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In 1794, Britain experienced a public crisis in representation that had been building for some time. In October and November of 1794 twelve men were tried for High Treason, ostensibly because of their public role in organizations pressing for Constitutional Reform.[1] Unlike the United States Constitution, the British Constitution is not a founding written document: that “Happy Constitution” refers to the conjunction of king, House of Lords, and House of Commons which literally constitutes the Nation’s government and which is presumed to represent the country as a whole.[2] It was this that led Thomas Paine to state that “no such thing as a constitution exists in England” (192), a charge which was angrily refuted.[3] The Treason Trials became a public forum for competing interpretations of what such “representation” meant and how the “Constitution” could stand for the nation. The fundamental dynamic here is figurative—the Constitution stands synecdochally for the larger nation; the king embodies not only the government but also the nation. Even “Parliament” can be taken in its strict sense as the combined members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords or in a larger synecdochal sense as the two houses and the king. Thus, while Treason is technically plotting the death of the king, plotting to reform Parliament could metonymically imply threatening the king as the figure for government as a whole.[4]

By the last decade of the eighteenth century, the relation between imagination and reason, figuration and plain commonsense had become particularly complex and publicly contested.[5] This contestation is nowhere more evident than in the London Treason Trials of 1794, which largely destroyed the literary career of the autodidact, Thomas Holcroft. This essay takes the trial for High Treason of twelve London radical reformers—only three of whom were actually tried and all of whom were acquitted in November 1794—as its subject. Rather than reading a literary text for its hidden political content, this essay instead reads public documents that engage highly figurative terms such as “construction,” “constitution,” “imagination,” “design” and “plot” as the sign of an emergent cultural debate over the relation of language to meaning with both material and literary implications. Instead of attending to the spectacle of the trial itself,[6] this essay attends to some of the writings that offered contested versions of the trial’s significance.

The public debates between reformers and conservatives leading up to the trials alternately warn against the dangers of fictionality and celebrate the powers of commonsense, with each side attacking its opponents for overly-imaginative theorizing and claiming the ground of good English commonsense for itself. The self-defense which Holcroft himself prepared and later published (but was not allowed to give publicly in court because the charges against him were dismissed before he came to trial) and William Godwin’s “Cursory Strictures” on the charge presented to the Grand Jury by Chief Justice James Eyre (which Godwin published before the trial) both propose to set “truth” against fiction, commonsense against an overly-active “construction” of “imagination.” Yet both Holcroft and Godwin were known writers of fictions and, moreover, both had already explicitly theorized their fictional practices. The distinction between “fiction” and “fact” which public discourse about the Treason Trials presumed as an absolute one is perhaps the question of late eighteenth-century England. “Histories,” “narratives,” “travels,” “memoirs,” “romances,” “tales” and “novels” are only a few of the terms commonly used to identify the newly dominant forms of popular prose narrative, some of which we now identify as “literary” and some of which we classify as “factual,” “historical,” or “popular.”[7] The relation of legal and political narrative to fictional narrative is more complex than either the loyalists or reformers acknowledged in their accounts of the trial and its charges.

In their narrative fiction of the 1790s Godwin and Holcroft linked familial arrangements—sons and daughters’ duty to fathers, servants’ obligations to masters—to larger political critiques. Published in 1792, two years before the Treason Trials, Holcroft’s most successful novel, Anna St. Ives (ASI), investigated the proper relation of children to parents, arguing through the common hero, Frank Henley, that the true father is he who feeds the mind and soul, not the biological parent who merely feeds the body (9).[8] Ultimately the heroine, Anna St. Ives, is rewarded for resisting her father’s prejudices in favor of a well-born but rakish suitor, and the villain, Coke Clifton, is shown to be a bad son, unable to value his rational and philosophical mother because he has imbibed erroneous notions about the nature of masculinity. Similarly, Godwin’s 1794 Things as They Are explores the relationship of the dependent Caleb Williams to his master, Mr. Falkland, who is later exposed as a bad master who both persecutes Caleb and allows his dependents to suffer the price for his own crimes. The master/servant relationship here both parallels the father/son relationship and suggests the synedochic connection between familial arrangements and national ones. The King as father to the nation, both a benevolent and correcting paternal figure, has a long history. In the novels of Godwin’s circle, bad masters and fathers are taken by many critics to refer to a reconceptualization of the king’s relationship to his people.[9] Thus, representing the justices of the 1794 trials as tyrannical paternal figures, who conjured illusory threats to the monarch, was enabled by the familiarity of such figures in the popular novels and plays of the early 1790s.

Twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics have noted that “unity of design” and use of the biographical tale to develop an account of how character is shaped by circumstances are characteristic of the so-called English “Jacobin novel.” Gary Kelly has argued convincingly that “the English Jacobin novelists wished to do more than imitate Richardson’s portrayal of the relation between individual psychology and action; they wished to show the relationship between individual feelings and actions, and society at large,” which he identifies as “the real beginning of the social novel” (English Jacobin Novel 118). It is this specific socio-political concern to reveal how subjects are made (and thus to influence the formation of British subjects through didactic tales) which marks the “structure of feeling” uniting those we know as English “Jacobin” novelists into a coherent group (see Williams 128-135). The circle of ideological writers connected with Godwin and Holcroft is large and their writings are various, including novels, plays, translations, histories, letters, polemic, and literary criticism. Yet for both the English Jacobins and their varied opponents, the novel was seen as a particularly powerful vehicle for influencing its perceived popular and amorphous audience, most frequently imagined as young, naïve, and female.

Particularly problematic in the eyes of fearful loyalists was the explicit ideological didacticism of radical English fiction-making. A few years after the Trials Godwin set out a thoughtful statement on the didactic purpose of both fiction writing and reviewing in “Of Choice in Reading” (1797). In this essay Godwin differentiated between the “moral,” or intended message of a literary work, and its “tendency,” or the less predictable effect it is likely to have on its readers (135). “Moral” and “tendency” function here as late eighteenth-century terms for thinking about the critical complexity of a work’s denotative and connotative meanings, or in a sense its ideological effects. Godwin and his colleagues were not naïve readers and writers, but thought carefully about the implications of the stories they told and the forms in which they encased them. Moreover, they expected their readers also to become active participants in the political “tendencies” of their fiction, for instance tracing the significance of Anna’s preference for Frank Henley or of Caleb’s discovery of Falkland’s true criminality. Godwin’s essay, reviews by Holcroft, and essays and letters by others in their circle reveal a lively debate surrounding the capacity of novel readers to unravel complex political ideas and to use novels as stepping-stones to more profound self-education.[10] In the preface to his 1780 novel, Alwyn, Holcroft had already entered the extended late-century debate on distinguishing the “Novel” from the Romance, arguing that:

MODERN writers use the word Romance to signify a fictitious history of detached and independent adventures; …. A Novel is another kind of work. Unity of design is its character. . . . [I]n a Novel, a combination of incidents, entertaining in themselves, are made to form a whole; and an unnecessary circumstance becomes a blemish, by detaching from the simplicity which is requisite to exhibit that whole to advantage. Thus, as in dramatic works, those circumstances which do not tend, either to the illustration or forwarding the main story, or which do not mark some character or person in the drama, are to be esteemed unnecessary.
 HENCE it appears, the legitimate Novel is a work much more difficult than the Romance, and justly deserves to be ranked with those dramatic pieces whose utility is generally allowed. . . . Tom Jones [sic] shall never want admirers.

qtd. in Kelly, English Jacobin Novel 15

Gary Kelly sees this passage as the manifesto of the Jacobin novel as a novel of purpose, concerned with “unity of design.” Further, Holcroft suggests here that fiction employs imagination in an important way to help the reader develop knowledge; novel reading can be, at its best, a kind of epistemology. Distinguishing the novel from the “mere entertainment” value of what he terms “Romance,” Holcroft suggests that certain forms of fiction are a particularly useful and good art. Thus, even before the Treason Trials, Godwin, Holcroft, and their London circle of radical men and women explicitly conceived of the popular novel form as a rhetorical mode by which a larger public could be reached, induced affectively to espouse the cause of justice and thus introduced to political ideas or “philosophy.”

Despite Holcroft’s adherence to a dramatic sense of unity in “unity of design,” novels rather than plays are particularly at issue here. The maligned genre was commonly imagined (rightly or wrongly) as reaching a broader audience even than plays through circulating libraries and private lending—and a more private, domestic audience. (Robert Mayo has argued that they may have reached even farther through the growing number of miscellanies and magazines which excerpted and summarized novels, including those of Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Smith, and Thomas Holcroft [252].) Because they might be read alone or in the home, novels were perceived as peculiarly insidious: disproportionately aimed at women readers and less subject to external control and state censorship.[11] In the charged atmosphere of the 1790s, the Jacobins’ own didactic and political uses of fiction were imperiled by their attack on Constructive Treason as a pejorative fiction. While Godwin and Holcroft were conceiving their fiction as a way to engage common readers (including women) with political reform through affective story-telling, the careful distinction between their own “rational fictions” and the irrational fictions of which they accused the government became blurred (See Clemit on “rational fiction”).

