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COURTING PUBLIC OPINION: HANDLING INFORMERS IN THE 1790s JULIA M. WRIGHT Porter was not accused of having borne arms; nor do I believe the accusation could with any plausibility have been supported. His alleged offence was having intercepted a government despatch; and although the bearer of the despatch could not even identify his person, he was arraigned on the testimony of a vile and notorious informer, and condemned by a military tribunal to suffer death! —from the account of Rev. James Porter’s trial in Charles Hamilton Teeling’s Sequel to Personal Narrative of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 (1832) in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s hero protests, after his father is accused of various gothic atrocities, “Could [such crimes] be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (159). Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in the late 1790s, a period in which such “voluntary spies,” or informers, were essential to government attempts to suppress political dissent throughout the British Isles.1 In Ireland , during the rise of the United Irishmen and other organizations opposed to colonial hegemony, the use of informers was particularly notorious . In 1794, John Philpot Curran, defending a United-man, Dr. William Drennan, from sedition charges, offered an attack on the general credibility of “an informer” (A Full Report 71): COURTING PUBLIC OPINION: HANDLING INFORMERS IN THE 1790s 144 1 The terms “informer” and “spy” are used more or less interchangeably in writings from the 1790s; “informer,” however, has some resonance as a reference to an insider, and there is the additional difference of “spying” referring to observation and “informing” to reporting on observations. Does he not appear that kind of man, on whose evidence no man ought to be convicted? Scarce ever have I known a conviction on the mere evidence of an informer; but see what motives this man has—under prosecution for the same crime, he has not only his own safety to consult, but the most avowed and rancorous malice to Dr. Drennan. (102) Curran warns, “If you give credit to this man, you make a fine harvest for informers; a fine opportunity you give to every ruffian in society; and you may go home in the comfortable conviction that it is far from impossible that the next attack shall be on yourselves” (103). As these two works attest, the informer was represented as key to governmental social control: if informers are not credible, as Curran warns, no one is safe in the ensuing social chaos; if informers are credible, everyone behaves and order prevails, as Austen’s hero claims. But implicit in such representations of informers is an awareness of the informer’s potential to symbolize as well as facilitate governmental social control. Sliding across the borders between the public and the private, citizenry and officialdom, as well as the criminal and the judicial, informers tended to occupy the margins of social control: they went where the government could not, and brought information back that allowed the state to extend its power into previously unmonitored spaces. But the informer ’s fundamental duplicity—reporting on secret societies he has joined, reporting private conversations to public officials, watching others while concealing his own activities—also calls into question the credibility of the informer’s testimony. Such statements, as Curran’s remarks suggest, cannot be taken as direct evidence but must be interpreted and carefully evaluated to distill the pertinent facts from the self-serving fiction. The distillation process, however, can take many forms. One can pose questions about the informer’s character and motivations (as Curran does): Was he paid? Is he considered credible by those who know him? Does he have personal motives for testifying? Alternatively, one can analyze the testimony on a rhetorical level, noting the difference between apparently spontaneous assertions and well-rehearsed statements, or between statements that echo the language of the prosecution and those that appear to complicate or contradict the prosecution’s case. Or one can situate the testimony in the context of other evidence presented at trial...


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