- Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division
The idea that a culture of censorship led authors, especially literary authors, to artfully disguise their controversial politics cannot possibly be news. The fact that Lovelace was a Royalist and sympathized with the king, or that Dryden was a partisan (one way or the other) and in Absalom and Achitophel wrote in defense of James II’s right to succession—these cannot possibly be facts that are in need of proving, let alone in need of the scrupulous and articulate proofs that Randy Robertson provides in Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. While Robertson’s book is filled with points of substance, its thesis is underwhelming to say the least: taking on Annabel Patterson’s well-known theory of the hermeneutics of censorship, Robertson seeks to establish the crucial point that the seventeenth-century was a period of “tensions and divisions” (207), not a period of consensus. This seems to me almost as controversial as the question of whether in the 1650s England achieved a truly “authentic” (102) and “genuine” (114) version of the Habermasian ideal of a public sphere, an issue which Robertson carefully considers and then rejects in his third chapter.
This is a book that deserves a better thesis. Robertson’s widely sourced and punctiliously reasoned chapters too often amount to proving the obvious (the question of whether Lovelace’s poems hint at Royalist concerns) or the obviously illusive (the question of whether the political culture of the 1650s constitutes an ideal public sphere). Robertson clearly knows each of his case studies inside and out, and the exposition of his evidence, both historical and textual, is both highly informative and persuasive. However, whenever he picks up his main thesis, the gig is up. Towards the end of the first chapter on Histrio-Mastrix, for example, having spent the bulk of the chapter culling instances of Prynne’s “tacit snubs of the king” (40), Robertson turns up the stakes: it is in “the glimmers of artistry in Histrio-Mastrix” that Prynne shows “not so much tact” (Patterson’s thesis, or at least Robertson’s reduced version of it) but “deceit, a tactic to outmaneuver Crown intelligence” (51). Although this factor of “artistry” is made to sound significant, it amounts to nothing more than the observation that Prynne has at times relied on allusion and “elliptical analogy” to “criticize the state [End Page 170] obliquely” (53). Again, recognizing that seventeenth-century authors might have been indirect in their criticism of the state is very old news; Robertson’s effort to pin down exactly where Prynne “gives the game away” (49) is simply unneeded.
The chapters of particular interest to Restoration scholarship, one on Dryden and Marvell and one on Swift, are, fortunately, much more successful. Although the main point of argument remains more or less to prove that certain works were politically controversial—that they participated in the “conflict,” not compromise (as Patterson would have us believe), that shaped the “censorship contest” of the day—Robertson at least approaches these two case studies with a more developed set of questions. For instance, looking at the author hunting habits of Restoration readers, as well as the higher-stakes prying of censors, Robertson takes up the very different examples of the anonymously printed Absalom and Achitophel and the Second Advice in order to develop a hermeneutics of anonymity and “strategic attribution” (140). Dryden donned the cloak of anonymity, Robertson explains, so as to assume an air of authorial objectivity and encourage readerly impartiality; also, it was an egoistic ploy of authorial self-promotion—if readers can guess that he wrote it, then he has both substantiated and further endorsed his brand recognition as an author. Marvell—actually, “Marvell or someone of his kidney,” since Robertson is reluctant to get involved in an author hunting expedition of his own—deploys anonymity as an offensive tactic: sending the hounds after a false scent (Waller, Denham, maybe Buckingham) is part of a...