The Treason Trials themselves function as a node where larger debates among reformers and their opponents about the Englishness of commonsense and the heated imaginations, nefarious designs, and extended theories of the other side, contend. Here the presumed distinctions between fiction and legal truth, theory and practice, romance and commonsense, are unsettled. In 1794, English law itself came to seem overly-fictionalized, and fictional projections became materially dangerous. Jacobin novelists’ concern in their fiction with “unity of design” could easily be taken as evidence of “designs” on their readers or even, by extension, on the state, which lay behind their stigmatization as “Jacobin” sympathizers and agents in the first place. The popular appeal of affective narrative in the 1790s, which so attracted Jacobin interest in the novel, was identified by their opponents as the particular danger of their movement. Critics feared it was unfairly tempting to young women readers and others who lacked the intellectual and critical facilities to discriminate between fiction and actions in the material world.[12] Thus, while the Trial ended successfully for Holcroft in dismissal, the English Jacobins’ didactic project to use fiction to change public opinion and to motivate a desire for real political reform was devastating. Ultimately, their successful imputation of fictional and figurative overreaching by the prosecution cost them their place in literary history and English history more generally, as they failed to distinguish “good” reformist fictions from nefarious and oppressive state fictions. Because the Jacobin novelists used fictional tales (novels and in some cases plays) to make political points, they were themselves subject to the post-trial suspicion of all fiction in the service of philosophical “system,” a suspicion to which they had themselves contributed. Moreover, some scholars have argued that they lost their preeminence in ideological fiction to the so-called “anti-Jacobins,” who produced increasing numbers of works aimed at the circulating libraries from the mid-1790s into the early nineteenth century and were sometimes funded or encouraged by government or religious authorities.[13] As fictions attacking the overly-imaginative or fraudulent nature of “the new philosophy,” anti-Jacobin narratives were partly successful in turning the tables, identifying Jacobin fictions as dangerous ideology seductively dressed in a popular fictive form while evading their own liability as fictions. Thus, much more than the lives of the thirteen defendants was at stake in the cries of heated imaginings and illicit fictions associated with the trials.

Imagining Treason

Charges and counter-charges of imagination and fiction-making were leveled against both supporters and opponents of revolutionary principles by each other in the early 1790s. Steven Blakemore argues that Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution (1790) initiated arguments that unsettled the connection between the material world and language that much of English law and social order assumed:

During the Revolution, both sides offered Nietzschean fictions about civilization: both insisted that their ‘world’ and the language that sustained it were more life-promoting and species-cultivating. Hence, despite their insistence on the truth of their facts, they both articulated competitive versions of transcendent truths that transformed the ‘facts’ of the eighteenth-century world…. Because the revolutionaries questioned and challenged the meaning of the traditional European world, the debate over revolution and counterrevolution was often about the very meaning of that world and the language that sustained it.


Likewise, in Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide 1793-1796, John Barrell uncovers the suspicion both reformers and traditionalists displayed towards figuration. Barrell notes that the work which arguably started the whole debate, Burke’s Reflections,

was written in a language regarded by its critics as elaborately—and dangerously—figurative, and its accounts of the violence of 1789 appeared to Burke’s opponents to owe more to the imagination than to strict historical truth. The opposition throughout the Reflections to ‘abstract’ political theory could be taken as suggesting that the art of government was best understood by the imagination, not by reason; still more provocatively, the imagination, here and there in the text, was attributed with a positive and active role in the processes of social affiliation and the formation of political identities, a role which Burke’s opponents could understand only as proposing that government was a mode of deception.


As Barrell points out, Burke objects to one form of abstraction (“theory” and “French” philosophy) by proposing another (the tradition of the English Constitution). While Jacobins accused opponents of reform, most notably Edmund Burke, of possessing overheated imaginations and projecting irrational fears toward the French populace based upon equally imaginary merits innate to aristocracy, conservative writers attacked the reformers for their dangerous philosophy and sympathies. To prevent the contagion of “French” ideas, Church and King loyalists turned to an extension of the charge of High Treason, “Constructive Treason.”

The charge of Treason used in 1794 was laid out in the statute (or written interpretation of common law) of 25 Edward III, c.2., referring to the year and reign under which it was recorded. The primary charge for High Treason as cited in William Blackstone’s 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England is: “When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, or our lady the queen, or of their eldest son and heir” (78). Blackstone explains that compassing and imagining the death of the king “are synonymous terms; the word compass signifying the purpose or design of the mind or will, and not, as in common speech, the carrying such design to effect,” thus the accidental wounding or killing of the king is not treason, because the element of intention is missing (78). Blackstone is particularly careful to define the precise meaning of the words used, clarifying that “compassing the king’s death” does not necessarily imply successful regicide but rather the plotting or designing of that end as evidenced in actions. Blackstone and those before and after him are quite clear that mere intention as an act of mind, rather than as an overt action in the world, cannot be tried. A legal trial must try actual actions:

How far mere words, spoken by an individual, and not relative to any treasonable act or design then in agitation, shall amount to treason, has been formerly a matter of doubt. . . . But now it seems clearly to be agreed that, by the common law and the statute of Edward III, words spoken amount only to a high misdemeanor, and no treason. . . . As . . . there can be nothing more equivocal and ambiguous than words, it would indeed be unreasonable to make them amount to high treason. . . . If the words be set down in writing, it argues a more deliberate intention; and it has been held that writing is an overt act of treason. . . . But even in this case the bare words are not the treason, but the deliberate act of writing them.


