Centuries Apart, Two Trans Men Find Universal Struggles
Confessions of the Fox
By Jordy Rosenberg
One World (2018), 352 pages
Jordy Rosenberg has written the perfect academic novel. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, given the popular perception that academics only write for specialized audiences, and then do so in poor prose, but it is not. Instead it is high praise. Readers of Confessions of the Fox will be hard pressed to not be swept away by the romance of the characters, outraged by the injustices they face, and educated by the extensive footnotes, which constitute half the novel’s plot.
Set in 18th century England and 21st century America, Confessions of the Fox tells the stories of two trans men, Jack Sheppard, notorious English thief and hero to the working class, and Dr. R. Voth, a precariously employed American academic who specializes in the history and literature of 1700s England and queer literary theory.
The novel begins when Voth recounts how he stumbled across a strange manuscript at his university’s library sale. “A mashed and mildewed pile of papers,” Rosenberg writes, “easily overlooked. And yet, a rare and perplexing find. The lost Sheppard memoir? The scholars in my field had scoured the records, debunked everything they’d found.” Rosenberg makes sure to underscore the tension and irony at the heart of the novel in this scene. A rare find that has immense value to scholars is just being sold along with the university’s collections of literature, philosophy, and other unwanted volumes. The clearing out is, as Voth describes it, part of the annual “Back to School/Fuck You event” and is clearing out four whole floors of the library to make room for “a big renovation. Dean’s offices and a dining atrium for upper-echelon administrators.” So, how much does the rare manuscript go for? “‘You can just have that,” the student at the table tells Voth.
Upon studying the manuscript Voth realizes he has indeed found something quite rare and fascinating. The manuscript is a retelling of the life of Jack Sheppard, an 18th century thief and prison escape artist who charmed the poor working masses of England before government officials finally hanged him at Tyburn in 1724.
Who Were Sheppard and Bess?
The manuscript Voth has found, however, tells a slightly different story. Sheppard is not a cisgender man, as he has typically been portrayed in historical accounts. Instead, he was a trans man, a gender-bending rogue who broke the laws of gender binaries as much as he did the property laws of burgeoning modern Britain. “Jack was assigned female at birth?” Voth writes in one of his earliest footnotes. “This is a significant departure from the extant Sheppardiana. While nearly all the texts note him as ‘slight’ or otherwise effeminate—his wiriness and compact size frequently cited as integral to his ability to escape tight spaces (e.g., the stage play Little Jack Sheppard [Yardley & Stephens, 1885], starring Nellie Farren as Jack)—this I’ve never seen.”
From this premise Rosenberg launches his story, telling of the way Sheppard was first forced into an apprenticeship by his mother before he transitioned, how Sheppard then subsequently met his love interest Bess Khan, and finally how Sheppard and Bess’ lives intersected with the rise of commercial capitalism, the privatization of everyday life, and finally the criminalization and commodification of people’s literal bodies.
In Rosenberg’s novel, Bess shines through as the heart and soul of the narrative. Unlike other versions of Sheppard’s life, Rosenberg again bends the older narratives and imagines Bess as a mixed race woman of South Asian descent. As Voth states in his footnotes, Bess has always been a malleable character in the recountings. Authors such as Bertolt Brecht and John Gay have mixed and matched different people to produce a host of different composite characters. “So Bess’s character has been a location for a particular liberty of speculation,” Voth explains on page 31 in a particularly long foot note. “Given that London was by no means a white city in the eighteenth century—and indeed that there were no legal prohibitions on interracial marriages at that time (see Gretchen Gerzina, Black London” Life Before Emancipation, Rutgers University Press, 1995) — we have to take the unquestioned nature of Bess’s characterization as white as less a reflection of ‘actual’ history than as the occlusion of it.”
Yet Bess is in many ways the most crucial character of the whole novel. It’s through her love of Sheppard and her clear sightedness of what is happening in 18th century England that the reader is able to establish a connection between the seemingly disparate worlds of twenty-first century America and eighteenth century England. She sees more than any other character that criminality and capital accumulation and privatization are all part of a broader social move to violently remake the world.
Because far from just serving as academic asides, the footnotes of Voth tell the equally engaging, and in many ways more urgent story of how capital, privatization, and surveillance of people wrap these two continents and time periods together in one longer era.
When Two Worlds Meet
Voth, although in the 21st century and therefore not in fear of his life in the same way Jack is as a trans man, is nonetheless at the mercy of a figure he calls “Dean of Surveillance Andrews” of his university. An overpaid college admin whose only faith is the neoliberalism of modernity, Dean of Surveillance Andrews suspends Voth early in the novel for not using his office hours efficiently.
