- Confessions of a Mass Public:Reflexive Formations of Subjectivity in Early Nineteenth-Century British Fiction
The title page of Thomas Little’s Confessions of an Oxonian (1826) features this epigraph from Byron: “The world will wonder at two things; that I should have had so much to confess; and that I should have confessed so much.” The notion of excess evoked by this quotation (and its originator) persists throughout the text that follows, which chronicles the Oxonian’s experience during his university years and beyond. Prefacing this narrative, however, is an introduction from Little, who casts himself as the “editor” of the Oxonian’s manuscript and “confirms” its authenticity:
The author of these Confessions fell a victim to the prevalence of typhus fever, some time ago, leaving, in the hands of the Editor, the production, now submitted to the public. It was, evidently, intended as an exposure of the real mischief, which the levities, so frequently, not to say generally practised [sic], during a residence at college, are calculated to produce.(1: i-ii)
Here, Little describes the Oxonian as emblematic of a type: the mischievous university student. Just a few sentences later, however, Little undermines this characterization by bringing attention to the Oxonian’s individuality:
[A]lthough the author related the various follies and vices, which it is his object to condemn, as taking place in his own character, it is a question of doubt, whether, in the actual commission of them, he could have, himself, borne a part, since his high sense of morality, and a religious principle, unconsciously often, and often, designedly, evinces itself, in the course of his work.(1: ii)
Little’s objection to the Oxonian’s pretense of representing the typical student is articulated in terms that also draw attention to the fabricated quality of the work; the Oxonian reveals himself to have exemplary morals “unconsciously” [End Page 387] as well as “designedly,” so that his singularity is at once unintentional and deliberate. In this description of the confessor’s subjectivity, then, lies a paradox that is germane to the genre of the fictional confession itself; it asks to be read as both real and fabricated, as both the intimate disclosure of a single individual and as a commercial good created for public consumption.
This is a paradox that persists across an entire set of novels published in early nineteenth-century Britain that, until now, have been neither widely known nor widely accessible:1
• R.P. Gillies, The Confessions of Sir Henry Longueville (1814)
• Thomas Little, Confessions of an Oxonian (1826)
• Edmund Carrington, Confessions of an Old Bachelor (1827) and Confessions of an Old Maid (1828)
• The Countess of Blessington, Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman (1836) and Confessions of an Elderly Lady (1838)
• John Ainslie, Antipathy: or, the Confessions of a Cat-Hater (1836)
• Charles Lever, The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839)
Together, these works form a subgenre of the novel that brands itself “confessions” while featuring formal and thematic traits that are conspicuously fictional. It is a curious mode that differs sharply from the traditional confession (exemplified by Augustine and Rousseau) in that it rejects the imperative to tell an essential truth about a self. It also differs from Romantic works (by Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley) that employ confession as a literary technique designed to “achieve authenticity in the depiction of characters, and vividness and immediacy in the fabrication of scene and situation” (Stelzig 18). Instead, the fictional confessions listed above seem to provide no discernible writerly subjectivity to which readers might direct their interest, let alone “bond” to such an extent that “life and art, the reader’s and the speaker’s experience, appear to be aligned on the same plane” (19). If, as Susan Levin has argued, “Romantic confessions revise the autobiographical convention in which the subject of the text is identical in name to the author in the text” (7), these works take this revision to an extreme.
This is not to say, however, that they are entirely unfamiliar. Each of these works can be seen as fitting into the broad generic category of the “confession” as it is identified by Stephen Behrendt: “a candid and impressionistically...