The charge of High Treason in English courts, then, is a particular site where writing as public political act is conjoined with the difficulties of controlling language’s significatory function. So was the Jacobin novel of purpose.

As a didactic form, the Jacobin novel in England strove to keep figuration under control, displacing excessive passions and obfuscating language onto its villains.[14] Associating plotting and duplicitous designs with the establishment and with gentry was a common practice among the Jacobin novelists—their hapless and honest heroes triumph by force of their righteousness or fall by virtue of their honest inability to counter-plot.[15] Thus, in Anna St. Ives (1792), Holcroft’s Coke Clifton outplots the aptly named “Frank,” and Godwin’s seemingly noble Falkland wins in a court of law over the persecuted Caleb in one of the two endings to Things as They Are. Actual trials occur in other reformist novels including Mary Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Woman (1797) and Elizabeth Inchbald’s Nature and Art (1794 completed, published 1796), and the legal profession is portrayed as liable to self-interest disguised by linguistic chicanery in both of Holcroft’s subsequent novels, The Adventures of Hugh Trevor (vols. 1 and 2 in 1793, vols. 3 and 4 in 1796) and Memoirs of Bryan Perdue (1805). Tyrannical, volatile and self-interested gentry, patriarchs, judges or members of parliament occur in almost every novel produced by Godwin, Holcroft, Mary Hays, Wollstonecraft, Inchbald, Eliza Fenwick, Robert Bage and Charlotte Smith, while sensitive but self-contained heroes and heroines predominate throughout. Accusing their opponents from Burke to Chief Justice Eyre of imagining and exaggerating events at home and abroad in accordance with a ludicrous master narrative, while simultaneously using narrative fictions to paint the sufferings of laborers, women, and the disenfranchised to their own ends, left the Jacobins with the burden of distinguishing the sincere “Truth” of their own fictional efforts from the disingenuous and dishonest fictions of their opponents.

Holcroft on Trial

When he was put on trial ostensibly for his association with the Society for Constitutional Information and its call for “conventions” to discuss the cause of reform across Britain and even Europe, Holcroft’s literary work was apparently not at issue. His status as a writer and his published writings, either fictive or political, are not mentioned specifically in the charge or the trial, though writings promoting a convention were explicitly at issue in the Indictment.[16] But, because Holcroft never came to trial, this omission is not so surprising. “Literary” writing was already seen in 1794 as a powerful tool for addressing and molding public opinion by both reformers and government supporters alike. For example, Hannah More’s Village Politics(1793) and Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-8), fictional dialogues in which characters such as Tom Mason and Jack Anvil discuss and debunk ideas such as “the rights of man,” “were often credited [in the mid-1790s] with preventing rebellion and thereby saving the monarchy in England” (Mellor 15). Holcroft’s style of writing and his implicitly political reformist purpose in his novels and plays may well have been of concern to William Pitt’s government. (That same government later secretly funded The Anti-Jacobin [1797-8] and The Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review [1798-1821], which used literary parody, visual print satire, poetry, literary reviews and polemic to discredit reformers and radicals.) Moreover, Holcroft and his friend, William Godwin, explicitly believed that many of their philosophical and political ideas could best be communicated to the general population (rather than to the “philosophers” or fellow reformers) in fictional form, combining entertainment with instruction as the novel had always sought to do, but with a more self-consciously theorized purpose (see Godwin, “Preface” 3). Thus, the crown was not wrong to fear the deeper implications of the prolific public speech and writing produced by radical reformers through the 1780s and 90s.

Thus, the Jacobin novel was a particularly likely target for loyalists because of its popular appeal (as distinct from political tracts with a more limited audience), its availability (through lending libraries and exchange among readers), its extended discussion of issues illustrated by powerfully affective scenes and characters, and the relative ease of publication. Plays also incorporated didactic reformist messages, but were partially restrained by the conventions of form and limitations of production, the need for a substantial run to ensure profits, and the legal restrictions of licensing which often meant that offending passages were omitted in performance.[17] While plays were dangerous because of the public arena in which they whipped up sentiments, novels had the insidious danger of being likely to be read alone and by (apparently) naïve readers. The common perception of the time was that novel readers—envisioned as women, servants, and in some cases laborers—were particularly susceptible to imbibing dangerous ideas and unable to resist the blandishments of fiction. Representations of innocent young women readers, corrupted by heated imaginings and seductive systems are commonplace in late-century novels.[18]

