Confessions Of The Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Jack Sheppard, the ultimate rogue, was the scourge of both police and fellow thieves in early 18th century London. Fleeing his cruel carpentry apprenticeship, where he worked all day and was shackled all night, he became a folk hero in the space of just two years, escaping from jail twice, and becoming the greatest foe of the ‘Thief-Taker General’, Jonathan Wild. His exploits have been documented numerous times down through the years, not least in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – the inspiration for Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. His reputation became so fearsome that plays with his name in the title were banned in London for 40 years following his death.
In this radical new retelling of Sheppard’s story, author Jordy Rosenberg places us in the hands of Dr V Roth, a troubled and stressed-out scholar, who fortuitously comes across a rare copy of Sheppard’s ‘memoir’ in a university library clearing sale. Roth, a trans man, believes that he has found the true account of Sheppard’s nefarious deeds, an account in which Sheppard himself is revealed to also be trans. What follows is a fast-paced romp through early 1700’s plague-panicked London with Sheppard and his beloved companion; a prostitute known as Edgeworth Bess. Bess herself is reimagined as a woman of colour, the daughter of a white Englishwoman and an Asian sailor.
Readers of historical fiction will be well acquainted with the London of Rosenberg’s novel: a foggy and merciless city rife with miscreants and disease, where human waste flows in the streets and where it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. The brothels and taverns of the time are welldrawn, and the superstition and quackery from that era is much in evidence, particularly in one bracing scene in which Sheppard undergoes gender reassignment surgery.
Confessions Of The Fox is one of the more surreal reads of the year. Throughout Sheppard’s memoir, Dr Roth annotates the text with extensive footnotes which can sometimes threaten to pull the reader out of the narrative, both psychologically and physically, but Rosenberg uses them well as part of his worldbuilding.
A nicely entertaining and engrossing read then, for fans of fantasy, crime, steampunk, historical bodice-rippers, queered histories and gypsies, tramps and thieves.