Confessions of the Fox is a transformative, metafictional piece of historical fiction that takes the life of Jack Sheppard—infamous thief and gaol-breaker who provided inspiration for John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera—and tells it afresh through a mysterious manuscript. A precarious professor, V. Roth, discovers a manuscript in a university clear out. The manuscript tells the story of Jack Sheppard, a transgender man indentured to a carpenter who turns thief and prison-breaker, and his love Bess Khan, who escaped the draining of the fenlands. Together they fight to uncover a strange secret that leads back to Jonathan Wild, Thief-Catcher General. However, the manuscript may not be as first appears, or so Roth seems to think through footnotes that lead the reader on another quest altogether, one that considers freedom, gender, and the archival text.
The novel blends a kind of eighteenth-century style—full of bawdy slang and thieves’ cant—with academic footnotes and personal reflection. Rosenberg’s Sheppard is a man motivated by love and freedom, in contrast to Roth, who talks of a lost ex and imprisonment within a corporate university system. And yet, Roth identifies with Sheppard, and the action of identifying with a subject of research becomes something else fictionalised within the novel.
Rosenberg’s novel is a difficult one to categorise. On the one hand, it is powerful historical fiction that carves a non-white, non-cis space in a certain point in eighteenth-century history. On the other, it is a postmodern consideration of oppression, theory, the archive, and what authenticity could possibly be. Within both of these strands, Confessions of the Fox fights for the untold story, for over throwing the masters, and for telling diverse stories for the people who have been left out of them. It is an exciting, powerful, postmodern book that forces the reader to look beyond its pages, but also keeping an adventure story of crime and love at its heart.