29 July 2013

Meet our Contributors: John Issitt

Agents of Reason

John Issitt

I wrote Agents of Reason over four Scottish summers whilst escaping my then day job as a Provost in the University of York. I owe it and its hero Jeremiah Joyce a debt. Since its publication I have realized that writing is my vocation. I have taken the risky step of becoming a full-time writer. I swing from the thrill of new beginnings to the fear of having no money to fix the boiler!

Agents of Reason grew from my historical research and my frustrations with academia. My doctorate concerned Jeremiah who was a political radical and religious dissenter in London over the period of the French Revolution. The western world was rearranged by the events in France. At first it was welcomed by the metropolitan intelligentsia who saw it as feeding their own causes. But such support rapidly evaporated as Robespierre and then Napoleon led it to self destruction and war. Jeremiah lived through these times and was part of the movement that attempted to secure political representation for ordinary people independent of religious persuasion. He failed in his lifetime as did his collaborator Tom Paine, but over the longer term his efforts contributed to the march of freedom. Today we enjoy rights he fought for and on those grounds alone his story is worth telling.

But therein lies the difficulty. To tell his story simply through the archival record is impossible for a number of reasons. The first concerns the limited surviving archive. Records of radicals and radical publications were dangerous – they provided evidence to used in law. Most radical goings-on were conducted by word of mouth - records were minimal and normally destroyed. Only scratchings remain. Also, over time most radicals became deeply embarrassed about their former enthusiasm and destroyed their letters. Jeremiah burnt his and the same happened to the records of his employer – the Earl of Stanhope.

The second reason or set of reasons, is to do with how history has been written. Academic history attempts to provide an objective account from evidence – impossible if there isn’t much. The records that survive are mainly those of the official world – the papers of government, the prime minister and the aristocracy. Furthermore, most academic history has little feel for the life of a common man like Jeremiah. Such history reflects the winners and tells the story through the lens of the great and the good – not through the experience of men like Jeremiah. As a result there are many silences – the voices of the lower orders, of women and of the different, who were actually no less important in the action, are rarely heard.

I came to academia late after working in a range of physical employments – timber cutting, building and technical jobs in the film industry. Like Jeremiah I had worked with my hands, knew the difficulties of unemployment and demanding working conditions. I entered academia as a stranger to the values it operates and I remain estranged from a world which seems at the same time a wonderful opportunity to think, but ludicrously constrained by conventions it is largely unable to recognise. 

One such constraint is the demand to write in a particular way. My doctorate, numerous papers in learned journals and a book on Jeremiah’s life and writings. were written within the limiting conventions of academic history which I felt never let me get close enough to Jeremiah the man. The license for interpretation of the motivations of the common man is small and has, if you are to be published, to be aligned within academic rules that debar the fictional. The result is that it is impossible to capture the textures of a life lived.

Agents of Reason comes from negotiating and hopefully resolving some of these factors – at least to the best of my ability. I have tried to put my head into Jeremiah’s world armed with 20 years of study and half a century of life. I have used the archive but not been afraid to fictionalize when the story demanded. How well I have done is for the reader to judge.

Agents of Reason is a story of political intrigue set in late Enlightenment England and what has come to be known as Prime Minister Pitt’s ‘terror years’ due to his system of spies and prosecution of radicals. But it is also a story that navigates the tensions of the human condition. Jeremiah was subject - he was selected, used and abused by authorities not wishing to get their own hands dirty. But he was also an agent - he chose and part directed his course of action. Within and by such contradictory tensions Jeremiah was tested – for his integrity and his resolve. He gave a good account of himself. I wonder how I would have got on?

Learn more about our newest contributor John Issitt at:
Website: http://www.agentsofreason.co.uk/
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3175872.John_Issitt
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