I Believe Hardly a Word of It:
Fact, Fiction, and Forgery
in Eighteenth-Century Narratives

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University -- Newark

Delivered 10 March 2000 at the CUNY Graduate Center

This paper provides not so much an answer as a question, and a naive one at that, which grew out of my recent work on fakes and forgeries. Such frauds are not long to seek: the eighteenth century is crawling with them. Last year I spoke to this group about George Psalmanazar, the Frenchman who, by speaking a fantastic gibberish and spinning tall tales worthy of Münchausen, passed for a native of exotic Formosa. There's William Lauder, who accused Milton of plagiary by inventing the old books from which Paradise Lost was supposedly copied. We all know about James Macpherson, whose bogus epics by the invented third-century Scottish bard were all the rage for decades, and the marvelous boy Tom Chatterton, who at the age of sixteen turned out thousands of pages of synthetic fifteenth-century poetry. Another teenager, William Henry Ireland, "discovered" thousands of Shakespearean documents, including an entire play -- Vortigern and Rowena -- that was actually played on the London stage.

It seems important to figure out what all these cases have in common -- what, in short, constitutes a fake. So let's see: each faker is a liar, who disseminates extended falsehoods, who represents his work as something it is not, and who tries to deceive his audience about the nature of his text. So far, so good. But here a problem arises: notice that I've described not only Psalmanazar and Macpherson, but also Defoe and Richardson. According to these criteria, our beloved novelists are guilty of the same crimes as the mendacious finks: their works are filled with lies, they represent them as something they're not, and they try to deceive their audience about the nature of their texts. The conclusion is inescapable: the eighteenth-century novelists are just as bad as the forgers.

To prosecute such a case too earnestly would be silly; it would serve only to get me a profile in Lingua Franca ("Was Richardson a Forger? -- One Scholar Says So"). And my reputation as an eccentric crank is secure enough without the aid of Lingua Franca. The fact is, novels and lies are different. We all know they're different -- no one would doubt it. When Boswell naively asked Johnson, "What is poetry?" Johnson replied, "Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is."1 We all know the difference between novels and lies, but it will not be easy to tell what it is. Still, I'm going to try, and even though I'm bound to fail, perhaps my failure will give us some insight into the eighteenth century's good and bad liars.

Actually, when I said "no one would doubt" that novels and lies are different, I committed my own little lie: there have in fact been many people, including in our eighteenth century, who have accused fiction of being simply deception. Let's start with the lead counsel for the prosecution. Plato is the most famous one to level the charge against poets: "I condemn them because they tell lies."2 A more succinct accusation with more far-reaching implications is hard to imagine.

Plato was not the first to make this charge;3 neither was he the last. Augustine devoted two works to falsehoods, the early De mendacio and the later Contra mendacium; the preposition in the latter title leaves no doubt where he stands. De mendacio offers a taxonomy of eight kinds of lie, each with several sub-types, and in the end argues that all are immoral.4 Aquinas concurs, as do many Renaissance critics anxious about the truth claims made by fiction. And Plato found allies among the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Though most Puritan charges against literature concern the specific immorality it cultivates -- Gosson's "sinful fancies" -- plenty of critics disparaged fiction itself.

The glove Plato slapped across poetry's face brought about a response. It had to: literature's fate depended on it. If we plead guilty to the Platonic charge, we're forced to jettison the works of Homer and Virgil as worthless, even harmful. Worse still, we have to account for the embarrassing fact that Jesus himself was a liar, if we hold him to the strictest standards of veracity. "Behold, there went out a sower to sow" -- there may be fundamentalists so fundamental that they believe even the parables are literally true, and that this sower had a name; but most agree that Christ deceived in the inessentials to convey a higher truth. Though Plato could assert confidently that "There is no lying poet in God,"5 Christian apologists had a more difficult task with a Savior -- himself the way, the truth, and the life -- who seemed at times to violate the truth.

Here's a way out: redefine truth, and separate higher truth from what we might call mere actuality. It's a bold step to suggest a paradoxical answer to laughing Pilate's quid est veritas. And though again not the first,6 our lead counsel for fiction's defense will be Sir Philip Sidney. His masterstroke was to provide a sound theoretical foundation for a plea of nolo contendere:

To the [charge] that they should be the principal liars, I answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar. . . . The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.7
Fiction's lies aren't real lies because they don't ask to be taken for true -- or, rather, not "true" in any vulgar sense, though they may deliver a higher-order truth in the guise of lower-order falsehood. As Sidney writes elsewhere in the Defense, "Though [the poet] recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not."8 Literature is somehow outside of, or exempt from, the laws of truth and fiction that govern other situations. The poet makes some kind of truth claims, but "he telleth them not for true." The class of genres we call imaginative literature somehow invokes a set of quotation marks that serve to insulate its statements from the scrutiny any other claim should expect. Michael Riffaterre says as much when he opens his Fictional Truth with the confident assertion, "Fiction is a genre whereas lies are not. . . . A novel always contains signs whose function is to remind readers that the tale they are being told is imaginary."9

But where are these signs, these quotation marks, to be found? What mechanism inherent in the genre tells us to activate a different set of reading strategies? It's tempting to refer to the intention of the authors, especially since most commentators on lying insist that a lie is not simply an untruth but an intentional untruth. But even if Wimsatt and Beardsley had not warned us that "critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle," in most cases our only evidence of authorial intention is authorial statements, and their value is exactly the question. If there are non-affirmative quotation marks, they have to be on the page somewhere.

