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A love story set in the eighteenth-century London of notorious thieves and queer subcultures, this genre-bending debut tells a profound story of gender, desire, and liberation.
“Resonant of George Saunders, of Nikolai Gogol, and of nothing that’s ever been written before . . . irreverent, erudite, and not to be missed.”—Booklist (starred review)
Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.
Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript—a gender-defying exposé of Jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack—a transgender carpenter’s apprentice—has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary.
Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them all. Confessions of the Fox is, at once, a work of speculative historical fiction, a soaring love story, a puzzling mystery, an electrifying tale of adventure and suspense, and an unabashed celebration of sex and sexuality. Writing with the narrative mastery of Sarah Waters and the playful imagination of Nabokov, Jordy Rosenberg is an audacious storyteller of extraordinary talent.
Advance praise for Confessions of the Fox
“An ambitious, thought-provoking novel [that] explores everything from gender identity to mass incarceration, moves between centuries, and even features footnotes. . . . You’ll find yourself immersed, and maybe even changed.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Looking to get lost in a big, juicy historical novel? Look no further. Jordy Rosenberg’s debut tracks the Bonnie and Clyde of eighteenth-century London and the academic who’s obsessed with reading and heavily annotating an account of their lives. . . . A delight.”—Vulture
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Confessions of the Fox
But others say it went back much further than that. That the road to the gallows began before the Plague Ships. Before Bess. Before Aurie. Before Jack became the most notorious Gaol-breaker London had yet known. Back when he stumbl’d through life deliri- ous as a light-bedevil’d Moth.
His mum made clear she’d had enough of Jack the day she brought him to the master carpenter Kneebone’s doorstep in October 1713. As she marched him down Regent Street, sweat formed at the edges of her hairline, pinkening her alabaster face paint. “Be a good girl.* Do what you’re told. Behave. Don’t act shame- ful,” she said, regarding Jack sourly. They crossed dubious, slough- filled Tyburn and headed towards Cavendish Square. Sparrows nattered on hedges, tumbled in dust baths Underfoot, disregarding the burghers† and high-toned ladies sweeping by. His mother snapp’d her knuckle into his ribs as they approached the brown oak door. “And walk like a lady! Try not t’ stomp like an animal.”
* Jack was assigned female at birth? 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. † Bourgeoisie
Jack tried to imagine moving his legs more smoothly, like she said. But it didn’t feel right to glide like jewel bearings in the guts of a well-oiled Clock. He liked to sprawl through Space, landing hard on the edges of his feet. His mother glared down, her nose crinkling like he was a piece of spoiled mutton. Then the door opened. It was Kneebone. Startled. Then angry. “What’s this?” He wav’d his hand at the hard-negotiated outfit that Jack had arrived in. Tweed trousers and rough muslin smish‡ that had belonged to his brother, Thomas, long Gone now on his Indenture to the colonies and probably Dead of Cold. Or Over- work. Or incorrigible Tendencies. “She’s a bargain, sir, and you won’t have to keep her in any skirts.” Kneebone’s eyes widened, narrowed. His upper teeth munch’d at his bottom lip. Then he gestured to Jack with a long-boned hand full of splinters and slits of dried Blood. “Does she work a handsaw and an awl?” Nodding. “Strangely adept with Tools.” “And her name?” —Jack’s brain turned off in that way he’d perfected when he felt all the muscles of his Body clench up. Which was often. He knew his mother said something in response—because he saw her Mouth move. Kneebone took a piece of Balsam from his pocket. Chewed it. Talked and gesticulat’d angrily. Camphor puffed from his mouth with each word. Jack unheard she—unheard it into the swarm of the rest of the sounds Kneebone was making— She’s ugly, isn’t she— Quite— But a bargain’s a bargain— Still, what am I meant t’ do with this. Jack imagin’d dropping into the Thames on a summer day, the heavy press of Water ’round his Ears muffling the shes and the shes and
the what am I meant t’ do with this. He peered ’round Kneebone’s scrawny limbs—now parked on his hips in a belligerent-chicken posture—into the entry room. It was stuffed with woodworking. The Odor of raw timber and oils hung just inside the threshold. The scent calm’d him. Sounds began to come back as through a muffling Fog. “She’s dexterous—very,” he heard his mother saying and nod- ding, her voice bouncing. “Always gettin’ into things at home. There isn’t a Doodad that she hasn’t undone and redone much the better for ’t.”*
Looking up at his mother as she turned to leave, Jack felt his usual flicker of unaccountable sympathy. Maybe even Compas-
