This week on the Pink Carnation Read Along, Ashley blogged about inspirations for the Pink series, specifically The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Since I’m blogging along with the Read Along, I’d considered writing about some of the antecedents of the Pimpernel. There have been plenty of people over the year who have debated just where Baroness Orczy came up with the idea for the Pimpernel. Some point to Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, who certainly had plenty of swash and buckle, and was in and out of France (including a stint incarcerated in the Temple Prison)– but who, otherwise, wasn’t a terribly laudable sort of person. If you go to the historical record, you find records of actual flower named spies, including a Le Mouron (the Pimpernel). The drawback? They were French royalists, not English aristocrats. Baroness Orczy always said that Sir Percy came to her, as was, and refused to be drawn further on the question.

You can read a much more detailed post on the subject that I wrote a few years ago over at History Hoydens.

So, instead of discussing the origins of Sir Percy, I wanted to talk about my own peculiar wrinkle on the topic: female spies.

When I sat down to write Pink Carnation, I didn’t realize that this would be a controversial choice. I had no idea that I would, a few years later, be bombarded with emails starting with “a young lady would never….”

What I did know? Was that women were and had been spies, as long as there had been anyone on whom to spy.

My dissertation, on which I was working while writing Pink I, involved royalist conspiracies during the latter half of the English Civil Wars. One of the chapters was on women and espionage. It will come as no surprise to know that women were instrumental in smuggling messages, monies, and, occasionally, members of the royal family. One of my favorite characters is Lady Anne Halkett (I will write her story one of these days), who smuggled the Duke of York out of Parliamentarian captivity dressed up in one of her gowns.

So you could say that I had female spies on the brain.

Female spies seemed particularly appropriate during the Napoleonic era, partly because Napoleon himself took such a low view of women. They had the ability to fly under the radar (to borrow a modern analogy) in the way men did not.

During my pre-Pink researches, I came upon references to female spies in operation during the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, including one called La Prime-Rose (a pun on primrose). My favorite? The forty year old woman who went undercover on a French frigate, disguised as a cabin boy.

Put all that together… and you get the Pink Carnation and her league.

9 Comments

  1. Michelle K on September 11, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I went back to the old History Hoydens blog entry, and was fascinated to read the back and forth comments from one of my other favorite authors, Tracy Grant, and you. What fun!
    And I loved your description on that blog of the “proto-Pimpernel”

  2. Inspiration is Contagious | The Bubblebath Reader on September 11, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    […] on her website, Lauren is talking about how she developed her idea for a spy network run by a woman. I’m no […]

  3. Gina on September 11, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    I really love looking back into history and finding all these things that apparently “proper young ladies would never do!!” I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of women sneaking medicine and other necessities into quilts during the Civil War. And it always seemed perfectly natural to me that a proper young lady/genius like Jane would get into the spying game!

  4. Lynne on September 11, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    I find it hard to believe that “nice young ladies” would never become spies, particularly in an era when they could easily go unsuspected. I love all the feisty women in the Pink series and firmly believe that they could easily be real people doing real espionage. Even though you’ve always kept your stories light, Lauren, I’d bet there were some serious Pink Carnation types who went completely undetected throughout history.

  5. HJ on September 12, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I see suggestions in several historical romances that it was thought to be somehow dishonourable or against the code of a gentleman to be a spy in the later eighteenth/ early nineteenth century. Does your research bear this out, Lauren? (I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of Elizabeth Sparrow’s book for years, but they’re very expensive.)

    If it does, I wonder whether women would have felt similarly inhibited? Although I hate generalisations, I wonder whether they might have been more pragmatic and felt it was work which had to be done.

    • Lauren on September 15, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      Honestly? No. I’ve heard the “spying was ungentlemanly” line repeated again and again. I’ve also heard it said that the American Revolution was the turning point, when spying became an acceptable occupation. But I’m not entirely sure where this blanket ethos comes from.

      In theory, there was certainly a stigma attached to the idea of spying. Among other things, the penalties for being caught as a spy were much harsher than the penalties for being captured in uniform. That alone would certainly be a deterrent, and reflects the idea that spying is somehow beyond the pale, and strips one of the courtesies owed a gentleman and an officer.

      On the other hand…. This is the problem with prescriptive literature. Often, there’s a big gulf between what people profess and what they actually do. You can find people from all walks of life spying shamelessly. I’m an early modernist by training. The courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were littered with spies and informers, many of them gentlemen and gentlewomen.

      What makes it more confusing is that spying works on a sliding scale. Would you call someone who lives in a foreign court, under his own name, sending information home, a spy? Or only a person in disguise, undercover? Does the stigma only attach to disguise or to information-gathering in general? Do we distinguish between informer and spies? If we’re going by the former, there were an awful lot of gentlemen involved in espionage….

    • Lauren on September 15, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      I just did a quick flip through my dog-eared copy of the Sparrow book and don’t see any reference to it…. She’s much more concerned with the practicalities of who did what when– which, of course, is pure gold to the historical fiction writer!

      • HJ on September 16, 2014 at 4:22 am

        Thank you Lauren! I always thought that the divide between uniformed soldiers and spies was more to do with the whole ethos of uniforms enabling one to distinguish between combatants and civilians, with the suggestion that the spy was cheating by pretending to be merely a civilian whereas in fact he was a type of combatant.

        But for me it was a stretch to suggest that spying was something no gentleman would do, as some writers of Regencies suggest. I agree with you that this ignores the history of spies at Court.

        I suppose the argument modern authors would use would be that spying required deception, and this was dishonourable because no gentleman would lie. Well, not to his peers, anyway. I find that rather risible, when one thinks of the infidelities which went on!

        Thank you for checking Sparrow.

        • Lauren on September 16, 2014 at 11:03 am

          I do wonder if, as with so many other matters, attitudes fluctuate. Sparrow does mention in her book that you have a rather intricate secret service built up over the course of the Napoleonic Wars that then all but disintegrates by the mid-19th century (leaving them in the lurch for the Crimean War), but is then built up again during the days of the Great Game. You have to wonder, is this purely an issue of practicality– they’re not at war; they don’t need it, until they do, and then, oops!– or if there are also changing mores involved, if the mid-Victorian mentality is more honor-bound, less willing to allow for deception, than the Georgians. You could probably make arguments either way….

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