Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
On His Majesty’s Secret Service
by Frances Hardinge
I don’t believe in making life easy for my characters. In A Skinful of Shadows (Abrams 2017), my heroine Makepeace has a terrible choice. The sinister Fellmotte family have plans for her, but if she runs away from them she will be adrift in a dangerous, turbulent world. The English Civil War is breaking out…
Wars are sometimes described as a string of dates, mostly battles. This army led by X met that army led by Y at place Z, and Y won. It makes the war look tidy, as though battles are pre-arranged like football matches, and scored at the end to find out who won. (After that everyone presumably goes home to make tea, brush down their horses and wait for the next scheduled battle.)
Of course real wars are much messier than that, and civil wars doubly so. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to write about the big, famous battles, exciting as they are. I wasn’t that interested in the big, famous people either. I wanted to show the strange day-to-day reality of war for ordinary people whose world had been turned upside-down, and the small, unexpected clashes – skirmishes in country lanes, ambushes from behind hedges, looting, pillaging and mob attacks.
But not everyone fights a war with blade or bullet. Some were fighting their own shadow war of secret letters, false names, fake passes and perilous bluffs. I became fascinated by the spies – cunning, bold, ingenious and quite often female.
In A Skinful of Shadows, Makepeace falls in with members of a Royalist spy and smuggling ring. They are playing a dangerous game, sneaking gold and information to the King’s stronghold in Oxford, right under the noses of suspicious Parliamentarian troops. If they are caught, they will be sent to the Tower, or maybe hanged…
The character known as ‘Helen’ in my book is actually a nod to a real historical spy called Jane Whorwood. A striking, strong-willed woman with vivid red hair, Jane really did smuggle huge amounts of gold into Oxford, so that the king could pay his troops. Some of the gold was hidden in barrels of soap, because back then cakes of soap were gooey, oily, smelly blobs instead of neat, dry modern bars, and no sentry wanted to search through a load of those.
Much later, when the king was captured by Parliament, Jane got involved in Royalist plans to rescue him. She found ways of getting letters to him, and even managed to visit him. (It looks like they had a brief affair.) In the end, the escape plans failed, but through no fault of Jane Whorwood. One of her comrades later remarked that if everybody else had done their job as well as she did hers, the king would have been freed.
Parliament had its own spies of course. So-called ‘Parliament Joan’ was a stocky, middle-aged woman who specialised in winning the trust of Royalist pamphleteers, then reporting them. There were Parliamentarian agents in Oxford too, spying on the King’s people and sending out messages by secret means. There was a saying that such letters were “written by owl light, intercepted by moonlight, posted by twilight, dispersed by daylight, and read by candlelight”.
But how could you be sure that your secret letter was not read by the wrong person? Some people ‘locked’ their letters, sealing them with slits, folds and wax in special ways so that they couldn’t be opened without tearing the ‘lock’.
But letterlocking only gave you a way of knowing if someone had read your letter. It didn’t stop them reading it in the first place. So spies on both sides used other cunning ways of hiding their messages – folded up and hidden inside the finger of a glove, or sewn into the cover of a book.
Some of them used invisible ink made of lemon juice or artichoke juice, that could be made visible again if you held a flame to it. There were even ways of hiding messages inside an apparently unbroken egg!
If you want to hone your spy skills, this video from letterlocking.org shows a particularly complicated letterlock used by a seventeenth century spy. And Dr Nadine Akkerman has made these videos showing how to use artichoke juice invisible ink, and make egg-messages!