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Reviewed by:
  • Plots of Opportunity: Representing Conspiracy in Victorian England
  • Chris R. Vanden Bossche (bio)
Plots of Opportunity: Representing Conspiracy in Victorian England, by Albert D. Pionke; pp. xxxii + 188. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004, $44.95.

Albert Pionke situates Plots of Opportunity as a contribution to the current reassessment of Victorian liberalism as a form of guardianship that produces disciplined individualism. He thus seeks to show how the British ruling elite deployed the rhetoric of conspiracy first to discredit social, political, and religious movements and then to define forms of Englishness consistent with the principles of guardianship democracy. At the same time, however, he aims to discover opportunities for resistance that arose when this rhetoric collapsed upon itself, undoing the oppositions—between openness and secrecy, candor and deception, order and subversion—through which it operated.

The heart of the book lies in four chapters concerned with the application of the rhetoric of conspiracy to working-class trades unionism, the Tractarian movement and Anglo-Catholicism, the Indian rebellion of 1857, and Italian republicanism during [End Page 183] the era of unification. The first of these chapters demonstrates how the prosecution and judges, during the 1838 trial of the Glasgow spinners, treated the accused as members of a conspiratorial cabal. By accusing them of taking secret oaths of initiation, the prosecution suggested that the spinners' loyalty to the union precluded loyalty to the nation. Moreover, the accusation that a secret committee directed the actions of the union implied that a small cabal had manipulated the rank and file for its own political ends. As Pionke demonstrates, the British press and members of Parliament used this same discursive formation to depict the Indian Mutiny as a conspiracy by a handful of designing men rather than a broad-based rebellion against English oppression. By implying that the rank and file lack social agency—that their actions were the result of conspiratorial manipulation, not their own volition—such representations legitimated guardianship of subaltern groups deemed incapable of self-governance.

Because Pionke is interested not only in how ruling elites use this rhetoric to produce Englishness as guardianship democracy, but also in the potential for resistance, he seeks out texts that destabilize this rhetoric and, in some cases, reframe it as a counter- discourse. As he points out in chapter 1, because freemasonry was practiced respectably by members of the ruling elite, the figure of the secret society could not always be confined to marginalized groups. Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841), for example, depicts the Prentice Knights as a dangerous secret society, but then destabilizes the opposition between English candor and conspiratorial secrecy by depicting the Protestant Association as equally secretive and socially disruptive. By the time we reach Benjamin Disraeli's Lothair (1870) and Italian unification, the rhetoric is radically destabilized. While there were attempts to stigmatize the Italian republican movement, which operated through secret societies, in a manner similar to the treatment of the Indian rebels, the opponents of the movement—the Pope and the Roman church—could not readily be aligned with British Protestant nationalism. Consequently, a whole series of such unstable oppositions phantasmatically emerge and dissolve throughout Disraeli's novel.

Like much recent work on liberal democracy, this study seeks to discover sites of "individual resistance" that a deterministic Foucauldianism would foreclose (xviii). This does not mean, however, that advocates of radical democracy produced a counter- rhetoric in response to the rhetoric of conspiracy deployed against them. Indeed, the kind of direct counter-discourse mounted by the Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics— exemplified here by John Henry Newman's brilliant riposte to charges of Jesuitism during the Papal Aggression crisis—seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. Pionke is careful to note that he finds no evidence that Dickens (or Disraeli, in whose Sybil [1845] he finds a similar destabilization of the rhetoric of conspiracy) meant to critique the rhetoric of power or those who deployed it. While his analyses suggest that these textual aporias opened up sites of resistance, however, exactly how these instabilities could ground resistance to power is not always clear.

Two unacknowledged critical issues are at play in Pionke's work, the...


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pp. 183-185
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