Wednesday 17 August 2022

Review: The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone

 The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is a work of thoroughly researched history (with full bibliography, notes and index) that reads something like a thriller. It’s about an incendiary book, the covert way it was created and the huge spy-hunt to track down the people connected with it.

Starting with a woman in a mask delivering a manuscript to publishers, David Edwards and his wife Mary. It’s titled The Memorial for the Church of England and it argues that the dissenters, those protestants who feel the Church of England didn’t go far enough in its reforms, are the real dangerous people in the nation and deserve persecution. This was a particularly dangerous message for the government, which was pursuing a moderate path, which could easily be shaken up by a rise in sectarian strife. The government’s man on the job is Robert Harley (who will incidentally be the person whose library catalogue brought Samuel to the attention of the publishers who’d commission the dictionary).

It was a dangerous time to be a printer. The lapse of press regulation which had given birth to a free press was being clamped down. Publishers found themselves hung-drawn-and-quartered for putting out dangerous works and, at the lower end of punishment, were being put in the pillory, sometimes to be beaten insensible. There was even a version of the pillory where a person’s earlobes were nailed to the wooden board and would be sliced off to free them at the end of the ordeal.

What’s more, the government had a system of officers called messengers, many of them ex-bookmen, who would go under-cover, smash doors down or even use honeytraps to find the publishers of dangerous books. While some were diligent, many were crooked, which could work to a bookseller’s advantage if they had the money for a bribe or well-connected support but also meant they could be damned with planted evidence or paid witnesses.

 The central mystery in the book is an interesting one. There’s clearly a powerful set of people behind the Memorial and Edwards, as humble printer, is peripheral to their plot and an easy fall-guy. He goes on the run as his wife turns detective to find the culprits and force them to provide the safety and support they promised. She’s the best character in this book, putting together clues and creating false personas to get closer to the conspiracy while Harley and his state apparatus get nowhere.

One of the most interesting elements of this book is how it is framed. It’s the story of plucky printers avoiding the nasty government. Harley is frequently described as shifty with ‘little, dark, unfathomable eyes’. No one trusts him and he trusts no one. It’s strange, because the plucky heroes, the printers, put into the world a spite-filled invective that calls for oppression, suppression, persecution and death to dissenters. While the ‘evil’ government is seeking a moderate, centrist and tolerant approach. 

The real villains turn out to be the writers of the book, who are trying to ferment hatred for political ends and have no qualms about throwing poor Edwards and his family under the bus. It’s strange for a history book to have heroes and villains though. This is a very opinionated book, various politicians and writers are variously described as ‘shrieking’ or ‘wearisome’. It’s clear that the author is no Whig, no centrist and has a rather pessimistic view on humanity that is more Hobbes than Shaftesbury. He has the most vicious takedown of Shaftesbury and his view of innate human goodness; “It was abundantly clear that Shaftesbury mixed in exclusive, urbane circles, with fellow Whigs with impeccable and turgid manners”.

This is a well-written and gripping book about the political and religious divides of the early eighteenth century and successfully dramatises it using the case of Edwards and the Memorial. A look under the bonnet of the book shows a lot of research but it’s never dry or slow. While it did wear its own personal opinions a little obviously, they gave a little spice to the book and also reminded the reader that such opinions are in all books.

The book starts in the Edwards' print house in Nevill's Alley, just off Fetter Lane and I wondered if I could find it, as I go down Fetter Lane every week to Dr Johnson's House. To my surprise it turns out I go down Nevill's Alley every week as well but now it's just a gap between two large glass buildings filled with offices. 

I also learned there was a popular coffee house on Fleet Street called Nandos.

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