Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes – A Review

Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes 2016 x 200

From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

PARANOIA RUNS DEEP

From the moment I saw the title of Sue Wilkes’s latest book, Regency Spies (Pen & Sword Books, 2015), I was desperate to get my hot little hands on a copy. In a distant chapter of my life I was trained in espionage by the CIA, and I have a habit of inventing spies in my Jane Austen novels—most of them working nefariously on behalf of Bonaparte, but a few ready to die for King and Country. There’s a paucity of scholarly data on tradecraft, recruitment, and spy running during Jane Austen’s heydey, as Lauren Willig’s fictional Eloise discovers in the absorbing adventures of the Pink Carnation. A century ago, Baroness Orczy handed us the consuming history of the Scarlet Pimpernel and forever transformed our sense of the French Revolution. (Can there be any pleasure greater than tucking oneself up in bed with a soothing drink and a copy of one of these books on a stormy night?) Patrick O’Brian channeled the Secret Funds of the Admiralty’s Sir Joseph Banks into the hands of his irascible polymath Stephen Maturin, who collected intelligence wherever his voyages with Jack Aubrey took him; but O’Brian failed to detail his sources at the back of his marvelous novels.

Perhaps, like me, he had none.

So I was eager to discover what Ms. Wilkes had to share with the world.

I confess to a moment of dismay when I opened Regency Spies. As Georgette Heyer’s character Freddie Standen often observes, “I never knew a more complete take-in!” And as is so often the case with poor Freddie, the fault lay with me, not with Ms. Wilkes. I assumed that by Regency spies, she referred to dashing men in cravats and pantaloons, fencing the despicable minions of Napoleon on behalf of the Crown. In fact, Regency Spies is an impeccably researched and scholarly record of the informants recruited, generally by the British Home Office but also by local militias and constabularies, to report on the seditious conspiracies of their fellow Englishmen.

It was as though I had settled down in an armchair to devour the exploits of Bond, and had been handed The Wire instead.

I was immediately reminded of another book I cherish and cannot recommend often enough—The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, by Charles Nicholl (University of Chicago Press, 1995.) Nicholl focuses on Shakespeare’s contemporary, Kit Marlowe, and his tragic stabbing over an unpaid bill in a Deptford tavern. Marlowe’s murder was turned to comic account in the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love, but as Nicholl reveals, the playwright was raised a Catholic, educated by Jesuits in France, and turned by Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant deputies to inform on his friends, who eventually killed him. The double-entendre of the title—Reckoning to mean tavern account, and also an outcome of Fate—is brilliant. Ms. Wilkes’s title is less so. It suggests that the body of her work deals with Regency spies, when in fact she begins far earlier—in the full high tide of the late Georgian era, immediately after Britain has lost the Colonies in a period of Rebellion and the Enlightenment has swept Europe.

With the destruction of the aristocracy of France by proponents of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, the British Crown clamped down on political groups, the publication of philosophic debates, and the leaders of social networks (as we would call them now—in the 1780s, men advocating Parliamentary reform in local pubs or coffee houses). To propone progressive or “democratic” principals, much less Republican beliefs (in the French Revolutionary context) was an invitation to be summarily arrested, tried, and hanged. Wilkes moves from the simmering restlessness of the lower orders during the time of Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger, to the open rebellions of Irish Republicans against the Crown—and their swift executions as examples of how not to behave under George III. Her detailed account offers a plethora of data on the men and women recruited by the British Crown to report on their neighbors, who might have spoken too freely under the influence of ale, or actively negotiated with the French to invade Ireland on their behalf in 1798. Similarly, Wilkes addresses the naval mutinies (labor disputes) at Spithead and Nore, the one peaceably resolved with a Crown pardon and the other tragically ending in hangings. She notes that justice was invariably skewed against the plaintiffs, and in favor of prosecutors: In England at this time, one was presumed guilty until proven innocent; the testimony of a single witness was considered sufficient for indictment; one was not allowed to testify on one’s own behalf; and in the case of the Irish rebels, their trusted lawyer was in fact an informant in the pay of the Crown.

