MNC Book Report: John Dee, Richard Deacon

This book wins, hands down, the prize for Coolest Piece of Random Trivia Discovered While Researching This Novel. (The downside is that the trivia in question appears a few pages in, and seems to have dominated the author’s thinking for the remainder of the text.)

The trivia is this. Elizabeth loved to nickname the people around her; Walsingham, for example, was her “Moor,” while Burghley was “Sir Spirit.” Three men in her reign got nicknamed “Eyes.” The first was Leicester, who signed his letters with a little glyph: two circles with dots inside, representing (of course) eyes. The second was Hatton, who ended up being called “Lids” to distinguish him from Leicester; he signed his letters with dotted triangles instead.

The third was John Dee. His special sign for his nickname was two circles guarded by a mark Deacon describes as “what might have been a square root sign or an elongated seven.”

The book then obligingly shows you a picture of the mark, and yes: it looks like “007.”

I have no idea if Ian Fleming knew this, but Deacon doesn’t miss the chance to draw the connection for his readers. And this sets the tone of the book; while the last bio of Dee I read emphasized his scientific and magical work, this one runs with the idea that Dee was an intelligence agent in service to the royal government.

I’m not entirely certain what to do with Deacon’s claims. He’s not as good as he might be about telling you the basis for his conclusions about Dee’s activities, so I can’t be sure when the missions he outlines are things we definitely know happened, and when they’re educated speculation. That Dee occasionally passed information along to Walsingham and/or Burghley and/or Leicester, I can believe with no problem, but Deacon’s biography more or less positions that as the overarching purpose of his life. Dee, according to him, refused jobs he might have taken because they would have limited his ability to engage in intelligence work. His trips overseas were as much for spying as for anything else. And the angelic conversations . . . in Deacon’s view, Dee’s work with Kelley is most easily explained by assuming that much of it was used as a cover, a ciphered means of passing information to those who could act on it. Who would look for intelligence reports in the middle of one of those?

Um. I’m not sure what to do with this. Certainly there seems to have been at least one occasion that an angel informed Dee of something in cryptic terms, Dee passed the report along to the authorities, and they subsequently discovered Spanish agents attempting to burn down the forest which supplied timber to the royal navy, under conditions which matched the cryptic message of the angel. I’m not sure I buy into the thesis that spying was such a major focus of Dee’s work, though.

I’d have to read more about Dee to say for sure. But the nice thing about this research is, I’m doing it for a novel, not a dissertation. Which means I can appreciate Deacon for the details he gives, and discard his overall point if it doesn’t suit my purpose.

Edited to add: Hah. A footnote from Peter J. French’s John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus:

“Richard Deacon’s book, John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer, and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I (London, 1968) does regrettably little to establish Dee’s true importance. In a rather sensational way, Deacon portrays Dee as ‘a roving James Bond of Tudor times’ [not, so far as I’m aware, an actual quote from that book — me], the master of a massive espionage system. He considers the ‘Spiritual Diaries’ a form of enciphering used for spying purposes. Deacon’s argument is tenuous at best, and his book is riddled with factual inaccuracies.”

I guess I’m glad I only read selections from it. But it’s good to hear someone else evaluate that thesis and find it to be kind of bunk.

0 Responses to “MNC Book Report: John Dee, Richard Deacon”

  1. sartorias

    Yeah…I suspect it’s the Deacon book that fueled some of the dumber Dee cliches of the past 20 years in fiction. (though admittedly it’s kinda cool to think of him as a sort of supernatural 007.)

    • Marie Brennan

      But nothing will explain the earth-mother-worshipping Dee I’m told is out there in certain novels. (No one has ever told me which ones, or I would hunt them down and destroy them.)

      • sartorias

        I’ve seen the pagan Dee, the modern humanist Dee…let’s see, Lisa Goldstein did one of the modern Dees, though I don’t remember the specific flavor. Can’t remember the other writers, they were longer ago.

        • Marie Brennan

          I tried very hard to like The Alchemist’s Door, and failed.

          • sartorias

            I like many of her futuristic things, but I cannot read the historical things, alas.

          • Marie Brennan

            It just felt flat. She would make comments I think were historically wrong (like one about only ever hearing English in London — I seriously doubt that, given all the foreign artisans and religious refugees), and I never ended up caring about the characters.

            Which was a pity, because the premise sounded so very cool.

  2. moonandserpent

    I’m pretty sure Ian Flemming knew about the 007, thing. I first read about it in a book on MI-6 when I was a kid, the book claimed that Dee, along with the KGB ‘double-ought’ assassination squad were two of his inspirations of Bond. Along, supposedly, with his own life, of course. I’ve read claims of 30kabillion other “inspirations” as well.

    How much truth there is to any of them is anyone’s guess.

    And those damn angels are always getting in the way, eh?

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