It’s hot as fuck, said the friend who handed me Confessions of the Fox, a faux-memoir set in eighteenth-century London. I was a little sceptical. After all, this was Jordy Rosenberg’s first novel. A queer theorist and historian of this period, he has re-written an eighteenth-century life from a trans perspective – a fool’s errand, murmured the cynic in me, to claim a world dominated by heteropatriarchy. Yet I found that as well as being hot as fuck, it was also something of a masterpiece.
The novel poses as a lost manuscript, authored by an outlaw named Jack Sheppard, and only recently discovered by an academic. Sheppard was once a popular hero: a celebrity thief, famous for picking the pockets of the rich. Born into poverty in 1702, Jack was sent to the workhouse at six to become a cane-chair maker, and by and by, became a brilliant carpenter. But he remained trapped in a system of exploitative labour, indentured by merchants until he rebelled, becoming a thief and, when he got caught, a jail-breaker. After a series of fantastic escapes from the law, he was publicly executed, aged 22. Even in his own lifetime, Jack was fast transfigured into fiction. At his hanging, a pseudo-memoir was sold among the crowd. Soon afterwards, his life was dramatised in plays and operas, with casts that included his great love, Edgeworth Bess, and his nemesis, Jonathan Wild – creating a rich body of literature to which Rosenberg refers as ‘Sheppardiana’.
In Rosenberg’s version, the bones of the old story remain, but there’s a gender difference: Jack is not a cis-man. In an early chapter, we meet Jack at the age of ten, then assigned female. He hates the ‘girl textiles’ he’s forced to wear: organza and lace. By night, he picks the locks of his leg-cuffs, ritualistically clanked shut by his master, and sneaks off to the taverns of Drury Lane, where he passes as a boy, and where he’s free. It’s during these escapades that Jack meets Bess, a sex worker and an anarchist, who incites him to escape his master and begin a life of thieving. Thieves, here, are ‘screwsmen’ – sexual pun intended. There’s a long literary history, in fact, of dirty riddles about stiff keys and oily locks that ask, with a wink: what am I? But in Rosenberg’s retelling, the old erotic puns – indeed, the entire storyline – have been queered. Inside a trans frame, ‘screwsmen’ takes on a finer shading. Cocks, or at least bio-cocks, are minor characters. Picking locks, here, is understanding female erotics, something in which Jack revels. (In amusing contrast to the cis-men in the book, it should be said, who collectively suffer from an inability to conceptualise female pleasure. ‘He dove head-first and set to work,’ Bess recalls of one client, ‘grinding his tongue like an ancient grandfather Clock, thunking its way through the relentless seconds.’) At first, Bess gives Jack ‘an arched smooth horn – for screwin’’ which he straps on. Later, she performs top surgery, and they stumble upon a supplement made of pig’s sperm and raisins – a kind of testosterone gel – that makes Jack feel, for the first time in his life, whole: ‘as if every bit of him had been just a hair removed from every other – and the substance had sent a Stitch quietly across the Gap.’
And then there’s the sex. One of the book’s refrains is: ‘the body is written in the process of making love’. When Bess and Jack fuck, it’s airborne. She crams his nostrils and enters his veins. ‘The sweet and salt aroma of Bess bloomed out of her and streamed up Jack’s nose in a feverish dust.’ So often queer love involves language production – there are so few words for female cum, for example. Finding the language is a crucial part of remaking these narratives, as Rosenberg does in his descriptions of Bess’s pussy – ‘the taste of marshmallow and warm breath; saltwater threaded with Violet’ – or in Bess and Jack’s joint orgasm. ‘[Bess] would spray out of him, would fog the room with a million crimson Petals, with a wave of soft silver gunshot, with a rolling meadow of grass-green fire, heaven under them and pouring over them and it would bury them, in the best way, together and alive.’
While producing language in the manner of a poet, Rosenberg also takes pleasure in cliché, in being a little trashy. He takes the old tropes, and redeploys them with pomp and extravagance. One evening, Jack steals a wooden rocking horse from a toy shop, and carries it to Bess’s room. She pulls up her skirts and rides it for him, holding his gaze all the while, ‘settling her quim against the oiled wood and rocking back and forth – the latter so slowly.’ But in Rosenberg’s hands, the cliché cannot be contained, and the stolen horse that Bess rocks on soon becomes a continuation of Jack’s body, and an extension of their sex. ‘A firework exploded inside him as he watched the meeting point of her notch against the wood, the Resin growing and soaked and tart. He wanted to fall to his knees and lick the Wet from the darkened grain.’
Rosenberg has written the book in the vocabulary and styles of eighteenth-century literature. It’s amazing to discover an old and filthy wordset, preserved in period pornography written by men for men, re-tooled for queer purposes. ‘Velvets’ are tongues. Pussies are ‘Water Mills’ or ‘quims’. Much of the dialogue is London ‘cant’, the underworld lingo of the period. (‘Do you jaw the bear garden?’ asks Bess when she first meets Jack: do you speak the underworld tongue? ‘I do flash,’ he replies, with all the swagger as he can muster.) Here, Rosenberg’s scholarship shows; he has an intense feel for the period, its slang and literary styles – such as the fashion for whimsically capitalising nouns, an impulse disciplined out by Victorian grammarians. This gives his sentences a certain eccentricity, flair, humour. (‘He held, toyed with, and drenched his fingers in her Quim. His love for her Quim was encyclopedic. How she gasped and stared at him when he filled her with his hand, squeezing her little Sponge inside.’) Rosenberg has an ear for it: his sentences sing. He enjoys the freedom of this older, irregular English, which offers room for invention, room to play. Cocks are softly mocked as ‘sugar sticks’ or ‘arborvitaes’ – Latin for evergreen shrubs – or occasionally a ‘wiggy pomp’ (for an old hairy one). Meanwhile, there seem to be innumerable words for spread legs. Page nine alone is annotated with a run of footnotes, all of which read ‘pussy’, alternatively called a muff, The Monosyllable, tuzzy-muzzy, the Fruitful Vine and – my favourite – the Boiling Spot.
