The British Secret Service in France, Part 2


This is the second in my two-part series about the secret service in the British Alien Office, the country’s primary espionage agency during its conflicts with France.

In addition to handling international espionage, the Alien Office was also responsible for suppressing domestic insurrection and sometimes charged people with sedition just because they expressed anti-government sentiments.  They did thwart one actual domestic insurrection: an incipient Irish rebellion led by agents supported by the French government.  The secret service placed agents in Ireland to infiltrate the organization. This enabled them to arrest all of the rebellion’s leaders in 1798 before the event took place and represented one of the office’s greatest success.

In 1800 the secret service helped one faction of the French royalists form the “English Committee” in Paris. The Committee was responsible for several assassination attempts on Napoleon’s life—the most famous of which was the Rue Nicaise bombing on Christmas Eve, 1800.  One of the Committee’s most successful agents was a woman, Madame Williams.  An Englishman’s widow who made multiple Channel crossings, some disguised as a sailor, Williams was never captured or apparently even suspected of being a spy.  By 1803 the Committee had detailed plans in place for Napoleon’s kidnapping or assassination.  These plans almost certainly could not have remained in place without the tacit complicity of Fouche, the well-known minister of police in Paris.

Napoleon had planted agents of his own.  One double agent arrived in England with his own false plans for overthrowing the French government.  Aware of the ruse, the British government created an elaborate counter plan that was designed to fool the French authorities into believing the British had fallen for their trick.  For months they created correspondence and moved agents around Europe with the purpose of deceiving Napoleon.

The backbone of the British plan for restoring the monarchy was a group of French generals who had pledged themselves and their troops to the royalist cause.  In 1804 some of the French generals were discovered, arrested, and imprisoned.  Savary, the chief of Napoleon’s personal guard, was charged with Investigating the extent of the treason.  He visited the home of a recently discovered traitor along the Channel coast and discovered early drafts of reports that he himself had given to the Emperor.  He realized then that the information in the reports he had been giving had been authored by the British Alien Office.

Eventually the secret service ran into trouble because it did not produce results. The office spent vast sums of money but was unable to bring about a revolution within France. William Wickham, the director of the office, was accused of misusing government funds—an accusation he felt he could not refute without revealing government secrets—and impeached.  The secret service continued its activities, but with a reduced scope and budget.

Ultimately, the suppression of the Irish rebellion remained the office’s greatest success.  It is difficult to say to what extent the secret service’s efforts helped to bring about Napoleon’s eventual demise since it is the nature of espionage to have unseen effects.  Most likely the agency’s efforts helped to sow the seeds that eventually led to many French citizens to switch to the royalist cause, but at the time eventual success was attributed to diplomacy and conventional warfare.  It is clear, however, that the secret service’s activities would have been more successful if it were not for the infighting and different factions working at cross purposes within the royalist cause.



I’m Author of the Month! And Giveaway!

I am Author of the Month at From Pemberley to Milton! Find out about the inspiration behind the plot for The Secrets of Darcy and Elizabeth — and get some hints about the story for my next P&P variation! Plus a Giveaway for The Secrets of Darcy and Elizabeth and When Mary Met the Colonel!

British Spies in France: What Does History Tell Us?

Given how popular spy stories are within the Regency romance genre there is a surprising dearth of actual historical research into espionage activities after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars.  My work in progress takes place in France and has Darcy and Elizabeth interacting with actual British agents working in France, so I felt some research was in order.  After a lot of searching I was able to find one researcher who had written extensively on the topic.  A lot of her research surprised me; the history of British espionage was quite different than I had assumed.  There was a lot less cloak and dagger and a lot more suborning of people in authority.  I didn’t end up using a lot of the research in my novel, but I thought that some of the information would be of interest to fans of Jane Austen and the Regency time period.

Beginning in 1793, the Alien Office (part of the Home Office) ran Britain’s first comprehensive secret service—the forerunner of today’s MI5 and MI6.  There had been a foreign letters office that opened and read the mail of foreign embassies (apparently this was a widely known and accepted practice), but it was absorbed into the Alien Office in 1793.  Referred to in correspondence as His Majesty’s Secret Service, the new office was bureaucratically sandwiched between the navy, army, diplomatic service, and Westminster police—using personnel from all the offices as well as foreign nationals as agents.   The head of the Alien Office was a magistrate (ironically) named William Wickham.

In 1794 Wickham went abroad to meet with a Frenchmen in Switzerland who had connections to the French royals in exile.  This visit transformed the office into a true foreign office and solidified its support for the restoration of the French monarchy.  However, the people who supported the restoration of the French monarchy were themselves divided into factions.  The King and his supporters wanted to restore the throne to a pure monarchy, while other French factions and most of the British government favored a constitutional monarchy.  The British agency worked with the French monarchy and its supporters, but their stubborn desire for a pure monarchy and the infighting among the different French royalist factions were some of the biggest obstacles to the Alien Office’s success.

Initially, the agency’s tactics focused on influencing French elections and gathering allies within France.  The idea was to disrupt France internally by infiltrating its civil and military governments with royalist supporters.  For example, they supported members of the Council of the Five Hundred who were secretly royalist sympathizers.   The agency also secured the loyalty of a number of French generals, who committed their troops to the royalist cause.  The British government payed for these secret armies by funneling money through banks in Paris and Hamburg from an account that had spent 3.8 million pounds by 1800.  Money was also sent to French rebel movements in the Vendee, Normandy and Brittany.

