'Fair copies?’ Titus Oates and the forging of literary politics in Seventeenth-Century England
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2021
In recent decades a resurgent History of the Book has helped to challenge the idea that the printed page is one constituted by words alone. Similarly, for all its critical indeterminacy the methods of New Historicism have invited us to consider how language, and its capacity to act, might have shaped the material and intellectual contexts of books, their reception and their consumption. Observing the principle that all texts are essentially objects culturally produced, both strands of scholarship have been united in a desire to resist the assumption that the ‘literary’ exists in a category quite apart from that which might be political or social. Yet as commonplace as these perceptions may be, their reach has yet to be fully extended into the realms of conspiracy and its popular representation within the late Stuart era. This thesis aims to correct that, using the ‘fictive’ allegations of Titus Oates and his Popish Plot to reflect more broadly on the intersection between popular literature and popular politics in this crucial era of state development. Indeed, in light of the received view that literature is a project defined in contradistinction to a ‘culture of fact’, it is argued that the ‘imaginary politics’ of Titus Oates are a vehicle particularly well suited to attending to these and related perceptions of the book-as-object as they bear on politics and politicking in Restoration England. The thesis thus maintains throughout a dual definition of plots and plotting, being both literary and political in nature, and investigating how those two domains may have been mutually influential. Chapter One demonstrates how the many linguistic determinations of the word ‘plot’ shared in the seventeenth century significant areas of conceptual overlap. Whether geodetically, militarily, or literarily defined this, it will be shown, was a fertile period for plotting and its conceptual development, as it was for language more broadly. With spelling not yet formalised, but print and its capacity to reach an ever-greater number of people increasing, it will be argued that this moment is especially susceptible to the merging of literary and political spheres. Chapter Two then attends directly to Titus Oates and the representation of his Plot during the height of its popular reception. It draws on a concept of text-as-textile, that is, as a material construct whose literary substance is one also thematically knitted together, in order to move away from the strict binaries which have so often beleaguered Oates criticism. Drawing on the work of critical and literary theorists, especially Lennard Davis’ concept of ‘factual fiction’, it will argue that aspects of Oates’ text can be placed on the same developmental trajectory as the early novel; primarily it takes the view that Oates’ Popish Plot text was essentially a publication undergoing a process of dialogue with itself, about itself. A role for rhetorical ambiguity thus established, Chapter Three then turns to Oates’ waning popularity. Specifically, it engages with an under-acknowledged discourse of the era which sought to vividly unmask Oates and the character of his deception by way of a combined verbal and visual reckoning. Crucially, it is shown that contemporaries deployed as their own many of the same linguistic strategies formerly endorsed by Oates, demonstrating the era’s inescapable fascination with ambiguity even as it sought to denounce it. Individually, each of these three chapters contributes to one or a number of key literary debates as they emerged at varying intervals throughout the seventeenth century. Cumulatively, the thesis progressively builds toward a greater understanding of how the literary and the political realms were often twinned in both purpose and outlook at a time when textual instability was still the norm.