Before we get started today, go fetch your rotten tomatoes so you’ll be prepared when I start griping about spies in Regency historicals. Those of you in Florida ought to have lots of mushy fruit available. The rest of us may have to go for squishy bananas and old Christmas oranges because tomatoes are too expensive to waste.
Okay, if you have your ammunition ready—England in 1792 was so ill-informed that they didn’t even realize Europe was on the brink of war. They were celebrating peace. The notion of monitoring foreign governments was reserved for the monarch and perhaps a secretary of state or two. Communication was limited to diplomatic pouches, and the public—when they could read—relied on news sheets more interested in business than France. The paranoia necessary to develop intelligence networks simply did not exist. That changed when France began beheading aristocrats some years later, but England still had very little interest in foreign affairs as long as they didn’t interfere with shipping, and people counted on the admirable Admiral Nelson to take care of that little matter.
Even after Nelson’s ships set out to guard against French rebels, the only naval intelligence available to the navy was from their officers after a night on the town. Since Emma Hamilton acted as the queen's correspondent on affairs in Naples, it's not a wild guess to assume that she was not only Nelson’s mistress, but she was as close as it came to a spy. Whispered pillow talk hardly qualifies as secret agent derring-do, however—and is probably the reason most English people thought spying was déclassé. Breaking trust by revealing state secrets was in dreadfully poor taste, suited only to wanton women.
Meanwhile, the French already had semaphore towers in 1794 to allow for almost instantaneous land transmission of messages so they knew what their enemies were doing at all times. The English managed to install a few by 1806 which considerably increased the ability of the Navy to communicate with the Admiralty as long as it wasn’t nighttime or foggy. And even then, there was no centralized office beyond the Admiralty to which the message could be forwarded. England didn’t have an intelligence office. It barely had a foreign office, and its duties were nebulous. The king (and during the Regency, it was more likely the queen or the prince) and the prime minister and a few secretary of states were the only authorities available to act on military intelligence. You can imagine how often they got involved, after the message had been riding across land and water and kicking around in offices for a few months.
So don’t blame me completely when I say I don’t read too many historicals that carry a back blurb about a famous English spy. Our own Cara, as Andrea Pickens, has written some great spy fiction—but that’s what it is, fiction. There are tons of well-known romances involving spies. I think Amazon even carries a list. I fully realize we’re writing gripping stories, and that a race across battle-torn Europe makes a better story than a military officer picking up a useful bit of gossip in the local tavern. But I simply cannot suspend disbelief and buy into a subplot of spies unless the story offers me a riveting romance and an intriguing personal conflict. I have to trust the author before I’ll pick up a spy book.
That said, she says with a heavy sigh, I have somehow managed to incorporate a French baddie into the current WIP. A very small role, mind you. I resisted. I fought it hard. Only— I had a French code wheel, which I’d painstakingly researched. And I didn’t want to take my characters to France. And if you’ve got a code, someone needs to break it. And someone needs to try to stop them.
So one thing led to another, and there I am, a spy at the end of my book. The shame of it. The things we’ll do for our romantic couples…
Ready, aim, fire tomatoes!