“Constructive Treason” was a particularly loaded charge to bring against a fiction writer; by the 1794 Trial, Constructive Treason meant that, by questioning the English system of government, one had “constructively” imagined the demise of the king as the embodiment of that government, whether or not he (or she) had actually advocated the king’s death. Blackstone’s Commentaries had explicitly warned against the concept of Constructive Treasons, elaborating upon the dangers of past excesses:

As [Treason] is the highest crime, which . . . any man can possibly commit, it ought therefore to be most precisely ascertained. For if the crime of high treason be indeterminate, this alone . . . is sufficient to make any government degenerate into arbitrary power. And yet, by the antient [sic] common law, there was a great latitude left in the breast of the judges, to determine what was treason, or not so: whereby the creatures of tyrannical princes had opportunity to create abundance of constructive treason; that is to raise, by forced and arbitrary constructions, offences into the crime and punishment of treason which never were suspected to be such. . . . But however, to prevent the inconveniences which began to arise in England from this multitude of constructive treasons, the statute 25 Edw. III. c.2. was made, which defines what offences only for the future should be held to be treason.


Blackstone identifies the broadening of “Treason” through construction as a particular danger partly because it leads to tyranny but also because such broad constructions tend to diminish the proper horror of the crime itself. If killing the king’s father or brother or even his messenger becomes “Treason,” then the specific importance of Treason as an unthinkable crime against the king as the figure for the state itself becomes diminished. The danger of figurative extensions of treason then, becomes the diminishing of another figure, that of the king as the synecdochal sign of the nation. Blackstone’s concern for delimiting the range of “Treason” suggests that ironically, the 1794 Treason Trials themselves may have helped to diminish rather than to restore national reverence for the crown, thereby serving the Jacobins’ purpose rather than the prosecution’s (perhaps the reason that such state trials were abandoned and that William Pitt’s government relied more on propaganda and anti-Jacobin fiction in the late 1790s). Under the Grand Jury’s charge of “Constructive Treason,” Holcroft was threatened with trial not for his actions or words, but for his imaginative designs and the implications of making them public. The record attendance of women spectators at the 1794 Treason Trials may have served only to heighten loyalist fears that English womanhood was particularly vulnerable to the appeal of dangerous designs and moving scenes (see Pascoe 33-67). In marked contrast with the emotionalism of the trial itself—from Thomas Erskine’s dramatic histrionics as defense counsel to the well-publicized account of Thomas Hardy’s wife’s death in childbirth while her husband was imprisoned under the suspension of habeas corpus—, the written documents on both sides strive to represent their position as rational and enlightened.

In his charge to the Grand Jury, Chief Justice James Eyre made a careful effort to appear reasonable and rational. He noted that the laws defining Treason, even Constructive Treason, were rightly cautious about extending that particular charge, preferring lesser charges in many cases. It was the reformers’ call for a national (or international) convention to show support for the cause of reform and to petition Parliament on which he focused his strongest critique:

Whether the project of a convention, having for its object the collecting together a power which should overawe the legislative body, and extort a parliamentary reform from it, if acted upon, will also amount to high treason, and to the specific treason of compassing and imagining the King’s death, is a more doubtful question. . . . Laws are enacted in parliament by the King’s Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords and Commons, in paliament [sic] assembled. A force meditated against the parliament, is therefore a force meditated against the King, and seems to fall within the case of a force meditated against the King, to compel him to alter the measures of his government. . . .

Eyre 13

Here Eyre suggests that the very action of calling together reformers in convention to show the strength of national support may itself, as a threat to Parliament and thus to the Constitution, extend metonymically into a threat to the king. Eyre goes even further in a passage that drew much rage from moderate and radical reformers:

But if we suppose these Associations to adhere to the professed Purpose, and to have no other primary Object; it may be asked, is it possible, and (if it be possible) by what Process is it, THAT AN ASSOCIATION FOR THE REFORM OF PARLIAMENT CAN WORK ITSELF UP TO THE CRIME OF HIGH TREASON? All men may . . . reason upon every thing which sufficiently interests them to become the Objects of their Attention; and among the Objects of the Attention of Men, the Principles of Government, the Constitution of particular Governments, and, above all, the Constitution of the Government under which they live, will naturally engage Attention and provoke Speculation. . . . I shall not state to you that Associations and Assemblies of men, for the purpose of obtaining a Reform in the interior Constitution of the British Parliament, are simply unlawful; but, on the other Hand, I must state to you, that they may but two [sic] easily degenerate, and become unlawful, in the highest Degree, even to the enormous Extent of the Crime of High Treason.[19]


It was this suggestion, that such organizations were somehow particularly likely to become treasonous, that drew the most ire from reformers and their sympathizers. Many saw the Chief Justice’s carefully qualified admission that citizens ought to reason upon their government only so far as it did not lead to overreaching reform as hair-splitting intended to deprive Englishmen of their rights derived from the Revolution of 1688. Eyre’s detractors were quick to point out the slippery logic at work in this Janus-faced statement. The historian Carl B. Cone notes that:

It was in his charge to the grand jury . . . that Lord Chief Justice Eyre was vulnerable to criticism. He began impartially enough by explaining the nature of treason as defined by the statute dating from Edward III, namely levying war or compassing and imagining the death of the King. But then he went far beyond. It was the duty of the grand jury to decide whether parliamentary reform was a mere pretext ‘to cover deeper designs’ which would be treasonable. An association for promoting reform ‘can work itself up to the crime of high treason.’ A convention organized to exert pressure upon the legislature must be distinguished from one designed to usurp the powers of the legislature and overthrow the constitution.


