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Response to Review no. 556

I am grateful for the chance to respond to Dr Rivkah Zim’s review of my Writing Under Tyranny, which, although it raises some interesting readings of the texts that I consider (and helpfully points out a number of typos) seems to base its account of the book on a general objection to the approach that I have taken in linking literary endeavour and innovation to the political events of the Henrician period. I’ll address this issue at the end of this response, but begin with some matters of detail.

Dr Zim declares on a number of occasions that she is not convinced by a particular line of argument, as is, of course, her prerogative, but it would have been helpful had fuller accounts been offered of the grounds for disagreement so that readers might make up their own minds on the issues at stake. On the matter of the editorship of the 1532 edition of Chaucer’s Works, for example, I argue that Sir Brian Tuke may well have had a more substantial role than has hitherto been allowed him, amounting to something approaching a co-editorial role with William Thynne (conventionally seen as the sole editor), at least in the latter stages of the process. Dr Zim implies that my case for this rests solely on Tuke’s claim to authorship of the Preface (‘From Tuke’s impersonation of Thynne, named as the editor in the printed “Preface”, Professor Walker assumes not only that Thynne and Tuke were joint editors…but also that they were of a single mind’). This is rather misleading. What actually prompted me to rethink Tuke’s role, as I spend several pages in the book pointing out (pp. 60–65: ‘The Role of Sir Brian Tuke in “Thynne’s Chaucer”’), was the cumulative evidence of the comments of both John Leland and Thynne’s son Francis concerning Tuke’s role in the process, which suggest a more substantial involvement than simply writing the Preface, and the short poem addressed to Tuke among Leland’s Naeniae, where he is compared to Plotius Tucca, who helped to save the works of Virgil for posterity. As I acknowledge in the book this evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive, but it does constitute something rather more than an assumption based on a single text. That Thynne and Tuke may have had different views on political issues, and different motives for contributing to the edition is also something I acknowledge in the course of the book.

When I go on to discuss the ways in which the Preface and the selection and arrangement of texts within the Works echo, and seem to provide a critical response to, the traumatic events of 1529–31, I hope I am on slightly firmer ground than Dr Zim suggests. My argument is not, as she implies, that Henry would have to ‘find, and then take to heart, the message of a relatively short poem’ printed at the back of the book, but rather that from its opening pages onwards the collection is performing contemporary cultural work as well as staking claims for the significance of the English language and English poesy. (My chapter-long discussion of the prefatory poems is a case in point here. Each of the latter addresses the issues of civil dissention and debate and argues for reconciliation and moderation among governors: commonplaces of political thought, certainly, but truisms with particular resonances for readers living through the assault on the church in 1529–31 and the break with Rome). As I suggest on. p.58, it seems to me that thinking and writing about questions of English linguistic and cultural identity as Tuke does in the preface, could not but have had contemporary political significance at a time when Henry VIII was consciously redefining the nature of Englishness and ‘this realm of England’ in statute and public polemic.

Again, in discussing my section on Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Dr Zim suggests that my account of their inspiration attributes too much significance to governmental pressure and too little to literary tradition, and I map historical and biographical events too simplistically onto the texts I discuss. I hope that I am not reductively biographical in my readings, but it would seem to me to be naïve in the extreme to assume that when a writer who has been dismissed to his country estates by the king begins to translate and compose neo-stoic satirical reflections on the virtues of rural self-sufficiency and the moral and political failings of a corrupt and tyrannical court, we are entitled to see a degree of allusion to his own circumstances in those choices. Similarly, when such writers go to great lengths to explore the classical and biblical precedents for denouncing and opposing tyranny in their work at a time when using the words ‘tyrant’ or ‘usurper’ in relation to Henry VIII himself was explicitly condemned by statute (a sure sign that people were so using them) we might suspect that they are doing so in order to address real but dangerous questions, rather than merely exploring ambiguity, subtlety and inwardness for the purposes of literary experimentation alone as Dr Zim implies.

At the heart of Dr Zim’s disagreement with the book would seem to be scepticism about whether the Henrician regime should really be termed tyrannical, and whether its pressures could really have produced the kinds of literary strategies that I suggest we can see Elyot, Wyatt and co. performing in the later years of the reign. ‘Perhaps the late-Henrician regime was less of a tyranny than this book assumes’, she suggests, ‘Perhaps the law officers of the Henrician regime realized that poetry is fiction, which may be read and interpreted differently by different readers’. Again, I would hope that the evidence provided in the book would be sufficient to convince most readers that contemporaries thought and acted as if they were living under unprecedented oppressive demands. I cite numerous cases of Henry being compared to biblical and classic tyrants both during his lifetime and immediately after his death, and the evidence of the interrogations, imprisonments, and executions cited would suggest that they had good cause. As for the aesthetic subtleties of the law officers, I refer in the book to the case of John Skyp, who, having preached a heavily-ironic sermon critical of royal policy before the court in 1536 was interrogated by the council and asked to explain himself in no uncertain terms. Who did he mean when he spoke of the (fictional) counsellors of a (fictional) king, they demanded? Since there were only the counsellors of the present English king present to hear him, surely everyone would have understood him to be criticising them, and by implication Henry too? Was he not, when he praised the current regime, actually speaking ‘ironice’, they asked, which everyone knew was to say one thing and mean the opposite? Would not anyone hearing his sermon conclude that he was launching a sustained assault upon the policies and character of the King’s government? Clearly to these officers ‘fiction’ was no defence before the law.

On a number of occasions Dr Zim suggests that I go ‘too far’ in associating political oppression with literary innovation. She suggests that I ‘strangely’ attribute the loss of confidence in the literature of counsel, and the rise of what we might think of as an aristocratic public sphere, to Henry VIII’s tyrannical policies ‘rather than to the positive example of Chaucerian verse’. I am not sure that I find this in the least strange. It would surely be an odd world in which political repression and the prospect of the collapse of civil society did not prompt intellectuals to act but a new edition of the Parliament of Fowls brought them out onto the streets in arms.

The alternative to assuming that these writers took up their pens to oppose what they saw as the slide into political oppression in the best way that they knew how, deploying eloquence in support of virtue as their humanist training had taught them, would be to assume that they watched as their friends, neighbours, and associates—and finally they themselves, were arrested, interrogated, and in some cases executed (some would argue judicially murdered) for contravening newly-enacted laws on what could or could not be written, spoken, or believed, and did and felt nothing. Having witnessed brutalities performed in the name of ‘this realm of England’ they sat quietly and chose to devote their energies to experimenting with literary form for its own sake. To believe that, on the contrary, they strove to protest, resist, and make a difference to the events that were threatening to engulf them might be ‘simply romantic’ as Dr Zim suggests, but I would rather subscribe to that view than one which ascribed no agency to authors in times of political and social upheaval and seemed to deny any links between literature and political culture on principle.