Thursday, 30 April 2009

34. Daniel Defoe - 'The Apparition of Mrs Veal' (1706)

verisimilitude (n.)

1. The fact or quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of being true or real; likeness or resemblance to truth, reality, or fact; probability.
In very frequent use from c 1850.

1603 HOLLAND Plutarch's Mor. 1031 If we wil use the rule of probability and verisimilitude. 1654 R. FLECKNOE Ten Years Trav. 30 Truth has no greater Enemy than verisimilitude and likelihood. 1661 GLANVILL Van. Dogm. 64 Verisimilitude and Opinion are an easie purchase; and these counterfeits are all the Vulgars treasure. 1727 WARBURTON Tracts (1789) 83 Was it but Falshood's Mask of Veri-similitude that we doated after. 1764 REID Inquiry vi. §19 His conjectures have more verisimilitude than dogmatic theories. 1826 MISS MITFORD Village Ser. II. (1863) 289 A depth of tenderness in her large black eyes..gave a great verisimilitude to her representation of the lovelorn damsel. 1870 J. H. NEWMAN Gram. Assent II. vii. 221 They are nothing more to me than..judgments on the verisimilitude of intellectual views, not the possession and enjoyment of truths. 1892 STEVENSON & OSBOURNE Wrecker i, To add a spice of verisimilitude ‘college paper’ had an actual marketable value.

b. esp. Of statements, narrative, etc.

1671 MILTON Samson, Of Tragedy, The Plot,..which is nothing indeed but such conomy, or disposition of the fable as may stand best with verisimilitude and decorum. 1733 G. CHEYNE Eng. Malady I. vi. §1 (1734) 48 If what I have advanc'd..have any Truth or Verisimilitude. 1777 ROBERTSON Hist. Amer. II. V. 60 They would extravagant, as to go far beyond the bounds of that veri~similitude which must be preserved even in fictitious narration. 1817 COLERIDGE Biog. Lit. xvii. (1882) 165 The characters..have all the verisimilitude and representative quality that the purposes of poetry can require. 1858 MERIVALE Rom. Emp. lv. (1865) VII. 2 We must accept in the main the verisimilitude of the picture they have left us of this arch~tyrant. 1875 JOWETT Plato (ed. 2) I. 422 The traditional form was required in order to give verisimilitude to the myth.


Defoe was, of course, crucial in the development of empiricism within prose; as a journalist and travel writer, he recorded transactions and economies at work; exchanges of goods in the material world. His is a crucial voice in cataloguing the progression of British capitalism and culture on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. This comes across in his novels; Moll Flanders (1722) consistently foregrounds the exact details of her financial gains and losses, at the end of each episode within its picaresque narrative. There is a concern with documenting what is perceived to be the truth of things, and it is telling that money is made so prominent - might this sort of honesty better become some of our post-modernist novelists today? It should also be noted that Moll's voice at times takes the form of a satirical rebuke to The Way Things Are, and the novel is not simplistically endorsing an obsession with money.

It is unquestionably before its time, as the introduction to The Great English Short-Story Writers, Vol. 1 on Project Gutenberg states; Defoe creates a sense of totality and symmetry, with accumulative details establishing a precise veracity. He clearly delineates time and its passage, with the circumstantial details and context of Mrs Veal's visitation meticulously recorded.

It is also partially an advertisement, with the extensive prominence given to the French Protestant Drelincourt's Book on Death, recommended through the comfort it most assuredly gives the Mrs' Veal and Bargrave in the narrative. Defoe's open, if subtle, didactism reflects the biases of the time, with Catholicism and ritual disdained in British culture, post-'Bloody' Mary.

This selective inclusion - designed by Defoe to lobby for an English translation of the text - chimes with the unnamed narrator's assumed mantle of journalism. Relevant, complicating details that have a bearing upon the story are not withheld, but disclosed in imperative terms: 'Now you must know Mrs. Veal was a maiden gentlewoman of about thirty years of age, and for some years past had been troubled with fits, which were perceived coming on her by her going off from her discourse very abruptly to some impertinence.' (my emphasis)

The narrator's word is taken to be true, and he explicitly refers to calumniators who have openly slandered his witness, the good Christian Mrs Bargrave, who is the source for this apparition story. Once the details of the said story have been related, the narrator makes it clear that Mrs Bargrave has been much in demand for audiences who want to hear the story. He tackles the critical point as to whether there was any pecuniary interest in her newfound calling as oral storyteller: 'And it is to be observed that, notwithstanding all the trouble and fatigue Mrs. Bargrave has undergone upon this account, she never took the value of a farthing, nor suffered her daughter to take anything of anybody, and therefore can have no interest in telling the story.' In addition, she 'never varies' in the slightest detail of her story, convincing the narrator of her essential veracity.

The final paragraph articulates Defoe's journalistic principles in an exemplary manner: 'This thing has very much affected me, and I am as well satisfied as I am of the best-grounded matter of fact. And why we should dispute matter of fact, because we cannot solve things of which we can have no certain or demonstrative notions, seems strange to me; Mrs. Bargrave's authority and sincerity alone would have been undoubted in any other case.' There is no romanticising or sensationalising of the strange, but rather a forensic justification of strange circumstances. This latest online short-story must be commended; it is intensely influential in all sorts of ways - not least to the development of the short-story as a form in itself.


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