One of the more amusing accounts in a litany of hanging, drawing, and quartering, is the story of the Spy-Nozy Affair. A doctor in Bath communicated to the Crown his suspicions of a couple recently arrived as tenants in a local manor:

“…the Master of the House has no wife with him, but only a Woman who passes for his Sister. The man has Camp Stools, which he & his visitors carry with them when they go about the country upon their nocturnal or diurnal excursions, & have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say are almost finished…”

Convinced that the pair were French spies compiling an intelligence dossier to assist in a future invasion, the Home Department dispatched a Bow Street Runner to observe the sinister household. He reported back that the Frenchman and his colleague continuously discussed something they referred to as Spy-Nozy, and were branded as Phylosophers (sic). Turns out the “Frenchman” and his lady of ill-repute were in fact the English poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, who had leased a respectable country house outside Bath and invited their friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to stay with them. Wordsworth and Coleridge were discussing the philosopher Spinoza. The infamous Portfolio probably contained Dorothy’s sketches and watercolors.

The story is funny, now. But it reveals a much darker truth: in the late Georgian and Regency period paranoia ran deep, and the word of a patriotic informant could be enough to indict, try, transport or execute innocent people. Wilkes notes correctly that the suppression of free speech and thought so ardently pursued by the Crown was a hunt that could be manipulated by any malicious person acting on a grudge—who would be paid handsomely for the destruction of the innocent as well as the guilty.

4 out of 5 Stars

REVIEWER BIO:

Stephanie Barron was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written fifteen books including the acclaimed Being a Jane Austen Mystery series, and Jack 1939 as Francine Mathews. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about Stephanie and her books at her website, visit her on Facebook and Goodreads. 

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes
Pen & Sword Books (2016)
Hardcover & eBook (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1783400614

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound | iTunes | Goodreads

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS:

Emma Jolly

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Cover image courtesy of Pen & Sword Book © 2016; text Stephanie Barron © 2016, Austenprose.com

11 thoughts on “Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes – A Review

    • The Marlowe book makes interesting reading if you’re familiar with Will in the World–both are grounded in Catholic/Protestant divisions in Elizabethan society, Arnie.

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    • I’m very interested In that topic as a result of my finding a perfect SATAN acrostic in Friar Laurence’s speech to Jukiet about the effects the “poison” will have on her – If you are interested, search in my blog you’ll find several posts in that regard – it places Shakespeare firmly in the literary tradition followed by the likes of Brooke (who wrote Romeus and Juliet), Spenser, Marlowe, and Milton among others, of portraying satanic Franciscan friars who actually do great harm on purpose – it makes me wonder whether Shakespeare was Protestant or maybe a closet Jesuit ?

      I’d be curious to hear your reactions of you do read any of my posts.

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  1. “One of the more amusing accounts in a litany of hanging, drawing, and quartering…” Ha! Must read just for those “amusing” accounts. Amusing? Indeed.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Stephanie,
    I forgot to add–I am pretty sure I saw you at the last AGM — if you were there, you must have attended Sheryl Craig’s excellent presentation about the real life Mr. Wickham who I think strongly crossed Jane Austen’s path at the very time she was finishing Pride & Prejudice.

    It is an indirect validation of the premise behind your wonderful series of Austen mysteries — she really was very aware of and interested in at least some of that real life cloak and dagger intrigue in her world.

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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    • I actually missed the last AGM. But thanks–I’ll look for the Craig presentation in PERSUASIONS.

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  3. The incident with the Wordsworths immediately brought to mind Henry Tilney’s comments to Catherine Morland.

    “Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?”

    Incidentally there is a book by Steven Maffeo titled “Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson” which addresses naval intelligence but again is fairly scholarly and not swashbucling.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, yes, that would have been a take-in for me, too. I was picturing Napoleonic War spies and maybe a few Scarlet Pimperell types.
    But I suppose after I adjusted, I would find domestic spying an interesting topic, too.

    Engaging review! Thanks, Stephanie!

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  5. Excellent review, thank you! I was particularly interested to see your reaction because I am currently reading the book (have gotten as far as the hilarious Spy Nozy incident).

    Have to admit my take is a little different—I’ve been researching the political history of this era, with a focus on the year 1800, and all the stories Wilkes has told so far are familiar to me from other studies (including the excellent In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793–1815, by Jenny Uglow, which also takes an episodic approach to the subject). Convenient to have the tales of skulduggery all collected together, I suppose, but I had been hoping for something deeper and fresher.

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