True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England – Book Review

Frances Dolan’s True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England is a textual journey into the meaning of ‘true relations’, which refers, in simple terms, to the credible reportage of happenings often backed up with well-intentioned documentation attesting to one account’s worthiness over any other ‘true relation’.

Dolan is keenly interested in debates surrounding interpretations of textual evidence and how such debates provide a framework for achieving a new historical understanding of ‘evidence’, particularly during the seventeenth century.

The book is made up of six chapters, divided into two sections. ‘Crises of Evidence’, the first section, introduces the reader to early modern crises of evidence, such as Anne Gunter’s bewitching and theories surrounding the Great London Fire of 1666. It provides an interesting examination of competing and consenting standards of evidence. Section I focuses on the use of, and dependence upon, evidentiary material, the validity, authenticity, and completeness of which would be judged inadequate by contemporary standards. For example, Dolan analyses the importance placed on political and confessional affiliations in evidentiary debates about the London Fire.

The second section of the book – ‘Genres of Evidence’ – explores the reading of texts as ‘genre’, though here Dolan refers to genre in the sense that ‘texts can be grouped according to the expectations they invite from and the demands they impose on their readers’ (p. 23) rather than being inclusive of a specific set of writing norms. Chapter 4 is especially interesting for its analysis of evidentiary depositions and the entrenched habit of labelling such depositions as ‘fictions’. It highlights Dolan’s central argument that relational texts raise many more questions then they seek to answer: there is no definitive way for readers to assess the true value and veracity of true relations.

The value of True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England is that it attempts to provide an analysis of the gaps found between fact and fiction in legal depositions, plays (as genre), and advice literature – it expertly connects past debates about text as historical evidence to contemporary understandings of seventeenth-century texts as evidence. The book also introduces new concepts to debates surrounding historical evidence, such as the need to include church court depositions and advice literature as genre.

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 242-243 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0120

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