To coincide with May’s Free Read Friday – here are some author insights from Jonathan Jeffrey Wright on his book The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801–1832.
1. What prompted you to write this book?
The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World is based on my doctoral research, which focused on the Presbyterian community of Belfast in the early nineteenth century. I was prompted to research this area because it had, to some extent, been overlooked. It is well known that some Presbyterians were active in the United Irish movement and that, during the 1790s, Belfast was a dynamic urban centre with a reputation for political radicalism. I wanted to explore the aftermath of this period. In the past, it was thought that after the 1790s Presbyterian radicalism declined, and the early nineteenth-century tended to be viewed, in a negative sense, as a period in which the opportunities of the 1790s were shut down. I wanted to reframe the period and look at it on its own terms.
2. What is the main argument of the book?
Essentially, the main argument of this book is that the early-nineteenth century was, for the Presbyterians of Belfast, an altogether more complex period than has previously been understood. In simple terms, there was a lot more going on, whether in terms of politics, cultural life or religious life, than is often appreciated. Related to this, the book argues that what was happening in Belfast cannot be understood in isolation, but must be viewed against a broader British and, indeed, European backdrop. The early-nineteenth century was a period of transition throughout Britain – it was arguably a period in which a shift from early modernity to modernity took place – and Belfast’s experience has to be viewed in this context.
3. How does your approach differ from other research in this area?
My work differs from other research in terms of its focus. Rather than focusing simply on politics or religion (or the interaction of the two), it focuses on politics, religion, culture and also family life. Central to The ‘Natural Leaders’ is the story of the Tennents, a prominent family of Belfast Presbyterians. While not a straightforward group biography, the The ‘Natural Leaders’ combines elements of biography, using the Tennents and their experiences as a means of illustrating the broader social, political and cultural changes of the period.
5. Did anything within your research surprise you?
During my research a lot of things surprised me. Not the least of these was the private life of William Tennent, a well-known and, seemingly, well-respected member of Belfast’s Presbyterian middle classes, who had as many as thirteen illegitimate children. I was also surprised to discover just how deeply involved Tennent had been in the United Irish movement and by the way in which he was able to re-establish himself in Belfast society despite his associations with radicalism. Beyond this, I was particularly struck by the engagement of Belfast’s Presbyterians with broader cultural trends, such as romanticism. Romantic literature appears to have been as popular in Belfast as it was elsewhere in Britain, and particularly among the young men educated in the Belfast Academical Institution. Their literary preferences, and also their pretensions and their numerous flirtations with the young ladies of the town, are revealed vividly in the papers of Robert James Tennent (William Tennent’s nephew); I was frequently amused as I worked on those papers.