Disinformation in Excess; or, the Fatal Conspiracy

Those of us who study the long eighteenth century sometimes jokingly suggest that it has never ended. It is no surprise, then, that many of us view the current climate of disinformation through the lenses of the eighteenth-century texts we know so well. For example, in a previous issue of this publication, Alex Creighton writes that “Clarissa is a reminder of how important it is to get to the bottom of narratives that do not add up,” and Lauren Kopajtic writes that Clarissa teaches us how a reader need not scroll passively but can instead be “an active, engaged, observer.”

When I think about what the eighteenth century can tell us about getting to the bottom of things, my mind goes—as it always does—to Eliza Haywood, who throughout most of her vast body of work suggests that no amount of observation or investigation will help us get at the truth and that we are destined to be duped and deluded no matter how hard we try. Consequently, Haywood’s texts are full of anxiety about our inability to see past deception and falsehood, along with examples of what these inabilities will cost us. Haywood has been called the Arbitress of Passion, but she was also an Arbiter of Judgment, consistently concerned with how we can judge well as we attempt to determine what is true and what is false. And for Haywood, such judgments aren’t mere epistemological thought experiments; rather, they relate directly to the pragmatic choices that her characters—and by extension, her readers—must make for both their private and public lives. Judge wrongly, and you could lose everything: your money, your reputation, your agency, your kingdom—maybe even your life. And yet, as Haywood shows us, how to judge rightly is not always very clear.

Even those who have read only Haywood’s most anthologized work, Fantomina (1725), can see her fascination with deception. In this short work, the protagonist adopts four different personae to keep her lover’s interest and lust alive, tricking him into thinking each persona is a different woman. Meanwhile, he proclaims his constancy to each persona while “cheating” with the other personae (who are, of course, the same woman).

Such plotlines of amorous deception are rife in eighteenth-century fiction, but some of Haywood’s works go a step further as they explore not just the misery of the duped individual, but also the problems of mass deception of entire kingdoms, or the “deluded multitudes.” In Haywood’s Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia (1725), for example, the fiend Lucitario, a necromancer and “monstrous” politician, has stolen the name, voice, and face of Cupid, who had previously ruled the island. Under the real Cupid’s rule, the island inhabitants had been known for their commitment to the God of Love and to the arts and sciences. However, under Lucitario’s deception, the islanders give up true love and the public good to focus only on the self-interested pursuits of seducing and deceiving each other, primarily for the sake of money.

Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaai (1737) also features a necromancing political leader, Ochihatou, who has cast a spell over both the sovereign and the citizens. Instead of seeing their kingdom as it really is—a barren, ugly land—the spellbound see it as Ochihatou wants them to: as a fruitful, lush paradise. And instead of seeing Ochihatou as he is—the most corrupt and “mishapen of Mankind”—they see him as he wants them to: as a seductive lover and effective political leader. 

Eovaai and Memoirs of a Certain Island are political fictions, but Haywood was also, later in her career, an esteemed periodicalist, and we see a third example of “deluded multitudes” in Book 19 of her periodical The Female Spectator, which includes a contributor’s letter (likely fictional and written by Haywood herself) about an island called Topsy-Turvy. Supposedly, in the past, the islanders would rise up against rulers who “dar’d to exceed the Bounds a good Magistrate ought to observe,” but in recent times, a new Vice-Roy, Hiamack, has taken over the island and “infatuated” its people by inviting them all to a banquet at which he serves magic food. We are told that those who eat at the banquet—along with their descendants—“should be deprived of all Power of judging for themselves; of distinguishing between what is in their Interest, and what is not; and in fine, from that Time forward become dead to all Sense of what they were, or what they ought to be.”

Three hundred years later, Haywood’s interest in collective delusion seems almost uncannily relevant. Many of us look around at our fellow citizens and see them feasting on the magic banquet served up by manipulative and monstrous politicians, biased news channels, and social media algorithms, leaving them unable to distinguish “between what is in their interest, and what is not.” These deluded multitudes fall prey to disinformation and conspiracy theories that not only endanger their own personal and public well-being but also threaten the well-being of other citizens and the stability of our democracy. Compounding the problem, these multitudes embrace a rhetoric that they are the truth tellers and that their opponents are the real necromancers who seek to harm and delude the public.

We talk at length about how we are divided as a society, but the division goes beyond differences in political priorities or social values; alarmingly, we are divided on our very perceptions of reality, as if we are living on Topsy-Turvy Island or in Ochihatou’s Kingdom of Hypotofa. We live in a time when, according to a December 2020 NPR poll, 17% of respondents agreed with the statement, “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” and another 37% responded to the same statement with the answer “Don’t know,” leaving only 47% of respondents feeling confident that the QAnon-related conspiracy is false. According to the poll, “39% of Americans believe another key tenet of the QAnon conspiracy theory: that there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.” Perhaps even more significantly, fewer than half of Republicans said they accepted the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Technological advancements such as cable news networks, partisan websites, and social media platforms reinforce these divided perceptions, yet the reality of echo chambers and concerns of false thinking are not new.  We need only think about the cave analogies offered by Francis Bacon and Plato to see that philosophers have long been concerned about filter bubbles. Clearly, Haywood also marveled at the way her fellow citizens seemed to believe the seemingly unbelievable.