“You owe your workplace eighty hours of labor restitution,” Dean of Surveillance Andrews tells Voth. They are meeting in the newly renovated four floors of the library, an office that Voth describes as the “style of a high-end Mariott.” Voth is livid. Why is he being forced to give “labor restitution”? Andrews explains that the security cameras of the university have noticed that Voth has been using his office hours to play Phone-Scrabble, an unsanctioned use of university time and resources.
This may seem like some kind of unrealistic twist, an outrage engineered by Rosenberg to create comedic effect. Indeed, when I first read this passage I rolled my eyes in disbelief. Sure, neoliberalism commodified everything it touched, but wasn’t Rosenberg depicting something that was a bit of a stretch?
I should have known better. I have worked plenty of hourly jobs to know how time is commodified, but for some reason my first response was to think a professor, even a precariously employed one, would be protected from that treatment. Yet anyone working in the academy, or really any job, should know Voth’s predicament is far from ridiculous. The semester I read this novel I was working on completing my dissertation on 19th century American working class movements. As I made my way through Rosenberg’s opening chapters, quickly falling in love with Sheppard, Bess, and Voth, I was shown how accurate Voth’s predicament could be.
One afternoon as I was both going over the final drafts of my dissertation pages and prepping for class, I was called into an impromptu meeting. We learned that someone on the faculty had spoken despairingly of the campus bookstore. A student overheard the remarks and then went and tattled to the store’s manager. We would all, as a result, have a meeting with the store manager who would explain that such comments were unfair and how “we” could build a better “relationship.” No one was punished, but it nonetheless demonstrated the structure of work found even in higher education and the culture of surveillance.
I returned to my office chuckling in the disbelief only ridiculous situations can produce. On my desk sat Rosenberg’s novel silently radiating, “I told you so.”
After I finished reading the novel, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Europe to visit my little sister, nephew, and brother in-law who have been living in England for the past year. When my sister asked me what I would like to see, I told her about the book and Sheppard. Would it be possible to see Tyburn and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the church Sheppard was believed to be buried at?
She began researching on her phone, and the first thing she said after reading his bio was, “He escaped from prison four different times? That is incredibly cool.”
I agreed. Centuries later the basis of the story still was enough to get two kids of working class parents excited.
We visited Tyburn and I marveled at how much the landscape must have changed since the 1700s. New high rises for the wealthy were being constructed and I could only guess how much property value had increased. Afterwards we made our way to St. Martins. I had read on a travel website that aside from being the infamous burial site of figures like Sheppard the church today was known more as a tourist attraction for the oddity of serving as crypt converted cafeteria. “So, this is where he was buried?” my sister asked. My nephew and wife were off playing on the fake headstones the church had placed in the floor.
I nodded my head. Although, according to Rosenberg’s telling which contains a surprise twist, no.
Although St. Martins was just recently built at the time of Sheppard’s execution, it has since gone on to be a major landmark in London. About 30 years ago the church converted the crypt into a cafeteria and today runs a gift shop and restaurant. In one corner rests an old whipping post whose plaque explains, “From 1572, whipping at the post was a routine form of corporal punishment, usually on market days, to give maximum deterrent effect and enhance humiliation… Originally established to punish vagrancy it was used for those guilty of social misdemeanors e.g. immorality, drunkenness, disorder, blasphemy, and slander as well as the more serious crimes of forgery, bigamy, theft (providing the goods were less than 12 pence… otherwise it meant hanging)…”
As I sat, I wondered what to make of it. We were literally eating food in a place that had originally been set aside to bury the dead. Now, it was commodified into a place to pay and eat. A historic oddity. But despite this 21st century veneer, the past that created this world of so-called late capitalism was all around. From the whipping post, to the marker at Tyburn, to the men’s and women’s bathrooms in the crypt cafeteria. The world of Sheppard and Bess are ever present, and as Rosenberg argues, continues to influence us in ways that are simultaneously ironic and infuriating.
For several centuries larger social and economic forces have sought to direct, control, and monetize all aspects of our being from land to our very bodies. From the hours we spend in work to how we use the restroom. Although transgender rights are often falsely associated with some kind of free floating, cultural concern, or as deriders label it, “identity politics,” the truth is our nature, our beings, our political rights are irrevocably tied to the economic and material concerns of our world. Transgender rights, Rosenberg shows us, is just one of many concerns arising from a shift to capitalism that commodified life and bodies.
As such, Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox is a highly recommended read, both for the engaging retelling of the Sheppard saga, and more importantly, why that story is crucial to comprehending our modern world.
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