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12 - Protesting fiction, constructing history

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Donald R. Kelley
Affiliation:
Rutgers University, New Jersey
David Harris Sacks
Affiliation:
Reed College, Oregon
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Summary

Just over three hundred years ago, a typical 1690s pamphlet called The Second Spira appeared in a London bookshop in the Poultry, looking a lot like scores of other publications of the time. It reported a recent news item, recounting in detail the tormented death and last words of an unnamed religious apostate; its story was concisely and quite movingly told, the message explicit, the bead on the reader steady, and the tone predictably didactic. The death had occurred a month earlier in Westminster, and here was a circumstantial, last-hours account of someone who had literally suffered the agony of the damned – emotionally and physically – before giving up the ghost on 8 December 1692. When it appeared at John Dunton's shop on 9 January, the pamphlet was said to have been prepared from the notes of one J. S., a minister of the Church of England who had witnessed the death and recorded the agonized confession.

It is a vivid and rather well-written account, and in a decade enamored of the then-new journalism, with the last words of prisoners hanged on Tyburn's fatal tree, with the propagation of the gospel and the reformation of manners, and with the rising tides of confession and celebratory subjectivity that Jonathan Swift mocked in A Tale of a Tub, such a pamphlet on such a topic might have been expected to sell fairly well, several hundred copies perhaps. But no one (certainly not the author or bookseller) would have predicted the sensation it made.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain
History, Rhetoric, and Fiction, 1500–1800
, pp. 298 - 317
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1997

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