Cone’s account points out the burden of hermeneutic interpretation placed upon the jury in the Treason Trials. The jury is here asked to read between the lines of statements made by the London Corresponding Society (LCS) and the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI), to interpret the public statements and actions of the defendants, and to uncover their hidden deeper meaning or design. As Cone puts it, “it was necessary to prove, under the indictment, that ‘being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,’ and under the guise of seeking parliamentary reform, the defendants had conspired to break the tranquillity of the realm, to raise ‘rebellion and war’ against the King, to subvert the government, and to put the King to death” (203).

William Godwin’s “Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury,” published in the Morning Chronicle (October 21, 1794), highlighted the figurative dimensions of the charge. Godwin’s immediate response to Eyre’s charge of the likelihood of treason was mockingly to suggest that groups such as card clubs— even a gathering of justices—were just as likely to degenerate into treasonous speculation as a society of Englishmen concerned with parliamentary reform. He continued:

The first five [pages of the Charge] contain principally a sound and constitutional exposition of the law of treason. . . . In the two following pages we are presented with this portentous speculation, this new treason “of conspiring to subvert the Monarchy”; though the Chief Justice, as has already appeared, has qualified his speculation, with expressions, proving, by accumulated evidence, and in the most precise terms, that this new imaginary treason is no treason by the laws of England.
 . . . The remainder of the charge is made up of hypothesis, presumption, prejudication, and conjecture. There is scarcely a single line that is not deformed with such phrases as “public notoriety,” “things likely,” “purposes imputed,” “measures supposed,” and “imaginary cases.”

“Cursory Strictures” 154

While the charge of “Constructive Treason” was not precisely new and, in fact, the most recent case had been that of Lord George Gordon for fomenting the 1780 Anti-Catholic Gordon riots (recorded by Thomas Holcroft himself), Godwin’s pressure on the suspect and fictional nature of the charge was effective in rousing public sympathy. Moreover, the charge of “Constructive Treason” is oddly fictive in its form, relying on an extended narrative of logical and likely events stemming from an action other than a direct threat of assassination. The charge itself took the powers of imagination and implication as seriously as any novelist or Romantic poet could wish.[20]

The law has a vested interest in denying its own fictive and figurative qualities:

The law takes on the qualities of absolutism under an assumption of consent to the power of law on the part of all ‘free men.’ . . . [T]he question becomes ways in which the particularizations of literary form, the specifications of a certain kind of textuality, come to acquire qualities—as a practice of writing—that the law will presumably not share. The law cannot share these qualities, for if it does, it loses its power to legislate as a metadiscourse. Of even more consequence, to share in these qualities would be to admit the literariness of the law.[21]

Stewart 21

This is precisely what Godwin’s and Holcroft’s counter-charge of “imagining” did to the government’s case in the 1794 Treason Trials; it revealed that rather than pre-existing ideals merely translated through writing into material form, English law and the constitution might function as foundational fictions. Godwin’s “Cursory Strictures” and Holcroft’s undelivered “Defense” accused British justice of participating in that fictionality, thereby disabling it as a critical juridical tool by emphasizing an empirical difference between fiction and fact. These documents suggested an illicit alignment between law and narrative fiction in the government’s case, implicitly eliding legal writing with literary writing and literary tropes (such as metonymy) with legal charges. Such a strict and absolute distinction between an ideal “truth” on which social and political order ought to be based and the seductive fictions on which an illegitimate government depended paradoxically implicated the Jacobins’ own political fiction at the same time as it gave grist to their claim that they were being persecuted for innocent and free speech (fictive or otherwise). This stance of aggrieved innocence is particularly obvious in Godwin’s 1795 note to his suppressed preface to the 1794 edition of Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams, which states that “terror was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor” (4).[22] Portraying the government’s reaction in 1794 as paranoid and delusional, Godwin’s note evades the question of the legitimate use of fictional tropes as political tools.