* Not to get ahead of myself, but if authentic, this memoir could compete with Her- culine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite (English translation, with an introduction by Michel Foucault, 1980) for pride of place on quite a few syllabi. For those unfamiliar with Herculine Barbin (1838–1868), let me say this. From approximately 1985 to 1995, you could not take a gay and lesbian literature, theory, anthropology or history class without being assigned this book. How many times did I feign excited queer identification with Herculine, thinking, at least (and about this I was not wrong) that it might get me laid by some of the (what were at that time called) “bicurious” members of the class. Meanwhile, I found the book repulsive and terrifying. Herculine’s desperation and isolation. The fact that time was kept by Her- culine not through any objective measure—workday, seasons, school year—but rather through female encounters. When women could be held in Herculine’s line of sight; when they were inaccessible. The narrative would frequently drop off until a woman reappeared. What happened to Herculine in these interstices? It seemed, in fact, that nothing, absolutely nothing, occurred in the absence of women; that Herculine awakened from a kind of cryogenic stasis only when summoned by the scent of women, of their— —well, you know what I mean— —that particular draft; one to which I myself would soon awaken, and come to love beyond all measure. Hot flint of a lightning strike, plum, basil . . . Lemon, salt, tang of cider from a copper mug . . . Wet forest flowers, dusted with coriander.
sion. The scent of whiskey drifted down. His Heart twist’d in its red socket deep in his chest. He knew it then: he would never see his home again. As bitter as his home was, it was his. Never again to hear the urchins tumbling down Neal Street, the din ricocheting up the close-packed passageway—never again to smell his mother’s particular tart scent—the citrusy Anxiety and disappointment that wafted off her Body like a Wind. He was being left here with the merchants and the accountants, the barristers with their busyness and hollow Eyes and looking-away. Even if his mother looked at him with Horror, she looked at him. To these folks he was a scuttling servant—a dog who spake En- glish. Pinched between these two Torments—a home in which he was a thing of Nightterrors, and a servitude in which he was an- other moving Part churning product towards profit—there was no course of action but to try to feel Nothing. His mother bent down and kiss’d Jack’s face. She touched his cheek with her hand, and held it there for a moment—she whis- pered something in his ear. Then walked away with nary a backward glance.
At dinner that evening, Lady Kneebone presented Jack with a dress to wear while serving. “Our servant has taken ill, so we’re in quite a pinch. You’ll have to replace her for now.” As the Kneebones stuff’d their bellies with mutton and hot boiled water, Jack stood to the side. He was a Shade haunting the boreal dining room. The yowl of a nasty wet Cough descended through the wide wooden slats of the ceiling—the regular servant making quick progress towards Death. Jack shiver’d in his duds, his skin shrinking from the touch of the organza and lace—girl textiles that seemed only to make the chill worse. He had imagined that the wealthy would keep their houses toasty. This was very much not so. And why didn’t the Knee-
bones drink cider? Surely they could afford it. Yet they sipp’d spring water bought from a water-cart merchant. Maybe all of them were different than he’d imagined. A dusty, Bland, bitter lot. “P——” Lady Kneebone—not looking up from her uninspired progress through a wad of meat lying just inches from her nose— called to Jack.* “Make a Gargle of cumin seeds, the mashed root- stock of an iris, and one blistered long pepper.” She said this as if Jack had any idea how to make a Gargle. “For protection against the croup,” furthered Kneebone, swal- lowing a gulp of hot water and waving Jack back into the kitchen. When Jack brought it out at last—having assembl’d it as best he could from an array of items that must have been purchas’d earlier in the day by the ailing servant and set on the counter in what would prove this poor soul’s last labor, save the labors of dying itself—the Kneebones proceeded to throw their heads back and Shriek bubbles, then hack the mucus-broth into their empty mugs.
Standing in the corner of the dining room, watching these two sour Wraiths spatter and drool, Jack tried to recall his mother’s depart- ing words. —I love you—despite everything —I smooth’d your dark curls, once— —Remember that afternoon we walked what seemed forever on the riverbank? To the latter of which Jack would have recalled without flaw the exact weather that day—their most leisurely, closest day together. It had been early November. That time of year when the whole City gloams by late afternoon, and the effluvium of dried leaves crunched underfoot inflicts the inexorability of the Seasons upon the Senses.
