- The Secret History in Literature, 1660–1820 ed. by Rebecca Bullard and Rachel Carnell
Long, long ago in my college days, an early medieval Europe course introduced me to The Secret History by the Byzantine historian Procopius, which recounted in hairraising detail the vices and perversions of the (possibly demonic) court of the Emperor Justinian I and his wife, the powerful Empress Theodora. The latter was described as so vulgar and lustful that she once headlined a special act in which she re-created Leda and the Swan by having trained geese peck grain from her unmentionables. Procopius's work is understood now as an exercise in renunciative political rhetoric rather than an accurate re-creation of the imperial court. What I did not know, and was not taught in my first encounter with Procopius, was that he was laying the groundwork for a capacious genre that would emerge in the seventeenth century, the permutations of which throughout the long eighteenth century are mapped in this robust collection of essays.
The c. 550–560 Anekdota of Procopius was published in Latin in 1623 and in English as The Secret History of the Court of the Emperor Justinian (London, 1674; also, as The Debaucht Court [London, 1682]). The rediscovery of Procopius's work was taken as an object lesson in how to dismember historical probability to grind an axe; nor was Procopius found lacking in creative and textual power. According to Bullard's helpful introduction, [End Page 208] the translation of the prurient Procopian text inaugurated the entire genre of secret history, an exercise that allowed readers to view people "in a metaphorical and literal state of undress." This collection gives the genre something of the same treatment, and its essays are as varied in their tactics and allegiances as the hybridizing genre they explore.
The volume divides its seventeen essays into three sections: "Seventeenth-Century England," "Eighteenth-Century Britain," and "France and America." This organization works well; often the essays within each section follow each other chronologically and thematically. The editors are to be commended. All the names one would expect to find in a collection of wisdom on the secret history from literature scholars are here; all are clearly familiar with and in conversation with each other's scholarship, so much so that it would have been nice to see more cross-pollinating within the volume itself. Still, the experience of reading the volume straight through is recommended and rewarding.
The seventeenth-century section offers the reader roads less taken for thinking through the early stages of the relationship between secret history, novel—and much else. Michael McKeon, whose understanding of the secret history genre is notably expansive, makes a startling comparison between Paradise Lost and the secret history, close-reading Milton's heroic epic alongside Behn's Love-Letters to note how the narratives are "saturated" in love and war. But Milton also has a domestic side that McKeon brings out by concluding his piece with a curious "novelization" of Paradise Lost, suggesting that a different lens could situate the epic verse right into the evolution of domestic fiction. Martine W. Brownley emphasizes the experimental vogue in seventeenth-century history writing; if the historians were failing in their histories, still this should not obscure "their considerable achievements in related genres," which of course include the secret history, a "dead end" to historians but infinitely valuable to other writers. By no means were all of these other writers proto-novelists. Erin M. Keating uses the theme of "affective intimacy," particularly as it pertains to celebrities, to link the Restoration stage with secret history writing. Performance of secret histories changes the stakes a bit, because anonymity is a great deal more difficult to achieve on stage than in print, and actors could both perform roles in secret histories and be the subjects of the same genre. David A. Brewer, his signature lively prose on full display, takes a dive into Exclusion Crisis-era allegory and reading practices, and righteously critiques those who accept political...