In fact, the constitution of Britain and the development of fiction are intertwined at the very root. As political writers have pointed out, the State is constituted through a shared fiction—which fiction one chooses reveals something about one’s conception of human nature, social order and political interest.[23] Does one choose Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s revisionary conception of the “Social Contract,” Rousseau’s disembodied “general will”? Likewise, Common Law is a reiterative construction, famously imagined through literary analogy by seventeenth-century legal scholar, Matthew Hale, as like the ship of the Argonauts, recognizably the same ship at the end of the tale despite the potential complete replacement of all of its parts over the journey (40). The British Constitution, the conjunction of king as executive branch and the two houses of Parliament as combined legislative and judicial branches, depends upon the fiction that these three bodies represent the contracted synecdoche of Britain. The House of Commons as the representative of the third estate, was the branch most directly challenged by the Society for Constitutional Information and the London Corresponding Society; the nature of “representation” is at the heart of their competing definitions. That oddly fictional terms such as “representation,” “construction,” “imagination” and “constitution” should crop up persistently in a legal and political discussion is revealing of the ways in which the British nation and its government were figurative at their heart and explains why the “humble novelist” might become “constructively a traitor.” If the subject of church-and-king loyalty was a fictional construction, then ideological fictions such as those of Holcroft and Godwin posed a particular challenge to a state built on such institutionalized fictions.

Finally, both the prosecutors for the crown and the radical reformers had a stake in keeping the figurative and fictional base of their visions of the nation under cover. Each offered a competing notion of reason and national interest, and each tried to argue that its approach was the appropriate and “common” understanding. Their battle was fought in print: Holcroft’s “Defence” (sic), published in 1795 but circulated after the trial in 1794, and Godwin’s “Cursory Strictures” served as counter-narratives to Chief Justice Eyre’s published “Charge to the Grand Jury” and the spectacle of the Trial itself.

Fictional techniques are never more present than in their purported absence: Holcroft represented himself as his own “Frank” hero in his published defense, A Narrative of the Facts, relating to a Prosecution for High Treason; including the Address to the Jury which the Court refused to hear.... and the Defence [sic] the Author had Prepared, if he had been brought to Trial. In this document Holcroft protested the judge’s ruling that as an acquitted defendant, he had no right to address the court: “To be thus publicly accused and not as publicly heard, to have it supposed through the kingdom that I was involved in all of the guilt which they had imputed to other men... this I own was an evil which I would have given my right hand to have avoided. But I too plainly foresaw what afterward happened, that I was not to be heard” (48-9). Glynis Ridley reminds us that, as Marilyn Butler and others have shown, the language of political persuasion and legal truth was particularly vexed in the 1790s:

Throughout the 1790s the British political establishment sought to deny the usefulness of debate on a range of constitutional matters by the simple expedient of faulting the basic form of expression employed by its detractors. Petitions to parliament and radical pamphlets were equally liable to dismissal on the ground that their language did not permit the discussion of abstract concepts, contained an abundance of metaphors, and that they were altogether overly emotive.


She concludes that “Radical writers of the 1790s thus faced a linguistic challenge before they could mount a political one. Was it possible to fashion ‘an intellectual vernacular’: a prose style capable of discussing legal and constitutional precedents (drawn up by men with classical rhetorical training) in a language accessible to all literate men and women?” (69). By taking refuge in Godwin’s concept of the language of truth, or “impressive sincerity” as Maurice Hindle puts it (note to Godwin’s “Letter to Joseph Gerrald” 355), Holcroft and his fellow-defendants were attempting to turn the tables upon their accusers, to claim truthful speech for themselves, and to portray the legal apparatus as overly figurative and fictionalizing. As Godwin had advised Joseph Gerrard in his 1793 trial on the charge of Sedition: “Appeal (for so upon your principles you can) to an authority paramount to the English constitution, to all written Law and parchment constitutions; the Law of universal Reason, authorising men to consult” (“Letter to Joseph Gerrard” 357). (Unfortunately, Godwin’s advice did not serve Gerrard well; he was convicted and died shortly after arriving in Australia as a transported felon.) Godwin takes this Law of universal Reason as a given, rather than as another convenient abstract fiction—something anti-Jacobin writings would parody mercilessly.

Treason and Literature

Ultimately, the Treason Trials in London in 1794 failed to convict in part because the charges were successfully portrayed both officially and unofficially as figurative extensions of a principle that should be based in “truth.” By painting the charge of “Constructive Treason” as overly dependent upon imagined and projected intentions, Godwin and Erskine implied that the charge itself was somehow un-English, not part of Common Law because it went against commonsense. The very unwrittenness of the English Constitution and the presumption of its base in reason and commonsense (as well as tradition) worked to the advantage of the reformers in their trial for Treason. Ultimately, however, it worked against their own fictional projects and largely for the same reasons.