* How curious: the excision of what appears to be Jack’s given name (P——) is original to the text.
An autumnal Terror had fluttered in Jack’s stomach as horsecarts blasted by, thwacking wet wheels on wet leaves. Wake turbulence swirl’d leaf-fragments in small vortices up and down the darkening Riverbank. His mother had reached down through the dusking Gloom. And held his hand.
Tho’ frankly, she may have said—and this is the most likely— —You’re the greatest Shame of my life. Better to just imagine Mum dead, he’d shush’d his pounding heart. Lots of urchins have lost their mothers, he reasoned. He saw it daily when he batter’d down the streets with the gang on one of their common ruses, knocking into the apothecary carts, spilling Oils and Emollients on the cobblestones “on accident” in order to de- scend upon the blanched almonds, mint leaves, and barley seeds like a gabbling Flock of pigeons, scraping them up to sell at a cut rate to the next cart ’round the corner. None of them seemed to have any parents at all. He’d be just like them, now, he supposed.
Jack consum’d the Kneebones’ scraps while he tidied the kitchen. Then Kneebone fetched him and walked him upstairs to his sleep- ing quarters. A filthy dark garret in the upper reaches of the spindly townhouse. The unmistakable piercing scent of Mice and rot blasted out of the room when Kneebone opened the door. Jack’s body ach’d from standing, serving, and cleaning. His neck was prickled with pain. His fingers were stiff and cold. His ex- tremely circumscribed horizon of hope fix’d entirely on the pros- pect of sleep. But as they approached the bed—Kneebone almost projecting him towards it with the negative magnetism of his
Nearness—Jack was thrown into wakefulness. An unwelcome, ex- hausted awakeness. He heard something jangling, and peered be- hind him. Kneebone held a heavy Lock and Chain in his hand. “Receiv’d this from a Swedish importer.” Kneebone cough’d. “A gift for an especially profitable exchange—a Polhem Lock,” he con- tinued, with what appeared an Erotick excitement concerning Lock mechanicks. He caressed the curve of iron, his gray skin sparking to a pinkish gray. “This Lock,” he said, fixing Jack in his weak, watery glare, “is unpickable.” Jack lay down. He did so without instruction because it was impossible to keep his Body from trembling and crumpling to the bed. Kneebone reached into his torso jerkin pocket and produc’d a Key, which he slid into the Lock. Four teeth yawned open, and Kneebone wound the oiled iron Chain around Jack’s ankle, then the bedpost, and threaded the Lock’s jaw through. He snapped it shut. Every nerve in Jack’s body fir’d against his skin— His jaw tensed and the muscles of his scalp bunched and held themselves, frozen in aching Huddles— He willed himself not to look at the Lock—to Unfeel it against his skin—Unfeel its weight on his ankle and foot. “I’m not extraordinarily cruel,” Kneebone said, looking down at Jack. “But I’ve bought you body and Soul for the period of ten years. And I mean to keep you to it.” Kneebone backed away with a Perverse and ashamed half- smile, shutting the door and locking it behind him. “Will return at dawn,” Kneebone hissed through the boards, and clunk’d down the stairs.
The next morning, Kneebone hurried Jack through the dining area—dim, chill, and curtained shut against the dawn—towards the Workroom, a cluttered chamber that bowed out in a bay win- dow at the far end. Jack took in the items Kneebone had produced
for sale. Dressing tables, chests, armoires, windowsills, and a bi- zarre quantity of little stools with cushioned tops. “What’s this?” Jack ask’d, reaching down to poke a cushion. “Don’t touch anything!” Kneebone shouted as Jack stumbl’d through the mess. “It’s all the property of Kneebone, and Kneebone only. Every item in this room is forbidden to you unless it’s being actively worked on.” Kneebone sat Jack at the workbench and took a place across, their knees knocking under the table. “I’ll teach you window-glazing, nail-casting, and the art of screwsmanship,” he announc’d. “But mostly I will teach you tuf- fets. Podiums for the small pet Pups of the aristocrats to perch on whilst having their portraitures painted.” He pointed at the cushioned stool Jack had pok’d. “That’s where the market is best.” The air filled with Kneebone’s stale, arid Breath. It wasn’t rotted like so many other high-living folks’. But it was bitter, like a tree emitting old Resin from its whorled depths. Jack reach’d for a chisel. He didn’t need demonstration. Just glancing at the tuffets he felt assured he could make something similar. ’Twasn’t difficult. Probably he’d just have to— And then Kneebone was at his side. With another Polhem Lock in his hand.
