Monday, May 4, 2015

Short Story Month: 2-015--Daniel Defoe's "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal"

 British short fiction is generally ignored by critics, even though several historians of the form have suggested that the development of the short story in America in the early 19th century owes much to generic forms predominant in England in the 18th century.  For example, both Henry Seidel Canby and Fred Lewis Pattee in their early 20th-century histories of the short story suggest that Washington Irving's success was due as much to his use of 18th-century English essay conventions as it was to his use of folklore material.  Pattee even goes so far as to say that it is precisely at the point in Irving's work "where in him the Addisonian Arctic current was cut across by the Gulf Stream of romanticism that there was born the American short story, a new genre, something distinctively and unquestionably our own in the world of literature."

However, regardless of this debt the 19th-century short story may owe to English literature of the 18th century, little has been done to establish the generic characteristics of English short fiction during that period and to make clear the distinctive nature of those few short fictions of the period that seem to serve as harbingers of the blossoming of the short story yet to come.

 The most familiar pre-19th-century English short narrative is Daniel Defoe's "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" (1706).  In an era that saw the development of the new realism and the rise of the novel that dominated English fiction throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, this short piece clearly indicates the separation between two basic forms of fiction--narratives presented "as if" the events actually took place and narratives presented as inventions or mental projections.  "A True Relation" confronts the issue of "fact" versus "fiction" so emphatically that it can serve as a model for discussion of how short fiction begins to deal with this combination of conventions.

At first, the piece was considered a simple fabrication created by Defoe to advance the sale of a popular theological work, Charles Drelincourt's On Death; and in fact the "True Relation" was often appended to Drelincourt's work.  From this point of view, Defoe's story can be seen as a variant of the typical 18th-century narrative written to illustrate a moral. Edward W. Pitcher has discussed the conventions of this "marriage of realism to didacticism," pointing out how important it was for such narratives in The Spectator to establish the credentials of the teller and assure the reader that the events described actually took place.

 However, the story has most often been discussed as an early example of the kind of realistic conventions Defoe used to help establish the novel as a viable narrative form. In the late 19th century, Charles Stephens called "A True Relation" an illustration of Defoe's typical fictional technique, the main merit of which, Stephens said, is "in direct proportion to the intrinsic merit of a plain statement of fact." Such has become the standard view of the piece.  For example, Edward Wagenknecht, in his Cavalcade of the English Novel, says with its use of "testimony skillfully adduced, verisimilitude, corroborative and irrelevant detail, minute particularity," the story "offers in miniature virtually all Defoe's salient qualities, thus affording an excellent introduction to the study of his technique." From this point of view, the story becomes interesting as an exercise in verisimilitude, a footnote to the methods of the origins of the realistic novel.

 In addition to being cited as an early example of the old moral tale and the new narrative of verisimilitude, "A True Relation" has also been called an example of the gothic mode that began to dominate English short fiction at the turn of the century.  From this perspective, the piece is worth considering for the manner in which it presents the kind of ghostly apparition that before the 18th century might well have been accepted in folklore stories as an article of belief.  Thus, the story attempts to validate what did not need to be validated before. As David Punter notes, this is the typical structural tension of gothic fiction.  On the one hand, because it rejects realism's view of the world, it makes use of metaphoric and symbolic techniques, but on the other hand because it does not wish to be regarded as mere fantasy, it needs to establish its validity within the work itself, thus giving rise to increasingly complex verification techniques.  

Defoe tries to retain the antirealist significance of the old romance form within a culture in which the spiritual significance of the old legends, ballads, and folk-tales was no longer tenable. Modes of validation, such as the common 19th-century convention of presenting an eye-witness account, dominate the story. The eye-witness account, which the dramatized "author" can claim is "truth" because he is presenting it just as he received it, is complicated in "Mrs. Veal" because the piece includes both oral and written modes of discourse.

"A True Relation" therefore looks backward to the most traditional form of short narrative--the fable presented to teach a moral lesson--and forward to the realistic story presented for its own sake as an account of an actual event.  To see it as the first kind of story is to see it as being motivated primarily by the metaphoric significance of the moral lesson in order to convince the reader of its spiritual truth.  To see it as the second kind is to see it motivated by metonymic detail for the purpose of convincing the reader of its truth to physical reality.  What makes "A True Relation" historically interesting is that it foregrounds this duality so emphatically.