The 1794 Treason trials failed in England to lead to executions or deportations (as trials in Scotland the previous year had), and such legal efforts were largely abandoned subsequently. The ministry moved instead to measures such as the Treason and Sedition Acts of 1795[24] and to funding anti-reformist propaganda such as the Anti-Jacobin Magazine secretly. By making the government look ridiculous and its charges fraudulent, the 1794 Trial undercut its power and authority as top-down power. Turning to the more subtle and subversive potential for satire, propaganda, and seductive counter-narratives, the government and loyalist writers were able to make the earnest fictions of the radicals seem ridiculous in turn. This proved a more effective strategy than the direct attack represented by the charge of Constructive Treason. Moreover, the Treason Trials led to an imagined taint, which Holcroft, who depended upon his public writing for income, was unable to overcome. Referred to in several public venues afterward as an “acquitted felon” despite his objections, Holcroft’s subsequent plays had short runs and most of his later writings brought him little money or praise.[25] While he might not have been convicted of High Treason, the very charge itself and the manner of his acquittal left a cloud of imagined suspicion over him. This peculiar charge, once named, could not be simply erased (much as testimony stricken from the record of a Trial cannot be so easily erased from the minds of the jurors). Hocroft’s ability to earn his living by the products of his literary imagination was also diminished; having had his imagination once tainted by an accusation of treasonable imaginings, its products were no longer safe to consume.


As English readers after 1794 internalized the need to police literary works for their seditious or patriotic messages in a time of war with France, the English Jacobin novel began to decline, or at least revise itself into other, less overtly speculative genres such as history, biography, and children’s literature. Beginning most critics agree around 1792 with Anna St. Ives and Desmond, it peaked with the publication of Mary Hays’s Victim of Prejudice and Godwin’s St. Leon (both 1799). Holcroft’s unpopular 1805 Memoirs of Bryan Perdue stands as a late example of overtly radical fiction. With Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797 and the scandal of Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, the overtly Jacobin novel was largely finished as a marketable genre—it came to seem irremediably tainted by dangerous imaginings and sensibilities. After 1798, Smith, Bage, and Inchbald wrote no more novels; Godwin and Hays did, but they are arguably of a different sort after 1800. Holcroft’s final novel, Bryan Perdue, is oddly out of place and ambivalent. It seems Jacobin in its critiques of capital punishment and gambling, and radical in its suggestion that market speculation is itself a form of gambling. The narrator’s Shandyesque criticism of “pestilential rogues” (or aristocrats and career parliamentarians) as opposed to the more benign “social rogues” (or gamblers and confidence men) is also familiar. But Bryan Perdue also capitulates from the typical Jacobin abolitionist stance to offer an ameliorative account of Bryan as a “humane” overseer on a West Indian sugar plantation, in keeping with the more low key approach of abolitionists after the 1795 Seditious Meetings Act. Finally, like other late reformist novels such as Smith’s Young Philosopher (1798), Holcroft locates his hero’s happy end outside the confines of the nation that had rejected him, thus begging the questions about Britain’s future that his narrative overtly evades.

In conclusion, the case of Jacobin fictions and the 1794 Treason Trials suggests particular benefits to the study of a broad range of materials outside the usual parameters of “literature.” Literary critics—more strongly influenced in many cases by historiographers such as Hayden White and Dominick La Capra than colleagues in fields such as History or Political Science—are well-positioned to read the tensions in these accounts productively, as significant sites for exploring the interpenetration of fiction with the formation of the modern state. Strict distinctions between fact and fiction, law and literature, the material and the aesthetic, risk falsifying the foundations of these categories and overstating their naturalness, and it is thus important to read the range of these writers’ work. A more “genealogical” approach, in the sense of Michel Foucault’s reiteration of Nietszche, which examines how these categories come to be constructed as distinct and how they function in particular historical moments and locations, is a particularly fruitful approach to events like the Treason Trials and their documents. Mark Salber Phillips’s notion in Society and Sentiment of genre difference as “reframing” offers a parallel model for thinking about how documents like historical narratives, legal trials, political pamphlets and periodical essays might inform our readings of more overtly literary works. As Phillips reminds us, the norms of historical distance themselves have a history.

Finally, accounts of English literature and its history are seriously impoverished when they elide the political reformist writings of the 1790s, from novels to occasional essays. Falling between academic disciplines and literary territories, these works are perhaps particularly important because of the ways in which they expose the instability of categories such as “Enlightenment” and “Romanticism,” “aesthetic goodness” and “didactic purpose,” literature and history, the imaginative and the material. Post-Romantic presumptions about aesthetic standards, which have often excluded such works, ignore the power of the literary to impact the material through impacting the conceptual, and often read for formal coherence in preference to more ideological designs. Reading materials such as the Treason Trial documents merely as “historical context” also risks missing the ways that these “background” documents themselves were engaged with constructing both the fictional and the material. It is this conjunction of the material with the imaginative that represents the project of English “Jacobin” fiction. As the forerunners of Anglophone feminism and of liberal conceptions of the citizen-subject, and as self-conscious writers of fiction and political philosophy, these writers—their works and lives—deserve greater and broader scholarly attention, both for their successes and their failures.[26]