All that first day, Jack did his Thames-trick. He had no other choice against the Terror of the chain. He sent himself floating to cool Depths—morph’d his heartbeat into the thrum of deep water. He’d never had to stay under for so long—but his confinement was so relentless, Kneebone’s ownership of him so total—not just his Body, but all his Capacities, all his Potentialities, too—that going Deep was his only option. This trick, as it turned out, was help’d immensely by working with the wood. For Jack was an ace craftsman with an uncanny understanding of the natural properties of architecture and mate-
rials. The way a sill rests inside the groove of a Wall was some- thing magnetizing and soothing to his Attention. As was how to sculpt around a particularly recalcitrant knot in a hunk of oak. Or the cool skin of iron, or how much pressure a walnut board could take, how much torquing a birch plank would endure. All this had Jack demonstrat’d through the constant Storm of Kneebone’s droning—a stinking stream on and on, only occasion- ally about how to craft wood. More largely a cascade of Tangents and opinions about the horrors of poverty—how it “breeds conta- gion like an overzealous sow.” It seem’d Kneebone considered him- self an amateur Doctor. He bragg’d that he’d read a great number of medical textbooks. Commoners—belching “sweaty winds” and “stenchy secretions”—were, according to him, prime vectors of Disorder. “I’ve saved you from a diseased life lived amongst the diseased,” Kneebone said, as he toss’d a moldy bun smeared with rancid but- ter at Jack for his morning meal when it was nigh on noon. “Saved you from that Mob”—he gestured with his head towards the win- dow and the street beyond—“that Mob that threatens the Publick’s Health at every turn.”
At Nightfall, Kneebone unlocked him from the table and ushered him into the dining room. Lady Kneebone again instructed Jack to prepare and dole out the supper. It seemed the other servant had indeed expir’d. After the pair had stuffed down their repast, Kneebone escorted him upstairs. Bent over him. Latched his ankle to the bedpost—went to the door and stood there— Why wasn’t he leaving? Kneebone was nailing something to the inside of the door. “To study on.” He gestured at the tacked-up parchment when he was done. “For learning your letters.” Kneebone read aloud, his finger tracing the words as he stood there like the pedagogical Father Jack had never had and
frankly never wanted. His threadlike arms waved in the candle- light.
AN ACT FOR THE PREVENTION OF FUGITIVE LABORERS*
A R ogue or Vagrant is defined as: 1) all Persons wandering abroad and lodging in barns, outhouses, and de- serted and unoccupied buildings, or in carts or wagons, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of themselves; 2) all Common Players of Interludes, Minstrels, Jugglers; all Persons wand’ring in the Habit or Form of counterfeit Egyptians, or pretending to have skill in Physiognomy, Palm- istry, or like crafty Science, or pretend-
ing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, or unlawful Games or Plays; 3) all Persons able in Body, who run away, and leave their Wives or Chil- dren to the Parish, and not having wherewith otherwise to maintain themselves . . . and refuse to work for the usual and common Wages; 4) and all other idle Persons wand’ring abroad and begging shall be deemed Rogues and Vagabonds and remanded to gaol or returned to their master, with the period of service doubled.
“So you see, when you leave the house, you’ll be subject to ar- rest unless you’ve got a master’s note.” Kneebone worked his thin lips back and forth. Turned and clicked the door shut. Jack’s breath shallow’d as he lay bound to the bed. The one thing his mother would never have done was threaten him with Arrest; she hated the constables. He will’d himself not to think of her, not to wish himself backwards by one day. ’Twas awful there, too—’twas awful there, too. His mind gritted its teeth against thoughts too terrible to think. The miseries of his mother’s house- hold had given way to Torments still worse. His ribs ached from unsobbed sobs. They stung his chest like a diseased Pulse, and he fell to sleep in pain, a dog of Shame and Sorrows.†
* Draft of the 1714 Vagrancy Act? † The usage of plural “Sorrows” is unusual.
Jordy Rosenberg is a transgender writer and scholar. He is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches eighteenth-century literature and queer/trans theory. He has received fellowships and awards from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation/J. Paul Getty Trust, the UCLA Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, and the Clarion Foundation’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of a scholarly monograph, Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion. He lives in New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts. Confessions of the Fox is his first novel.