Western history did not look as you have been conditioned to believe it did—an unbroken string of white, land-owning men using their vision and Providence to make way for the societies of today. It should be obvious that people of various races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities have been making history for centuries. And to the long line of whipping standards with which we demarcate and delineate our past, Jordy Rosenberg’s historical novel, Confessions of the Fox, hoists the iridal.
Availing himself to the British folk hero Jack Sheppard, Rosenberg creates a 1720s London wherein African and South Asian exploitation and exploration have created a cosmopolitan metropolis. Rosenberg’s Sheppard is still an infamous rogue—a pickpocket, thief and gaol-breaker par excellence
—but he masterfully seizes on Sheppard’s petite size to envision the character as transgender and Sheppard’s lover, Bess, as Southeast Asian.
Written with superannuated style, the rhetorical flair blooming like ancient heliotropes from Sheppard’s true confessions, Rosenberg’s Sheppard and Bess highlight the Western canon for an audience that has always existed. This is less revelation than reclamation, not a reimagining but a correction for what has been edited out.
By writing Sheppard and Bess’ memoir, Rosenberg has made it impossible for them to be victims or marionettes. They are the protagonists and heroes, iconoclasts looking to sever the pallid thread binding history by the neck. It’s in the way queer culture is presented with the prosaicness that it deserves, having been our culture. It’s in the way that Bess’ sex work never renders her a fallen woman; it’s her job, another remarkable representation made all the more so by its mundanity.
Few time periods could be better suited for this than the 18th century, as science and philosophy begin their Reign of Terror and property has more rights than people, the body as useless husk, codified in the common law. As plague ships bob in the Thames and the first vestiges of the modern police state form, mighty Revolutions form whose far-reaching consequences will touch every face of the world. Amidst all this crisis, few historical characters could be better vessels for the hidden history than one who found fame in escape.
In Confessions of the Fox, Sheppard—the Gaol-breaker General—makes the most important escape yet from the onus of history and the deluge of brutal policing. It’s as a miraculous and awe-inspiring flight as the Newgate death sentence slip, a Confession which deserves to inspire the new hagiography.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.