Form provides one conspicuous set of indicators. Poetry, for instance, is easier to recognize as "literary" (and therefore non-affirming) than prose because its metrical departures from the rhythms of "natural speech" announce that it is not to be judged by the same standards. When Mandeville begins with "A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees," or Barbauld declares "The Muses have turned gossips," no reader will expect there to be an actual hive, or that the muses are now chatting over a fence. The form itself warns us that a lie is coming, and that it is not to be accorded the kind of trust -- or is it degree of trust? -- we usually give to "straight" statements of fact. (Of course the most prosaic truth can be versified, as critics from Aristotle through Sidney were quick to point out, though we're mercifully spared many practical examples of such.) But pure formalism will take us only so far. We'd like to imagine that we could examine any extended falsehood and pigeonhole it as salutary fiction or pernicious fraud. But deception in prose is a tricky matter: the prose narrative's form is equally suitable to fact and fiction, and there's no clear signal telling us whether the author something or nothing affirms.

We get a lot of help from the institutional mechanisms that have grown up with print culture. When we buy books labeled "Penguin Classics," we're tipped off: don't read this as fact. But there are two problems there, both worth addressing: first, those signals may be either incomplete or contradictory; second, not all of those institutional mechanisms were in place in the age we're discussing. A book placed in the fiction section of the bookshop, with "A Novel" as the subtitle and an authorial preface about the experience of making it up, is overdetermined as fiction: only a dunce could miss it. But not every work is so clear. In the eighteenth century, it was a widespread convention to preface works of fiction with more or less solemn protestations that they are not fiction at all.

In fact the novel, generically the new kid on the block in our period, is uncommonly suited to this sort of self-representation: we can easily compile a catalogue of novels advertised as true stories, but imagine how much more difficult it would be to create a similar list of dramas or narrative poems that represent themselves as factual. Milton doubtless would have defended Paradise Lost as true in all sorts of ways, but certainly not in the same way as Crusoe, which sports a Preface by an "Editor" who "believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it." Defoe is at it again in Moll Flanders: "The World is so taken up of late with Novels and Romances, that it will be hard for a private History to be taken for Genuine." Oroonoko famously bills itself as "A true Story": "I have taken care [it] shou'd be Truth." Richardson, too, hides behind the mask of an "Editor" in his novels. Fielding's Shamela is a playful exploration of the truth-claims of Pamela's Preface: it is Richardson's apparently solemn insistence on the authenticity of Pamela's letters that allows Fielding to argue that "the whole Narrative is . . . a Misrepresentation of Facts, . . . a Perversion of Truth." "The true name of this Wench," he insists, "was SHAMELA, and not Pamela," and backs up his claims with "Letters, which I assure you are authentick."10 We tend to dismiss such prefaces as "mere" convention, taken seriously by no one. That's a dangerous business, and even if it's true, why don't we similarly dismiss the protestations of, say, Macpherson and Chatterton as "mere" convention?

One promising avenue is to consider the persistence of the author in representing his or her work -- not only within the text itself, but outside. If we can corner the author and ask the question -- one to which we demand an affirming answer -- that might do the trick. Of course we don't always have the option of asking an author, but in many cases historical evidence helps us make a determination. We don't expect the narrator of Joseph Andrews to admit to his own fictionality, but if we met Fielding in a coffee house and put the question, he'd likely own up. If we did the same thing to Macpherson -- as, of course, many did -- he'd insist on the authenticity of Ossian's poems -- as, of course, he did.

So it's a matter of identifying the boundaries within which the nonaffirmative mode prevails, of figuring out what constitutes the poetic "inside" and the authentic "outside" of the text. But what appears unproblematic at first proves to be messy in practice. That such assertions of veracity often appear in the prefaces to these works is important and disorienting. Prefaces, by virtue of their position in books, seem to be outside the fiction. The author seems to speak in propria persona, free of guise and even irony, and we're liable to think the non-affirmative part of the book hasn't yet begun. So even figuring out where an author is speaking straight is by no means straightforward.

