By accessing the British Library’s unrivalled holdings in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature I was able to map a much broader novelistic engagement with colonial America than that familiar from a handful of much-discussed texts like Aphra Behn’s Oronooko (1688) and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), writes Matthew Pethers, Eccles Centre Fellow 2015. The archives also turned up some unexpected, and previously unheralded, gems such as access to the first extant novel to incorporate an American setting, Charles Croke’s Fortune’s Uncertainty (1667).
Having just embarked upon a project intended to offer an empirical and theoretical reshaping of the Anglo-American literary canon through the recovery of a long-neglected but culturally significant canon of novels written about the New World before the Revolution, my recent Eccles Centre Fellowship proved to be an ideal means of finding my feet amid a potentially elusive and intimidating mass of sources. So far my research has been dedicated to establishing the contents and parameters of five key genres of colonial-era American-set fiction – the Robinsonade, the Transportation Novel, the Plantation Novel, the Captivity Novel, and the Loyalist Novel – each of which offers a distinct spin on a set of shared questions about the transformations that life in America wrought upon British social identities, sexual relations and racial
categories. In seeking to map a much broader novelistic engagement with colonial America than that familiar from a handful of much-discussed texts like Aphra Behn’s Oronooko (1688) and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), I was fortunate to have access to the British Library’s unrivalled holdings in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature. Digging around in the outer reaches of the BL’s catalogue not only allowed me to fill in some important holes in my corpus by offering me books whose titles I’d previously only encountered as footnotes in secondary sources, it also turned up some unexpected, and previously unheralded, gems – such as Charles Croke’s Fortune’s Uncertainty (1667), a fascinating tale of a young rake’s deportation to Virginia as an indentured servant that now stands as perhaps the first extant novel to incorporate an American setting.
As it happened, during the Fellowship my eventual fate, like Croke’s hero Rodolphus, was to follow the path of the indentured servant to the colonies, since I soon became immersed in multiple examples of the Transportation Novel, as well as the scattered but substantial literature surrounding it. In addition to roman â clef like the anonymous Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman Returned from a Thirteen Years Slavery in America (1745) and Virtue Triumphant; or, Elizabeth Canning in America (1757), both based (very loosely) on sensational court cases and their aftermath, for example, I was able to find a host of autobiographies, tracts and ballads dealing with indentured servitude – ranging from The Vain Prodigal Life, and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier (1680) to The Sufferings of William Green (1775). Crucially, this plethora of material enabled me to comprehensively situate the Transportation Novel within wider cultural debates over indenture and to fully comprehend the distinctive agenda of this form, which presents, among other things, a much more optimistic and individualistic take on indenture than its counterparts in other genres. It was very much the depth and breadth of the British Library’s archive that allowed me to develop such a fully-rounded angle on the texts I am concerned with. Indeed, my Fellowship has already borne fruit in an essay on the various cultural representations of indenture during the colonial period that is forthcoming in The Cambridge History of American Working-Class Literature.
Since completing my Fellowship I have continued to draw on my research at the British Library as I begin to wrestle with the analytical questions raised by the category of the Transportation Narrative (an issue I have written about for BAAS on U.S. Studies Online), and I have already made invaluable headway in investigating the wider cultural reception of many of the novels I have been working on thanks to the material I gathered from eighteenth-century newspapers and magazines while at the BL. Much work remains to be done: on the material production and circulation of the “colonial American novel”; on the different ways in which these novels were apprehended in Britain and America; on their relation to a wider body of colonial writing; on the careers of their authors (some of whom had first-hand experience of the New World); and on the implications of this corpus for current models of transatlanticism, fictionality and book history. As I chart these various paths I am sure that the British Library will again prove indispensable.
Matthew Pethers is an Assistant Professor of American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Nottingham. He has published widely on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature, history and print culture, including articles in Early American Literature, History of Science, and American Studies, and book chapters in John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture (Bucknell University Press, 2012), The Materials of Exchange Between Britain and North East America, 1750-1900 (Ashgate, 2013), and New Directions in the History of the Novel (Palgrave, 2014). He is a co-editor of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Letters and Letter-Writing.