McKeon, Day 3: Some Final Thoughts, and a Few Questions

Part 3 of McKeon’s book traces the genealogical role of the “secret history” as it fed into the better-known development of the domestic novel during this period. In many respects, this portion resembles the kind of argument and organization found in McKeon’s Origins of the English Novel, since we find here a series of readings, some brief, some extended, of individual novels, though these are framed within a story about the emptying-out of the secret history as a genre, and the implications of this emptying-out for the emergent category of domesticity, as well as the private/public differential that helped create it.

By the time we reach writers such as Manley or Haywood, the old function of the secret history as a vehicle for conveying the sexual, dynastic secrets of the powerful had been swamped by other kinds of pleasures,and other forms of particularity (here his account bears comparison with Gallagher’s in Nobody’s Story). This refunctioning of the secret history genre, which begins with Behn’s Love Letters, brings the close analysis of interest and intrigue so typical of Restoration political discourse into alliance with its analysis of love and sexual attraction, so often found in the romance-influenced fiction of this period. When we think of the motives and impulses that drive Behn’s characters forward, for example, we find that love has just become war by other means. Though this kind of analysis has its precedents in critics like Miner, for example, McKeon’s sensitivity to the peculiar political and erotic power of secrets, and the fascination they hold, make this a very persuasive reading.

To expand on something I mentioned in the comments, I thought the Behn reading was the highlight of this portion, because it captured the complexity of the correspondences between this era’s politics and her presentation of its erotics, especially in relation to point of view, narrative structure, and characterization. McKeon’s private/public differential helps us recognize what is most fascinating in her presentation of female characters: their often opaque motives, and their freely admitted pursuit of self-interest. But, as McKeon points out, this libidinal, politicized version of inwardness and privacy (always threatened, however, with the catastrophic effects of public scandal) leaves little room for concerns like domestic economy, the household, child-rearing, or any of the projects of social “reproduction” and maintenance that get identified with the domestic novel.

On the most general level, what I most appreciated about this book was its ability to pull together and memorably organize texts and events from really disparate parts of English culture, like the Warming-Pan Baby and the Beau Wilson affair, Behn’s Love Letters along with its sodomitical imitators, plus Pope’s Windsor Forest and Haywood’s Fantomina, all through its very broadly construed dynamic of the public/private differential. I think that we as specialists walk around with a sense that we could, if we wished, articulate how these vastly different things floating around in a particular year, all sort together. But McKeon has really done the work showing how certain key categories and distinctions can effective organize the chaos of cultural history in this manner.

Rather than take the usual reviewer’s tack of dumping the book’s faults into the second-to-last paragraph, I thought, since we (hopefully) still have McKeon here, that I’d close with some questions that I was left with after finishing the book. I’m hoping that McKeon will take up at least one of these in his response today.

1. As Carrie Shanafelt suggested in her initial post, the Secret History, which seems to extend and broaden the dialectical method found in the Origin of the Novel, seems rather reserved about entering into contemporary methodological debates. Indeed, with the exception of its extended treatment of Habermas, and its very brief discussion of Marx in the Introduction, there is little discussion of method on offer here, apart from the very ample documentation in the footnotes.

I was wondering, then, how this book could be related to works closer to feminist literary history or cultural studies, like Gallagher’s Nobody’s Story or Warner’s Licensing Entertainment. More generally, I was wondering how McKeon or our readers might locate this study in terms of discipline, as something produced within the field of literary or historical studies, or as a synthesis of work done across a number of fields.

And these two questions I drew up specifically for McKeon, if he wished to address them:

2. The book has an interesting “architectural mix” of synchronic and diachronic discussion, chapter by chapter, and part by part. If I could imagine it as a city block, I’d picture it as pretty varied, with skyscrapers, midsize buildings, and little storefront shops sharing the space. Could you talk a little about how you arrived at the organization of the book?

3. As someone who has worked and taught in 18c studies for awhile, I felt pretty comfortable with the range of texts used, and the mix of canonical and non-canonical authors discussed. But I was curious about how you as an author conceived of the audience for this book while you were writing it: educated lay readers? 18c specialists? undergraduates? graduate students?

Best wishes,


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