The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, the Pink Carnation. The very music of their names invoked a forgotten era, an era of men in knee breeches, and frock coats who dueled with witty barbs sharper than the points of their swords. An era when men could be heroes…. That was what I planned to do—to hunt the elusive Pink Carnation through the archives of England, to track down any sliver of long-dead gossip that might lead me to what the finest minds in the French government had failed to discover.
Of course, that wasn’t how I phrased it when I suggested the idea to my dissertation advisor. I made scholarly noises about filling a gap in the historiography, and the deep sociological significance of spying as a means of asserting manhood, and other silly ideas couched in intellectual unintelligibility. I called it “Aristocratic Espionage during the Wars with France: 1789-1815.”
Rather a dry title, but somehow I doubt, “Why I Love Men in Black Masks” would have made it past my dissertation committee.
-- Eloise Kelly, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
Like Eloise Kelly, the fictional Harvard grad student whose dissertation research provides the frame story for my Napoleonic-set novels, I’ve always been fascinated by these dashing masked mystery men. I grew up on that demmed, elusive Pimpernel, the Z that stands for Zorro, and that charming scamp of a Swamp Fox. When it came time to pick a dissertation topic back in my own grad school days, I made straight for the machinations of Royalist spies during the English Civil Wars. So I suppose it’s no surprise that when I sat down to write historical fiction, my novels would feature florally-named leagues of spies in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel, intent on defending King and country under a variety of masks, not all of the literal variety.
What it is about these masked men? It certainly isn’t just the outfit. Most of the secret agents about whom I write are masked only in the metaphorical sense. As one of my heroes muses to himself, a black cloak and mask can be more conspicuous than otherwise. Instead, they disguise their deeper purposes under a variety of guises: society lady, rake-about-town, hopeless poet, bon vivant. But all these spies—cloaked or corseted, floral or otherwise—have a few essential traits in common.
First, our secret agent is invariably clever. Physical strength and the sort of bravery required to go charging off with the Light Brigade are all very well and good, but our spy has something more: he has the intelligence, the resourcefulness and the self-control necessary to maintain a complicated ruse over a long period of time. If he weren’t clever, he wouldn’t last long. Unlike official prisoners of war, spies are considered outside the code de guerre, accorded no official protections, fair game for racks, thumbscrews, and all the rest of the Inquisition’s Greatest Hits. The spy’s intellectual agility is his ticket to survival—not to mention that it makes for some great, witty one-liners.
Not only must our spy be clever enough to pull off his charade and brave enough to face torture and death, he has to have the strength of character to endure public scorn, and, even worse, the opprobrium of his own friends and family, all in the service of a cause he deems more important than himself. Think about Sir Percy Blakeney as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Loving Marguerite to distraction as he does, Sir Percy is still willing to incur her scorn rather than jeopardize the cause to which he has dedicated himself.
In my most recent book, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, my hero, who has just returned from India, is searching for the traitor who murdered his mentor at the Battle of Assaye. To do so, he must befriend the members of a local branch of the Hellfire Club, men whose morals and practices he finds repugnant on a number of a levels. In doing so, he also sacrifices the good opinion of the heroine, cutting himself off from his own hopes of future happiness. Talk about I could not leave thee dear so much/ Loved I not honor more!
(As a side note, Lovelace, who wrote that well-known line, was one of the Royalist conspirators who showed up in my dissertation. When he penned that line, boy, did he know whereof he wrote.)
Utterly dedicated and devilishly clever, our spy tends to play his cards close to his chest. Trust, when it is finally given, matters. Everything has more savor to it when the stakes are high, and the life-or-death nature of the spy’s dual career pushes those stakes to the utmost. When he confides in the heroine, you know he means it. Because, if he misjudges, he and that important cause of his are both doomed. Doomed with a capital D. By revealing his dual identity to the heroine, he places his life and his honor in her hands. And what could possibly be more attractive than that?
Lauren Willig is the author of six books in the Pink Carnation series of novels. The latest, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine is released in paperback today, 5 January 2010, and her next book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is released in hardcover on 12 January 2010.
You can visit her website at LaurenWillig.com