calling for the execution of those who didn’t belong to the Church of England, a stance that was taken at face value by his critics. Williams also explores how different audiences made sense of coded works, noting that Tory journalist Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, an exposé of Whig impropriety, was enjoyed by some readers for its titillating tales while others bought literary “keys” that disclosed the real-life aristocrats behind the pseudonymous characters. The thorough research—drawn largely from margin annotations, letters, and journals—impresses, illuminating the dynamic ways an expanding readership made sense of Augustan literature. English scholars will find much to ponder. (Sept.)