In the summer of 1705, a masked woman knocked on the door of David Edwards’s London workshop. She did not leave her name, only a package and a coded means of identifying her courier.
Edwards was a Welsh printer working in the dark confines of Nevill’s Alley, outside the city walls. The package was an illegal, anonymous pamphlet: The Memorial of the Church of England. The argument it proposed threatened to topple the government, but sedition sold well in the coffeehouses of Fleet Street and the woman promised protection. Edwards swiftly set about printing and surreptitiously distributing the pamphlet.
Parliament was soon in turmoil and government minister Robert Harley launched a hunt for all those involved. When Edwards was nowhere to be found, his wife was imprisoned and the pamphlet was burnt in his place. The printer was not the only villain, though, and Harley had to find the unknown writers who wished to bring the government down.
The intricacies of eighteenth-century printing might not, on the surface of it, sound like the most thrilling of topics but, as Dr Joseph Hone proves in The Paper Chase, publications that came out of the printer’s workshops had the potential to send men to the gallows, bring down governments, alter national policy, impact on the course of a war, and to threaten the security of the nation’s most revered institutions.
The Paper Chase follows the hunt for one particular anonymous pamphlet: a polemic entitled The Memorial of the Church of England. Printed by David Edwards – a Welsh printer with Jacobite sympathies and an established ‘radical’ press in Nevill’s Alley – the pamphlet was a High Church attack on the Godolphin administration and its policy of ‘moderation’. It implied that, by tolerating and working with Protestant dissenters, Queen Anne’s government – and, by implication, Anne herself – were not acting in the best interests of the Church of England.
The pamphlet, unsurprisingly, caused an outcry: Queen Anne was deeply upset by it, Parliament was outraged and, from the spires of Oxford to the streets of London, people were talking about the Memorial and trying to work out who its anonymous author(s) might be. Chief amongst these people was Robert Harley. A natural politician and prominent proponent of moderation, Harley started following the paper trail that led out of Nevill’s Alley, coaxing out the book’s secret’s and untangling the web of connections that would see his fate entwined with that of David Edwards in unexpected ways.
Given that my PhD is in eighteenth-century literature, many of the political intrigues and prominent figures in The Paper Chase were familiar to me. The politics of the period – especially in the earlier part of the century – are endlessly fascinating but, without a crash course in its terminology and structures (Whig, Tory, Churchmen, Toleration, Moderation etc), it can be overwhelmingly confusing for the general reader. It is to Hone’s credit, therefore, that he conveys a complex political environment – one that encompasses religious, political, and literary figures and factions – in a succinct yet through manner, guiding the reader into the knotty world of Harley, the Memorial, and the tangled connections that existed between press and Parliament.
Written with an academic’s eye for detail and told with vigour, The Paper Chase offers a blend of scholarship and detection that is sure to appeal to fans of narrative non-fiction in the vein of Kate Summerscale. That said, The Paper Chase is, in essence, a book about printing and pamphleteering: readers heading into it expecting a detective-style chase across London will be left sorely disappointed. Harley’s investigation into the Memorial was painstaking and thorough and the book follows the fates and fortunes of its central protagonists over several years. Whilst it has its thrilling moments – including night time raids on coffee houses and the hunt for a mysterious masked woman – the pleasure of The Paper Chase is in Hone’s gradual untangling of connections and his patient explanations of the wider implications of seemingly minor events.
Offering an insight into a period of history that remains under-represented in the arena of ‘popular’ print, The Paper Chase is an insightful and immersive tale of eighteenth-century politics and printing that is perfectly pitched for both general and academic readers alike. Combining scholarly precision with an engaging and accessible style, it’s a highly recommended read for fans of unusual mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and all things bookish.
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My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also purchased a paperback copy from Berts Books, which came beautifully wrapped with a very pretty ribbon!
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