  The case is made even more engaging by the discovery that "A True Relation" is not fiction at all, at least not in the sense that the events are a fabrication, but rather a piece of journalism. Whether the actual event of the apparition appearing to Mrs. Bargrave took place is unsure, but we do know that Defoe interviewed a woman named Bargrave who supposedly was paid a visit by her friend Mrs. Veal after her death.  With this information, the fact/fictionality issue takes on another dimension and raises new issues.

The short preface to the story insists that the "relation" is "matter of fact, and attended with such circumstances as may induce any reasonable man to believe it."  Indeed the basic issue here that separates the story from earlier accounts of the supernatural is that it appeals to a conviction governed by reason rather than a belief governed by superstition. The eyewitness, Mrs. Bargrave, tells the story to a neighbor woman, who then tells it to a kinsman, who then tells it to a justice of the peace, who writes it down and sends it to a friend in London. 

The narrative is thus filtered from the eyewitness through two speakers and then two different writers who create and transmit the manuscript.  We are not told whether the friend in London is the one who submits it to print or not.  Both the neighbor woman "teller" and the justice of the peace "writer" are attested to as intelligent and discerning people, who present the story as being in the same words that the neighbor woman had from Mrs. Bargrave's own mouth, "as near as may be," and that Mrs. Bargrave had no reason to invent the story, being a woman of honesty, virtue, and piety. The writer of the preface then insists that the "use" to which we should put the "relation" is a conventional moral one; that is, that there is life to come and a just God who will mete out rewards and retribution; therefore, we should live in such a way that may be pleasing to God.

Although Defoe did not invent the ghostly encounter, he did invent the oral narrator, the neighbor woman who supplies us with more information than about the encounter itself; and it is this additional information that creates a context for the central event which makes the issue of fact or fiction in the piece more interesting than simply the fact or fiction of the apparition itself.  For example,  the narrator tells us that Mrs. Bargrave and Mrs. Veal are not only childhood friends, but that they both had unkind fathers and that Mrs. Veal considers Mrs. Bargrave her only friend in the world.

In addition, we are told that Mrs. Bargrave has a wicked husband from whom she suffers and that Mrs. Veal is under the care of a brother because she is given to fits that make her deviate "from her discourses very abruptly to some impertinence."  Because this information is not central to the basic issue either of the truth of the story or the moral lesson, we may take these details as either thematically "free" motifs, that is, irrelevant except in terms of verisimilitude, or we may take them to be thematically "bound" motifs, that is, relevant to the structure and meaning of the story in a way that previous critics have ignored.

The nature of discourse is of course the central subject of the story, not only in the conversation or discourse in which Mrs. Veal engages with Mrs. Bargrave, but also in the contextual frame story.  In the actual encounter, Mrs. Veal has Mrs. Bargrave run and fetch two kinds of discourse--first the copy of Drelincourt's On Death, which they have read and discussed before, and then some verses that Mrs. Bargrave has copied down in her own hand from Friendship in Perfection. Mrs. Veal's own discourse is about discourse, for first she talks about Drelincourt's book to comfort Mrs. Bargrave that her current affliction under her wicked husband shall be removed from her in Heaven, and then she talks about the writings of the "primitive Christians" which, unlike the "frothy, vain discourse" of the current age, was for edification.  At this point there is an abrupt shift from "heavenly" discourse to legal discourse--a letter that Mrs. Veal wants Mrs. Bargrave to write to her brother, telling him that she wishes certain rings and a purse of gold to be left to acquaintances.  Mrs. Bargrave takes this shift to be a sign of one of Mrs. Veal's fits coming on, for it indicates an abrupt transition from the main train of the discourse to "an impertinence."

  The "relation" of the actual visit and the discourse of Mrs. Veal accounts for less than half the piece. The remainder deals with the context. Thus, fully as much of the piece is about the telling of the story as it is about the story itself. Therefore, it seems clear that the subject of the story is not the "apparition" of Mrs. Veal, but the "relation" of the apparition.  First there is the explicit question of the truth of Mrs. Bargrave's relation, which is questioned by Mrs. Veal's brother, who insists that it is a "reflection."  Although the meaning of this term is not clear in the story, it seems to suggest the opposite of "true relation," and therefore suggests the Lockean view that knowledge either comes from sensation or from "reflection," that is, from the external world or from the mind itself. 