But did people ever really make the mistake in practice? In fact, they not only did, but do. Behn's "true Story" has confused many readers; for most of the twentieth century, Behn scholarship was devoted to examining the truth of that claim. Consider, for instance, Ernest Bernbaum's often-quoted article, "Mrs. Behn's Biography a Fiction," which appeared in PMLA in 1913. Bernbaum's big discovery is that Oroonoko isn't literally true: he challenges the tradition that Behn spent time in Surinam. It looks positively quaint now; we like to imagine he was as naive as some of our dimmer undergrads, and giggle to think that something like that could appear in PMLA now. But have we really come a long way? With other books we're equally in the dark. How, for instance, to classify Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year? Our three centuries' experience of novels provides little help; imagine the difficulties of those who wrestled with a new form.

Anecdotal evidence of incompetent readers, though sparse, is valuable because it shows that not all contemporary readers picked up on the necessary clues. And not merely delusional Quixotes -- apparently sane readers addressed letters to Pamela B., as they still do to Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street and even to Romeo and Juliet in Verona (though these correspondents evidently never reached the end of the play; otherwise they would realize the star-crossed lovers are in no condition to reply). And even Swift's satire -- which seems easy to spot as fictional because of its implausibility -- is probably clearer to us than to Swift's contemporaries, who were expected to swallow the most ludicrous representations in travel narratives. The absurdity of flying islands and talking horses was not enough to cue some members of Swift's reading public. If the stories are to be believed, one reader, proud of his powers of deduction, declared that "he believed hardly a word of it," while another, more gullible still, sought in vain for Lilliput on a map. These readers have missed the generic clues that Gulliver is to be read not as one would read a news account -- that its truth claims, if any, are of a different nature altogether.

(An excursus: I often wonder about the kind and degree of credulity the ingenuous readers of supermarket-checkout tabloids like the Weekly World News accord to stories like "Alien Love Secrets: You and your mate can enjoy out-of-this-world sex by using the super-advanced sexual techniques of space aliens!" Are they really taken in by tales of vampire bats with thirty-pound tumors on the moon, or do they give these stories more sophisticated and ironic readings than we think? Asking the question straight out would doubtless prejudice the answers -- "I believe hardly a word of it" -- but perhaps it will be a project for a clever and conscientious sociologist.)

And so to conclude. I promised no answers, and I've delivered none -- only a vague sense that there must be a set of codes, no doubt historically conditioned, but perhaps so subtle as to resist explicit formulation, and that this probably isn't the whole story in any case. We're left with an "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" argument, which is deeply unsatisfying. But it'll have to do. Distinguishing fibs from fiction is essentially a moral question, and like most moral questions, depends on the inscrutable state of the sinner's soul. It therefore admits of shades of gray, rather than black and white. A thorough relativism isn't the answer, though such seems to be the implication of both Riffaterre's Fictional Truth and Lennard Davis's Factual Fictions -- it's still valuable to preserve a distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, as we do now and as the eighteenth century did. But it's wise, too, to be aware of the state of intellectual flux in which eighteenth-century readers found themselves, and to recognize that our desire for a simple rule by which we can separate the sheep from the goats is likely to be frustrated by the complex range of misrepresentations with which the eighteenth century had to deal. It doesn't make for the best headlines in Lingua Franca, but we're unlikely to do better.


1. Life of Johnson, 3:38.

2. Republic 2.377d.

3. Aristotle says Solon was the first to make the argument: see Metaphysics, 1.2 (983a). See also Pindar's First Olympian Ode. Geoffrey Shepherd writes, "By the time of Plato the debate was a stock theme" (Sidney, An Apology for Poetry or the Defense of Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd [London: Nelson, 1965], p. 199).

4. The only exception: "Jocose lies . . . have never been considered as real lies, since both in the verbal expression and in the attitude of the one joking such lies are accompanied by a very evident lack of intention to deceive" (De mendacio, in Saint Augustine: Treatises on Various Subjects, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, vol. 16 of The Fathers of the Church [New York: Fathers of the Church, 1952], p. 54).

5. Republic 2.382d.

6. See, for instance, John of Salisbury: "Sed sub verborum tegmine vera latent" (Enthetics 186); "Mendacia poetarum inserviunt veritati" (Policraticus, ed. Webb, 1.186.12).

7. Defence of Poetry, p. 52.

8. Defence, p. 53.

9. Michael Riffaterre, Fictional Truth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), p. 1.

10. Fielding himself, though, is less concerned than his predecessors with the veracity of his fictions. Even though Joseph Andrews presents itself as the narrator's report of an actual story (as when Fielding confesses "He accordingly eat either a Rabbit or a Fowl, I never could with any tolerable Certainty discover which"), the device is half-hearted at best. Fielding is too fond of being an intrusive and manipulative narrator to have much use for factual protestations. See Riffaterre, Fictional Truth, pp. 29-30, for some insightful comments on the effect of humor and intrusive narration on verisimilitude.