In addition, the British secret service created a contre-police network of spies within the Parisian gendarmerie and the elite haute police force.  The records suggest a wide network of agents throughout France as well as Switzerland, Germany, and other European countries.  Many of these agents were also double agents, including one man who led (for a time) the British espionage effort in Paris and a Frenchman who worked in the London Alien Office—whose defection caused the British to abandon the plot involving the generals.

There is some evidence that Joseph Fouche, the well-known minister of police in Paris was aware of some of the espionage activities and allowed them to continue—even if he was not an official double agent.  For example, he promoted Antoine Talon to the haute police despite suspicions of his loyalty; the British agent practically ran the agency for three years until his arrest in 1803.  British agents also had such complete access to official government channels that they kept on hand blank passports with signatures from multiple high French officials, so their agents could travel freely through France.

So what was the agency’s role in the overthrow of Napoleon?  It’s all too long for one blog, so tune in next month for the second part of my story about British spies in France.




Did Jane Austen Write Romances?

Did Jane Austen write romances?

It’s a more complicated question than it may appear on the surface.

In some ways it is unfair to ask this question of Austen. “Romance” as we know it is a relatively recent genre and was not considered a separate category in Austen’s time.  However, the “romantic” genre of literature was in full flourish, as exemplified by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and other poets who privileged expression of internal thoughts and imagination, valued connection with the natural world, and rejected social convention and industrialization.  Elements of this kind of romanticism can also be seen in novels that Austen read, like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, etc.

Literary scholars tend to see Austen as eschewing romanticism in favor of advocating for rationalism and common sense over heedless emotion and complete rejection of social convention.  But, of course, the case is not so clean cut.  In Northanger Abbey, Austen makes fun of Catherine’s flights of fancy brought on by excessive novel reading, but she also defends novel reading vociferously.  And elements of romanticism crop up in her novels even if we might not say they were romantic in genre.

So where does this leave Austen vis-à-vis romance?  The Romance Writers of America says a romance must contain two elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Certainly, all of Austen’s books meet the second criterion. They all end happily and satisfactorily, at least regarding the main characters.  So, the question is:  how well do her books meet the first criterion: a central love story?  That a is a much harder question to answer and it varies according to each book.

Certainly in Northanger Abbey, the love story is central.  Catherine likes Tilney from the beginning, and the question of whether they will get together is the primary source of suspense. I would say this is also true of Persuasion. It is true to a lesser extent in Pride and Prejudice and Elinor’s story in Sense and Sensibility. In those stories the primary romance protagonists spend far less time together and today we tend to see spending time together as an essential part of getting to know each other and forming a romantic attachment.  But in P&P and S&S the question of whether the heroine will marry the hero is still the primary driver of the plot.

I do not believe that is true for Mansfield Park or Marianne’s story in S&S. (I won’t discuss Emma; it’s been a while since I read it).  In my most recent re-reading of Mansfield Park I was struck by the extent to which Edmund and Fanny’s marriage was tacked on as an afterthought.  While the question of whether Edmund would marry Mary Crawford and if Fanny would marry Henry Crawford occupies huge swaths of the plot, the amount of time Edmund and Fanny spend alone together is very limited, and they never discuss anything remotely romantic.  My copy of Mansfield Park is 851 pages long and their marriage first comes up on page 844.  The narrator mentions in a very offhand way, saying that she will not tell the reader the exact date or time of the proposal but leave it up to the reader’s imagination.  I don’t know how Austen could have been more direct in telling us that the story we just read wasn’t really about Fanny and Edmund’s romance; their marriage just ties up a loose end and guarantees the happiness of the two most deserving characters in the book.  In some ways it is the opposite of Northanger Abbey.

Marianne’s romance with Colonel Brandon is similar. Their marriage is mentioned at the end of the book, but their romance is not really described. The narrator notes they waited a couple of years to marry until Marianne was older.  While Marianne’s romantic attachment to Willoughby has been an important driver of the plot, her relationship with Brandon happens mostly offstage. And their marriage simply gives a happy ending to deserving characters.

Here I want to make it clear that I am speaking specifically about Austen’s books and not any kind of adaptation.  There are some wonderful (and not so wonderful) movie adaptations of her novels which all tend to emphasize the romance in the stories.  But, I would argue, this is imposing a modern sensibility on Austen.  Today’s adapters and the audiences are primed for romance, so that is what we notice and cherish most about Austen’s work.

However, I’m not sure that Austen herself would have regarded romance as one of the most important elements (or maybe she would have, there’s no way to know).  But she certainly would not have thought of her books as romances the same way we think about books by Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, or Eloisa James.  And that, I would argue, is one of Austen’s strengths.  I have nothing against romance (it’s the primary genre I read and write), but because Austen was focused on so many other elements of storytelling she created very rich worlds that gave us so much fodder for various re-imaginings of her stories.  Ironically most of these re-imaginings are romances.  And I think that’s okay.

Although I think Austen would be startled by some of the variations on her stories, she would also be flattered and amazed. I believe she would also recognize that people read romance because they want more hope, optimism and love in their lives. Certainly her novels offer those qualities in abundance.


Awesome 5-Star Review of President Darcy!

Wow!  President Darcy received an awesome 5-star review from Austenesque Reviews.  Meredith writes:  “Vote for Darcy!!! Brava to Victoria Kincaid for delivering a brilliant modern-day adaptation of Pride and Politics!! Okay, all jokes aside, I am extremely delighted with Ms. Kincaid’s President Darcy! Whether you are a fan of Victoria Kincaid, modern-day Pride and Prejudice adaptations, or just want to see Mr. Darcy as President, I entreat you to give this perceptive and inventive tale a try!”