The issue of physical truth versus mental truth is also raised by Mrs. Veal's brother when he insists that while Mrs. Bargrave may not be lying, she has been "crazed" by her cruel husband.  This dichotomy of mental versus physical is also mentioned in Mrs. Veal's discourse when she laments to Mrs. Bargrave about the eyes of faith not being as open as the eyes of the body.  It is a motif suggested by the narrator when she notes that those who first hear Mrs. Bargrave's story satisfy themselves that she is no hypochondriac; that is, she is not affected by vapors from the hypochondria, not a melancholy person who confuses the physical with the mental, taking the latter to be the former.

 The narrator of the story is not content with simply relating the event of the apparition; he spends much time both justifying it and explaining it.  For example, Mrs. Veal's digression from her heavenly discourse to request the bequeathing of certain items is accounted for by the narrator thus: "The design of it appears to me to be only in order to make Mrs. Bargrave so to demonstrate the truth of her appearance, as to satisfy the world of the reality thereof as to what she had seen and heard...." 

Moreover, the narrator does not believe that Mrs. Bargrave could "hatch such an invention" in such a short time, for she did not jumble the circumstances, nor did she have any interest or thing to gain.  The narrator ends her relation by indicating that she has been much affected by the story and is thoroughly convinced of its factual nature. As she points out, "why we should dispute matter of fact because we cannot solve things of which we have no certain demonstrative notions, seems strange to me. Mrs. Bargrave's authority and sincerity alone would have been undoubted in any other case."

"A True Relation" must be taken in several different ways at once.  First of all, although it is presented as a moral tale, it is much more detailed and specific than other "moral tales" or illustrative essays of the early 18th century in which the sincerity of the teller alone was sufficient to persuade the reader of the truth of the event.  Furthermore, the event of the tale, which can be taken as illustrative of the moral lesson of heavenly reward, is so "extraordinary" and unusual because it involves accepting as truth something that the reader's common sense and reason would deny.  Thus, the story's truth does not depend on reason, logic, and common sense, but rather on the specific detail of the account itself.  Mrs. Bargrave's ability to specify what Mrs. Veal was wearing and to particularize the actual encounter attests to its truth to the reader, just as her general sincerity attests to its truth to the listener, the neighbor narrator.

It little matters, in terms of the technique of the tale, whether the apparition actually appeared to Mrs. Bargrave or not, nor does it matter that Defoe takes the incident from an actual account by Mrs. Bargrave.  What does matter is the process by which the relation becomes a story.  "A True Relation" becomes a story through the dual means by which all accounts become stories--by being aware of itself as "relation" rather than "event" and by being unified or "held together" through repeated motifs that constitute its theme, in this case the psychological theme of mental versus physical events.  This thematic content suggests the basic dichotomy between events described as if they actually took place and events presented as pure projections of the mind, that is, the dichotomy between romance and realism. Whether an event actually took place or whether a central character or narrator is "crazed" and has simply hallucinated the event is one of the most common foregrounded concerns of short fiction in the 19th century.

It is understandable why such a theme would be more a concern in short fiction than in long fiction. The authority for the event (for after all, short fiction usually presents "an event" rather than an abstraction based on events) has been central to short fiction since Boccaccio, the "truth" of whose tales was predicated on the teller having heard them from someone else who attests to their validity as having actually happened. Short fiction lies between the romance convention of presenting marvelous events and the realistic convention of presenting events as if they actually happened, even though the events themselves depart from the ordinary course of things. 

A story, to be a story, must be worth the telling, says Thomas Hardy late in the 19th century.  And the various justifications for what makes a story worth telling has been a crucial issue in short fiction since tales were worth telling because they had some "use" or because they entertained by relating an event that broke up the ordinary course of things.  "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" raises all these issues in a particularly self-conscious and foregrounded way and thus raises issues about the nature of discourse, the modes of discourse, the uses of discourse, and the means of transmission of discourse that dominate the short fiction form throughout the 19th century. 

What makes Defoe's piece a story is its own foregrounded focus on itself as a "relation" of an event which can be accounted for by the appeal both to the techniques of realism and the thematics of romance, that is, by the presentation of an experience as being both ambiguously actual event and a mental projection. This crucial ambiguity, bound up in a tight thematic unity of interwoven motifs, characterizes the stories of Hawthorne and Poe, commonly thought to mark the beginning of the short story form.

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