Rosenberg has actually written two books at once. A second story unfolds in the footnotes, told by a Dr R. Voth – perhaps an alias of Rosenberg – who is an eighteenth-century scholar and trans man, working at a university in New England in the present day. In his introductory note, Voth explains that he’s discovered the manuscript, and then enthusiastically sets about transcribing it in a manner comparable to Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Voth’s footnotes are at first incisive and helpful, but they become increasingly reflexive, sprawling several pages at a time – missives on Voth’s personal life, and his escalating troubles at the university. Voth is annotating as he reads, and he cannot believe what he finds. ‘Jack was assigned female at birth?’ reads one footnote. ‘A significant departure from the extant Sheppardiana.… this I’ve never seen.’ Also, to Voth’s delight, the manuscript avoids all the usual bad politics in representing queer and trans lives. It holds off ever revealing Jack’s birth name, for example (‘How curious!’ exclaims his footnote), and from describing Jack’s genitals in any detail. (‘Remarkable!’ writes Voth, ‘Unlike almost any other sexological or protosexological document from the period.’) There’s also his realisation that the manuscript’s erotic language is loosened from gender binaries: quim, it is discovered, means any kind of orifice. (‘I am led to conclude that for rogues – and god how I love this – “quim” and all its cognates… must signify any loved point of entry on the body, irrespective of gender or sex.’) Voth is in heaven. It’s an impossible artefact – and of course, it is impossible, which becomes the point. Its perfection arises Voth’s suspicions, and he soon discovers that the manuscript has been tinkered with. This is where the footnotes stray into treacherously meta territory, an academic mise en abyme. One of Voth’s students reveals the existence of a group of radical librarians who work to ‘liberate’ books from their historical constraints. ‘Late at night, during the school holidays, a number of stacks nationwide have been infiltrated and – how to put this? – edited,’ Voth confides in the reader. Rather than preserving books, these archivists add to them, threading manuscripts with anachronistic citations. When it becomes clear that the Confessions is one of these ‘improved’ texts, Voth quits his job – and joins the movement.
Another twist in Rosenberg’s retelling is that Bess is imagined as a woman of colour – not Edgeworth Bess of Sheppardiana, but Bess Khan. We learn her father was a ‘lascar’, a sailor in service of the East India Company, and that Bess is of South Asian descent. With this simple gesture, the book becomes an act of decolonisation. In recounting Bess’s life, Rosenberg unearths a remarkable piece of history – the story of the Fens. A marshland in the east of England, the Fens were home to a community of fishermen and hermits. In the late seventeenth century, a group of ‘gentlemen adventurers’ (venture capitalists), led by the Earl of Bedford, attempted to drain the marshes, hoping to profit from farming its fertile soil, but a band of local freedom fighters known as the Fen Tigers sabotaged their efforts. Rosenberg fits Bess Khan into this history as the daughter of a lascar and a Tiger, who found refuge in the London underworld. ‘I have sought to oppose the ahistorical tendency of much fiction to imagine early modern London as a uniformly white city,’ Rosenberg explains in his epilogue. The context of empire meant there were many people of colour in London at that time. They are simply not represented in the surviving literature. Here, then, is the problem of writing history: who get to speak across time? What sources survive? Rosenberg suggests that this is where fiction can come in. If historical documents are full of blindspots, prejudices and oversights, and authored for the most part by the literate, then revisionist fiction has a serious role to play in queering and decolonising history, in creating new stories about trans or brown lives. Rosenberg’s radical librarians go a step further by proposing a new, conceptual genre: revisionist non-fiction. Taken seriously, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, revising history activates it into representation, contemporary politics, makes it alive. On the other, it overwrites actual history, and in the process, might weaken the historical facts about how certain stories prevail over others, and why.
Rosenberg revels in fantasy, too. Towards the end of the book, Jack learns of a community of Maroon pirates led by an escaped slave named Okoh. These vagrants concocted the hormonal elixir so loved by Jack, a gel made of pig’s sperm and starlight that ‘thickens’ and ‘grizzles’ the body, and which the pirates imbibe to exceed biological limits, becoming post-gender and eventually trans-species. In the footnotes, Voth too courts fantasy when he joins the radical librarians, who reside in a fictive space known as The Stretches, their home ‘a colossal floating library in chitin, spiderweb and glass’ which contains thousands of altered texts. In this way, Rosenberg’s hovering utopias reminds me of Afrofuturist mythology – the stories of Drexciya, for example, an imaginary, underwater city populated by the children of pregnant slaves thrown off slave ships.
Rosenberg demonstrates how re-visioning history can be an intimate, loving, sensory act. At one point, Voth describes the archivists’ vocation as ‘breathing air into a previously unfelt opening’. What delighted me so much about the Confessions was that Rosenberg does exactly this: breathes air into the unfelt openings of Jack Sheppard’s life. The Confessions is a call to action, a giving of permission to pirate history, to build a raft and sail backwards, to stretch and borrow and take up space in other times. ‘I stole back what is rightfully ours,’ Voth says in his last footnote. ‘In the name of every woman whose touch tethered me to the future, of every woman who visited me in the dungeon of myself… In the name of those whose names we know, and those whose names we can never know.’
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
IZABELLA SCOTT is an editor at The White Review.