Book: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Spies have long held a fascination for the American public. Ten or so years ago the television series Alias was a big hit. Even longer ago were the shows Get Smart and I Spy. Jason Bourne ruled the box office as did the Mission: Impossible and Austin Powers series. The current show The Americans is a popular and critical success. I myself loved the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose and am hooked on the series TURN: Washington’s Spies, which is based on Mr. Rose’s book. No wonder I had to read this book which combined spying with another thing I enjoy, long-overdue recognition of the contribution women have played in shaping history.
This book traces the Civil War activities of 4 women. Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew worked for the Union, while Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow supported the Confederate cause. Belle and Rose were out and out spies, while Elizabeth combined spying with providing her Richmond home as an underground station for Union soldiers to return to the North. Emma’s contribution was a bit more radical: she disguised herself as a man and became a Private Frank Thompson of the Union Army.
Miss Abbott takes us through the war and the activities of her ladies chronologically, starting in July of 1861 with Belle’s murder (or homicide in self-defense, however you choose to interpret it) of a Union soldier attempting to occupy her Martinsburg, VA, home through April of 1865 when Elizabeth was able to hang Old Glory on her house as Union soldiers drove out the last remaining Confederate troops. In between she provides great detail into the spy rings, the highbrow connections, the imprisonments, and the near death experiences of these four courageous women.
There are two things I’d like to address about this book—style and bias.
First off, style. For the most part, this book reads like a narrative. As the reader, I didn’t always feel like I was reading to learn about these ladies; it was more like I was reading their story. As an historical purist, that can be off-putting. Fortunately, before I began the actual book I read an author’s note in the front matter. In that note, Miss Abbott explains that the book contains no invented dialog, that in fact, anything that appears in quotes comes from a primary source of one of her subjects. She also notes that these ladies may have engaged in embellishments and notes when she could not verify something that came from their letters, journals, or autobiographies. After reading that note, I enjoyed the narrative style with a clear conscience: while the book might read like a story, it is actually a well-researched and authoritative history. Miss Abbott’s choice of a narrative style for this work of nonfiction was a good one. It immediately made the information more interesting, engaging, and accessible.
The other thing I’d like to talk about is bias. The question is, though, whose bias? I found myself not liking Belle or Rose but admiring Emma and Elizabeth, Elizabeth in particular. And as I was reading, I had to ask myself, why was that?
Certainly, I did not care for the characters of the Southern sympathizers. They seemed to be entitled, rude, egotistic, and condescending. They used their feminine wiles when necessary and saw themselves, Belle in particular, as queen bees. In contrast, Emma, by the confines of her situation, had to draw attention away from herself. Elizabeth, as an outspoken abolitionist living in Confederate territory, was immediately under suspicion and also had to draw attention away from what she was doing. I tend to shun the spotlight myself, so I identified more with Emma and Elizabeth. Perhaps that is why I preferred them.
Or it could simply have been because I also am a Northern sympathizer. Not only did I identify with Emma and Elizabeth’s characters, I identified with their cause. Pretty much anything connected to the Confederacy is anathema to me, so Rose and Belle entered the narrative with strikes against them, as far as I was concerned. So perhaps I disliked them merely for their ideology.
Maybe I just liked the names of the Union supporters more. I mean, come on. Elizabeth? Emma? Any self-respecting Janeite knows exactly what I’m talking about.
So perhaps I was biased against the Southern women. Or was the bias Miss Abbott’s? I did not do a quantitative analysis, but it seemed to me that Belle and Rose got more ink. As flirts and extroverts, certainly they must have been more interesting to write about. Did Miss Abbott give away her own bias in devoting more time to their stories?
Actually, I tend to think not. Although Rose did not survive the war, both she and Belle wrote much more extensively about themselves than Emma and Elizabeth. Belle went on to become an actress (no surprise there) and wrote multiple autobiographies. Rose had several major players in the Confederate cause as correspondents whose letters survived. Elizabeth and Emma kept journals and wrote letters, but overall Rose and Belle were more prolific. Miss Abbott had more information about Rose and Belle, so it’s natural that she herself wrote more about them.
So I suppose I like to think that the bias is in me, for any or all of the above-mentioned reasons. Admittedly, that the bias is mine does not reflect well on my character, but at least it means that Miss Abbott was an impartial author. That is so essential for a history/biography writer that I will willingly shoulder the responsibility and declare Miss Abbott an exceptional writer for her genre.
And talking of character, while I did not like Rose or Belle, they did earn my admiration for their courage. Certainly all these ladies took incredible risks to do their bit for the causes in which they so passionately believed. Rose and Belle were both imprisoned and neither one let that deter them from what they believed was their calling to do. I may not have agreed with their politics, sanctioned their lifestyles, or appreciated their essential characteristics, but that kind of bravery deserves respect.
Belle, Elizabeth, Emma, and Rose. Four hitherto unknown women who rose to the occasion and in the process changed their world. Their actions then, ultimately, helped shape who our nation has since become. Thank you, Miss Abbott, for bringing their stories to life.