- True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England by Frances E. Dolan
Frances Dolan’s provocative new study tackles the interpretive problems posed by various kinds of “historical” textual evidence from early-modern England, particularly addressing the question of how to understand such documents in relation to the culture that produced them and their subsequent uses in later times. The key term in Dolan’s study is “relation,” and she declares at the outset several aspects of this topic:
supposedly true textual relations or accounts; the way such texts intervene in, depend on, supplement, or substitute for social relations; the central role of [End Page 155] figures of relation, such as simile and metaphor, in the period’s vexed attempts to relate truth through words; and the sometimes occluded relations between our methodological debates and debates in the period.(pp. 1–2)
Dolan attends to the ways in which both early-modern readers or spectators as well as modern scholars are challenged to understand texts in different relational frameworks: of theory and practice, of historical reality and its representation, of plain statement and figurative language.
Much of the study is an attempt to criticize the various ways literary scholars and historians have struggled to understand the overtly fictional as well as the supposedly nonfictional texts from the past, as they sometimes mistake prescriptions for practice and idealizations for realities. Dolan rightly criticizes historians who want textual evidence to be empirically reliable and who will cite language and situations from, for example, Shakespeare’s plays as accurate images of life as it was lived in early-modern England. Literary scholars, especially new historicists who make arresting moments in literary texts representations of the culture as a whole, are also subject to methodological questioning.
The book uses a variety of case studies to reveal the complexity of both early-modern and modern reading practices: the official account of the Gunpowder Plot, True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings against … Garnet a Jesuit (1606); three documented witchcraft prosecutions that resulted in acquittal; the leaked report of the parliamentary committee investigating the 1666 London Fire and the inscription on Christopher Wren’s commemorative monument that was chiseled off, then later reinscribed; church court depositions that mediated and transformed testimony (especially of women); two marital advice manuals, Henry Bullinger’s The Christen State of Matrimonye (1541) and William Gouge’s Of Domesticall Duties (1622); William Shakespeare’s and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII or All Is True (1613) and the allegedly transformed Shakespearean Cardenio revised by Lewis Theobald and presented as The Double Falsehood.
In some respects, Dolan returns in this study to some of the concerns of her earlier book, Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture (Ithaca, NY, 1999), in which she examined some of the anti-Catholic and misogynistic fantasies in Protestant discourse as well as in English mainstream culture generally. In the first half of this new book, she highlights aspects of English anti-Catholicism visible in the official account of the trial of Henry Garnet for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, in witchcraft narratives, and in the conspiracy theories expressed in the parliamentary report on the causes of the London Fire and in the inscription on the official monument blaming the conflagration on the “popish faction.” She emphasizes “the fiercely partisan nature of what constitutes a true relation in this period” (p. 99).
Perhaps the most interesting parts of this book are chapters 4 and 5. The former chapter demonstrates how testimony, particularly women’s testimony, was mediated and transformed in the records of church court depositions: the “I” of the recorded [End Page 156] testimony, collaboratively created by the witness and the court clerk, is a problematic one—a fact that calls into question the use of such documentary material as historical evidence. The latter chapter illustrates how William Gouge’s method in his marriage manual was to challenge readers to exercise responsible agency in interpreting the...