Under the Rose
Sparrow, Elizabeth. Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815 Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1999. 459 pages, 19 illus. ISBN# 0851157645. £25 or US$45. Hardcover.
This is a valuable and worthwhile study of a subject long ignored for the period. It is also one of the most difficult books to read that I have come across in quite some time. It isn't boring; it is confusing at times, and the author's prose is awkward and at times most confusing. She undoubtedly is at home with her subject and quite enthusiastic. I only wish she could have sorted out some of the more confusing aspects of the subject matter for the reader. Perhaps the subject matter, like the profession itself, is so convoluted and cloaked in confusion and secrecy by its very nature that it proved a nigh-impossible task to perform.
What the author does accomplish is weave a web, either intentionally or not, of the intricate, devious, and deadly trade of intelligence and information gathering that took part in France on the part of the English. Cross-channel smuggling definitely took a large part in this, and the English effort was effective. But what the author fails to do is to give effective and fair coverage to the French effort, and the ability of the French authorities and agencies in counterintelligence capabilities and expertise. It appears that she wants them portrayed as buffoons and incompetents, which they definitely were not.
Among the highlights of the book are the adventures of that ubiquitous British sailor, Sir Sidney Smith. If there is one thing to recommend this book for it is the telling of what this shadowy figure did or didn't do, which undoubtedly deserves a book of its own. He was a tireless individual, showing up where least expected, serving King and Country loyally and effectively. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures of the period, along with his fellow Briton, Sir Robert Wilson, another officer who could think on his feet in a pinch and did more than his assigned duty.
This book is recommended with the caveat that it is difficult to read and "translate." I have found it interesting and helpful. As a reference for later study it might not be as useful as some books of the period on other subject sometimes are, for it is difficult to find what you are looking for in a hurry. Hopefully, though, this book will open the door to more research on this fascinating and indispensable topic. The English, and their French opponents, played "The Game" with knowledge, skill, and dedication. Hopefully, other historians will take up the gauntlet thrown by Sparrow and continue in the search for some of history's mysteries.
Reviewed by Kevin Kiley