Reading,  Regency

Undercover agents

No, not THAT kind of undercover! 🙂 I’m talking about the well-known Regency spy plot. One might even call it a Regency sub-genre, it’s become so popular.

One of my favorite books when I was a teenager (and one I still love) is THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. It was so exciting, so suspenseful, and I love the whole “dashing espionage genius disguised as a moron” set-up (I also really like this about the Peter Wimsey stories). I even enjoyed the various movie versions. So, I often enjoy a good romance featuring spies and intrigue. Though I often wondered–where do all these duke/spies possibly find time to do all that? Running estates, going to balls/Whites/Almack’s, spying for England, AND romancing the heroine. This led me to a great book, SECRET SERVICE: BRITISH AGENTS IN FRANCE, 1792-1815. I wanted to discover more of the “true story” of Regency espionage, and this is a fabulous source.

A few spy romances I’ve enjoyed:
Elizabeth Boyle’s BRAZEN ANGEL
Amanda Quick’s AFFAIR
Gaelen Foley’s LORD OF FIRE
Adele Ashworth’s WINTER GARDEN (a terrific heroine spy in this one!)

I know there are many others, but these were just the ones I remember at the moment. 🙂 What are some of YOUR favorite spy stories? What do you like/dislike about them? And have you ever written an undercover character of your own? (I’ve never written a spy hero, but I did have a heroine who was a spy. But she was Spanish. Does that count?)

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Cara King
17 years ago

I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel too! Though I think the books were flawed. In my humble opinion, Orczy came up with excellent ideas and characters, but couldn’t plot. (Her prose is also hard to read nowadays — it has more exclamation points than my blog entries, and that’s saying a lot! — but that may just be due to changing fashions….)

Anyway, I’ve seen four film or television adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and though they all use incidents from the first book, they all change the ending hugely — I think for good reason.

Anyway, I know you were asking about spies, but I can’t recall any off-hand, and I wanted to talk about the Scarlet Pimpernel! 🙂


Bertram St James
17 years ago

Spies are dirty dishes, all of them. No honor. Of course, no gentleman would do such a thing. Shocking just thinking of it.

Bertram St James

Elena Greene
17 years ago

The Mary Jo Putney books you mentioned are among my favorite Regency spy stories. I also enjoyed Jean Ross Ewing/Julia Ross’s ILLUSION.

But I’ve got to say, some of the more recent spy books hit me wrong. In the ones I liked, there were always good reasons for the lord getting involved in espionage. But I have trouble with a lord (they’re usually dukes, no less!) who “gives it all up” for spy work. I think I just know too much. To me, “giving it all up” means leaving vast estates and dependents to the management or mismanagement of stewards who could be honest or skimming profits for themselves. It could mean not sitting in Parliament and influencing the nation’s laws. A hero that shirks those responsibilities to play spy seems more like a boy than a man to me.

OTOH business and politics must sound incredibly boring compared to espionage.

Maybe I’m a really boring person. Gosh, I hope not!

Elena 🙂

Janet Mullany
17 years ago

I too loved the Scarlet Pimpernel although to be quite honest I could never figure out what was really going on in the book. One scene tho I can remember very clearly–it’s right at the beginning of the book when the Countess (Mrs. Pimpernel, that is) and he have this terribly stiff upper lip conversation after they’ve come home from some party at dawn. After she goes back into the house, as the sun rises, he kisses the balustrade where her hand has touched b/c he’s so in love with her…what a great scene! Either that or he’s a moss fetishist.

Elena, I’m inclined to agree with you. I think there are far too many gentleman spies (and doing what, exactly? I’ve never figured that out. There are vague references to important papers, traumatization from torture by the beastly Frogs, and, horrors, sex with beautiful foreign women). Nita Abrams is one of the few writers who does the spy thing convincingly.

That said, I must confess that my original version of Dedication had Adam, the hero, as a codebreaker (b/c he’s a mathematician). The dedications of his books were coded to try and trap someone who was selling naval secrets to the French, altho I am still a bit vague about how that actually worked. And, my favorite part, his pigs ate the villain, leaving only his pocketwatch behind.


Pam Rosenthal
17 years ago

Nita Abrams’ spies are often Jewish — which puts them outside of the English mainstream (and she does a nice job of describing what that feels like, though money’s not the problem, her Roth-Meyer family being patterned after the Rothschilds in some particulars). In any case, they don’t have to worry about deserting a parliament that wouldn’t have them — though they do have to consider their loyalties to family, etc.

It’s great fantasy material, because it articulates insider-outsider questions in a really interesting way (I’m not much for historical fiction that pays no attention to the people behind the curtain). And the spy situation just feels right — the Rothschilds did have their own communication systems, etc — the first announcement of the victory at Waterloo came via the Rothschilds’ carrier pigeon system.

My first attempt at a spy owed much too much to John Le Carre — brooding seediness to the point of absurdity, if not plagiarism. He’s still in the revamped mss, but no longer a spy — much better that way.

Cara King
17 years ago

Oh, the Rothschilds are fascinating, aren’t they? I’ve been meaning to read more about them for a long time. Thanks for the info about Nita Abrams’ books, Pam — I shall have to find them!

I wonder if one reason why spies are so popular is the questions it raises in the romance….if this person isn’t who he (or she) is pretending to be, how can you trust him? And do you even know him, or just the person he’s pretending to be? Lots of emotional conflict there.

Ah, I remembered — I believe that Gail Eastwood’s THE LADY FROM SPAIN has a hero who isn’t exactly a spy, but he’s something slightly similar — which gives us the intrigue, and the secrets…love that book!


17 years ago

Thanks for the book tip, Amanda! I’ll have to look that up. I found a book recently called THE MAN WHO BROKE NAPOLEON’S CODES, by Mark Urban, but I don’t know if I can recommend it because I haven’t read it yet! (Typical, I fear.) It looks interesting, though.

Can’t think off the top of my head of too many Regencies where the heroes were spies, though I know I’ve read a few. I think there was also a book where the hero was an Exploring Officer–they were an interesting group. They weren’t spies–they did their observing in full uniform, so that if they were caught they couldn’t be shot–and they basically rode straight up to the French armies in Spain and observed them. When the French chased them, as of course they did, the exploring officers relied on the fact that their horses were usually far superior to those of the French. Still, seems like a risky way to make a living. 🙂

Never read THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (it’s on my list, right after all the other books that are on my list), but I liked the recent films with Richard E. Grant.


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