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Daily dose of libel and sedition necessary to Thomas Keymer

Photo of: Thomas Keymer

Thomas Keymer. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

As a newly minted citizen, Thomas Keymer takes pleasure in the Canadian symbolism on view from his University College office windows: birch trees, Convocation Hall and the CN Tower.

Although his feet are firmly planted on the St. George campus, Keymer’s thoughts are often thousands of kilometres away and a few centuries back in his native Britain of the 1600s and 1700s. This was a world that shaped early Canadian culture and society, and one of his current projects is a classroom edition of the first Canadian novel, Frances Brooke’s Emily Montague, based on the author’s travels in 1760s Quebec.

Keymer is an expert in Restoration, 18th century and Romantic British and Irish literature with a particular interest in narrative and the novel, as well as in libel and censorship. Luckily for the University of Toronto, most of the manuscripts he needs for research are now available online, so Keymer was able to leave a teaching post at the University of Oxford to become the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at U of T.

“The professorship here was too good an opportunity to miss,” Keymer said. “U of T has great students, a world-class rare books library, and a huge English department. All the things I value and need are here in spades.”

Teaching these students is one of his great pleasures.

“It’s very energizing,” Keymer said. “You start having conversations that make you want to stop and write them down.

“Often, it’s only when you articulate a bit of academic groupthink to a smart bunch of students who haven’t heard it before that you’re made to see the problems, the questions that haven’t been adequately answered, the opportunities that exist for new understanding and knowledge.”

Novels as novelties

Knowledge about the narrative form has intrigued Keymer since his days as a graduate student at Cambridge. In recognition of his literary expertise, he recently served as editor for volume one of the Oxford History of the Novel in English.

“Fictional prose narrative has been around since ancient times,” Keymer says, “but if you’re talking about the attempt to capture day-to-day experiences in all their fullness, the novel is an 18th- century phenomenon.”

He compares the beginnings of the novel to the early days of film.

“Early film producers were so self-conscious about techniques, while lots of early novelists thought about the problems of narrative — whether one voice was enough, for example,” Keymer said. In fact, while many would consider multiple narrators a post-modern literary device, novelist Samuel Richardson experimented with it in the 1700s. Keymer is now, along with Peter Sabor at McGill University, general editor of the first complete edition of Richardson’s works and correspondence, published by the Cambridge University Press.

Power of the pen

Keymer’s interest in libel and censorship in literature is a logical outgrowth of his interest in the literature of the 17th and 18th centuries as periods of political upheaval. The Civil War and Jacobite Rebellions in Britain, and later the American and French Revolutions, each had an effect in determining the boundaries of acceptable communication.

“You can trace the complexities in literary texts to the constraints in expression forced upon people at the time. Authors dreamed up complex modes of expression to circumvent these constraints,” Keymer said, citing irony, indirection, ambiguity and innuendo as examples.

“Literature at the time was seen as having a public function and engaged with affairs of state,” Keymer said. “But it had to do so by implication, by shrouding oppositional or even seditious implications beneath tolerable alternative meanings.”

Given that print was the most powerful medium for sharing ideas, authorities went to great lengths to silence writers: repressive laws, the pillory, intimidation and proxy arrests among them. The government also worked to turn writers, offering financial incentives to put their talents to use for the Crown instead.

His fascination with this topic will soon see Keymer writing a book about the interplay between official press control and politically inflected literature from 1660 to 1830.

“There is still so much to discover and explain about the distinctive features of 18th-century writing,” Keymer said. “Censorship energized these authors and made them more creative. It was all about how to write ingeniously.”

Keymer recently shared some of his thoughts on seditious writing at Oxford, where he delivered the English department’s prestigious Clarendon lecture series, entitled Poetics of the Pillory: English Literature and Seditious Libel. (Margaret Atwood was the Clarendon lecturer in 1991.) Topics for the four lectures included Faint Meaning: Dryden and Restoration Censorship and The Trade of Libelling: Fielding, Johnson. The lectures will be published into a book by Oxford University Press.

21st century novel?

Despite his fascination with Richardson, Fielding and their contemporaries, don’t look for Keymer to follow in their footsteps as a novelist or a poet. In addition to his teaching, his research and his work as director of U of T’s graduate program in book history, Keymer devotes many hours to his role as general editor of Review of English Studies, a major journal.

“That keeps me up to date with other parts of the subject, but not so much with the Man Booker shortlist,” he said.

Instead Keymer, who studied under the influential poet J. H. Prynne, tends to turn to modern verse.
“The problem with reading great new novels for leisure is that it’s not relaxing,” he said. “If it’s interesting and demanding work, I start doing my job on it.”