So what can Haywood teach us about judging what is true or what is real? Unfortunately, in most of her texts, she teaches us that without magic, we are out of luck. In The Invisible Spy, for example, the mysterious narrator recounts tales of using an invisibility belt that allows them to eavesdrop in any situation to uncover truth. In Eovaai, the titular princess is protected by a magical amulet that preserves her power of judgment and political influence. When she loses the amulet, she immediately falls under the political (and sexual) sway of the necromancer and is only rescued when a good Genii gives her a special telescope through which all delusions vanish. The revolutionary Alhahuza brings home the point about magic when he tells Eovaai that the only defense against dark magic is good magic and that it would have been “impossible” for any “human wisdom” to mount a sufficient defense against Ochihatou.

Where does this leave us? When we look around in 2021, we can see that for many people, human wisdom has indeed been an insufficient defense against deception and delusion.

One answer, I think, can be found in Haywood’s last full-length work of fiction, The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753), in which Haywood offers a heroine, Jenny Jessamy, who demonstrates nearly perfect judgment. It is easy to dismiss or dislike such a character—she doesn’t really have any significant flaws—and many critics have done both. One of the earliest was Walter Scott, who in his memoirs makes reference to the “the whole Jemmy and Jenny tribe” of books, which he “abhorred.” However, many of these dismissals overlook the way the novel grapples with issues of judgment later taken up by writers like Adam Smith and Jane Austen. In short, Jenny Jessamy models strategies of judgment that include reflection, impartiality, and imagination, and with this last novel, Haywood offers a possible way out of the skepticism and anxiety of her earlier works.

When the story begins, we learn that Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (distant cousins who have shared common surnames since birth) have been promised to each other in marriage since their childhoods. Not long after Jemmy’s father dies (three years after Jenny’s), Jemmy begins to speak of marriage, saying, “Then I suppose there is nothing left for us to do . . . but sign and seal, and go together before a parson.” Jenny, however, does not agree. Instead, she advocates that they wait for a year in order to observe everything and everyone around them, to gain more knowledge about marriage.

In the meantime, the rake Bellpine is doing everything he can to undermine the Jessamy engagement because he wants the wealthy Jenny for himself. The central plotline turns on Bellpine’s efforts to convince Jenny (through various strategies and sources) that Jemmy no longer wants to marry her. A key moment in the deception occurs when Bellpine starts a rumor that Jemmy has become engaged to Miss Chit, a musician. He supplements the rumor by anonymously sending a “concerned friend” letter to Jenny’s companion, Lady Speck.  Lady Speck and their other companion, Miss Wingman, both take the letter at face value and assume it to be true, saying they have heard a similar rumor about Jemmy.

Jenny retreats to her room to review and consider the anonymous letter. At first, based on her knowledge of Jemmy and her experiences of his love for her, she dismisses the letter entirely. However, when she receives a letter from Jemmy shortly thereafter, she engages in reflective judgment and detailed examination of both letters. In addition to looking closely at the sentence style of Jemmy’s letter, Jenny notices that he mentions plans to attend a musical performance. She infers that the performer might be Miss Chit and that the reference to the performance might uncover a grain of truth that grew into rumors about an engagement.

With this inference, Jenny demonstrates something akin to Immanuel Kant’s “enlarged mentality” and what Hannah Arendt later called “going visiting.” She imagines the mindset of various individuals and social groups, including those involved in the rumours, and she puts herself in Jemmy’s position and theorizes that if he were really engaged to Miss Chit, he would have avoided mentioning the music at all, assuming the general principle that “the guilty always carefully avoid speaking on the theme which calls their crime into question.” In this example, as in others throughout the text, Jenny neglects neither experience nor imagination, and while she reflects in solitude, she extends her mind beyond the narrowness of immediate perceptions and reactions. Even after this reflection, she suspends her judgment until she can gather more evidence—as she also does when she tells Jemmy she wants to wait a year to get married. While most of Jenny’s crises of judgment are personal rather than political, Haywood shows us throughout her body of work that the skills for good judgment are the same, whether they relate to one or the other.

Some might fear that imagination is not the solution but the problem, that what we need are facts, not speculation, and, yes, facts and evidence are important parts of the process. But Haywood shows us (as others have) that the power of the imagination is necessary for moving beyond one’s private, subjective reality to a broader, more sociable approach to judgment. As Arendt points out in Crisis in Culture, judgment “cannot function in strict isolation or solitude; it needs the presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspectives it must take into consideration, and without whom it never has the opportunity to operate at all,” and she claims that “the faculty that makes this possible is the imagination.”

However, despite what Haywood’s last novel can teach us, I wonder if many of us really have it in us to be like Jenny. Neither our nature nor our social platforms lead us to suspend judgment or test our beliefs—rather, both urge us to announce and proclaim—and despite having the internet at our fingertips, it seems difficult for us to develop a truly enlarged mentality. Granted, we might imagine what our Twitter followers will think about the tweet we are composing, or we might imagine what our favorite cable-TV pundit will say about the latest “breaking news,” but visiting others inside one’s own filter bubble does not require much imagination or truly test our judgments. And if we are in the throes of delusion, feasting on a banquet of corrupt food—and Haywood makes it clear that it is difficult to know whether we are spellbound or not—it will take a much more powerful imaginative effort than that to discover the truth. Even then, the task might be impossible; but Haywood suggests that we should at least try.

Sally B. Demarest is a professor at Cuesta College, a community college in San Luis Obispo, California, where she teaches courses in composition, critical thinking, British literature, and science fiction. In 2017, she completed a mid-life-crisis PhD with a thesis titled Novel Authority: Eliza Haywood and the Problems of Judgment.

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