Monday, May 24, 2010

The First James Bond And The Invisible Spy

Two novels. Two spies. One spy’s visible, the other’s not. One is in service to George Washington, the other in service to snooping on the social set during the reign of George II. One is the first novel to wholly concern itself with espionage, the other is one of the last novels by 18th century England’s most popular authoress.

The Name Is Birch. Harvey Birch.

He didn’t just write the Natty Bumppo Leatherstocking tales. The Last of the Mohicans was preceded by the first of the spy novels.

"James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, The Spy (1821), is based on Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley series, and tells an adventure tale about the American Revolution. The protagonist is Harvey Birch, a supposed loyalist who actually is a spy for George Washington, disguised as ‘Mr Harper.’ The book brought Cooper fame and wealth, and is regarded as the first great success in American fiction" (MacKenzie, LibriVox).

"James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was America's first successful novelist…his principal contribution to espionage fiction rests with The Spy which, to Cooper, seemed a particularly promising theme. While the stories of Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold and John Andre, held sway in histories of the revolution, the premise of espionage had not yet been examined in fiction. Cooper sought to exploit this situation by, for the first time, casting a spy as the protagonist of a novel.

James Fenimore Cooper

"The Spy was a major literary gamble. Prior to Cooper, writers, philosophers, the military, and people in general, although they certainly knew otherwise, simply chose not to admit that spies existed or that they were in any way beneficial to the aims of 'great nations.' In their minds, the spy and his activities were dangerous, morally tarnished, and prone to scandal, illegality, or both. As a result, until publication of The Spy, espionage remained a political nether region and an unsavory arena in which to develop heroes, fictional or otherwise. Thieves, yes; murderers, certainly; but spies, be they heroes or villains, were considered well outside the political constraints of civilized society and its literature.

"As the first novelist to explore the theme of espionage, Cooper had no examples and instead relied on the conventions of other genres - primarily the romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott - to convey the dishonesty, deception and covert manipulation central to espionage activities...

"...To salvage the notion of the spy's nobility, near the end of the novel Cooper employs none other than George Washington - the symbolic "Father of the American Revolution" - to sum up the fate of the spy when he personally tells Birch: 'There are many motives which might govern me, that to you are unknown. Our situations are different; I am known as the leader of armies - but you must descend into the grave with the reputation of a foe to your native land. Remember that the veil which conceals your true character cannot be raised in years - perhaps never'" (p. 398).

The Spy. in contemporary binding, in modern box.

"Herein lies perhaps the most singular of Cooper's accomplishments in The Spy. With Washington's words, Cooper defined the fundamental premise that even today continues to run though espionage novels: the ambiguity of a neutral ground wherein secret men do secret things. Secondly, and notwithstanding the well entrenched social diagram of his time - one that considered spies to be liars, traitors, thieves or even worse - Cooper's fictional context shifted public opinion toward viewing espionage as a patriotic duty, and seeing the spy in an entirely new light: the unsung hero." (Woods, Revolution and Literature: Cooper's The Spy Revisited).

"On its publication …The Spy was most cordially received in America; its sales quickly outstripped all former records, and its popularity was later enhanced by its successful dramatization. Its reception in England was equally enthusiastic. There they linked his name with [Washington] Irving's, and the two writers came to be thought of as promising pioneers in American authorship" (From the Introduction to the 1911 edition).

The Invisible Spy (1755). Volume two of four.

Now You See Her, Now You Don’t

If you have a burning curiosity about what goes on behind the closed doors of society, it helps to have a old friend descended from the Magi of the Chaldeans who is on death’s door and anxious to bequeath to you something from his Cabinet of Curiosities.

The Invisible Spy (1755), written under the pseudonym “Explorabilus,” was one of Eliza Haywood's (1693-1756) last novels, appearing one year before her death, after earlier in the decade turning away from writing the sort of scandalous novels that had made her reputation, i.e. The Secret History of the Present Intrigues of the Court of Caramania (1727), a transgressive roman á clef that tore the royal bedsheets off of of George II's bedstead, and earned a line of scorn from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad.  
The Invisible Spy (1755), four volumes in contemporary binding.

"By this period of her career, Haywood was claiming to be a reformed character and, in the guise of her authorial persona, admitted in the opening installment of The Female Spectator, that 'My Life, for some Years, was a continued Round of what I then called Pleasure, and my whole Time engross'd by a Hurry of promiscuous Diversions'" (Ruth Facer, Eliza Haywood, Chawton House Library). 

Yet Haywood did not become a prig. In The Invisible Spy, her moral stance is, at best, ambiguous: A woman acquires an Invisibility Belt “Which, fastened around the body, next to the skin, no sooner becomes warm than it renders the party invisible to all human eyes.” She uses it to spy upon the social and political scene, and expose secrets. This is spying in an era when espionage of any nature was considered "morally tarnished." To do so upon the private affairs of persons, rather than nations, was just as ignoble and disgraceful, discretion and privacy a virtue, secrets, as always, dear.

Eliza Haywood enjoyed her role as spy and teller of secrets. Though she may have mellowed in later life, she didn't abandon her pleasure. The Secret History...Court of Caramania and The Invisible Spy are big and little sister.

The Invisible Spy, as all of Haywood’s novels, was very popular; in its first year of publication editions out of Dublin and Edinburgh were issued, and four subsequent editions were published, the last in 1788.

Eliza Fowler Haywood

Eliza Haywood dominated the contemporary British market for amorous fiction. Haywood (née Elizabeth Fowler) was an English writer, actress and publisher. Since the 1980s, Eliza Haywood’s literary works have been gaining in recognition and interest. Described as “prolific even by the standards of a prolific age” (Blouch, Christine. Introduction to Eliza Haywood and the Romance of Obscurity. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 no. 31 (1991): 535-551.), Haywood wrote and published over seventy works during her lifetime including fiction, drama, translations, poetry, conduct literature and periodicals. Haywood is a significant figure in the 18th century as one of the important founders of the novel in English.


Two spies. One of serious intent in war., and noble. The other lightly serious and disreputable at war with social and political hypocrisies. Both inhabit an ambiguous moral landscape, a literary no man’s land that would become a standard in 20th century fiction as moral certainties broke down under the weight of Verdun and the Somme, Holocaust, Hiroshima, the democratization of information distributed on a mass scale, and the disillusionment with politics and politicians. Black and white turned shades of gray and, despite continuing efforts to turn the color wheel backward, they remain so. As such, these novels, each in their fashion, point toward the modern existential dilemma in the age of Facebook  and the digital world at large: What is the morality of  privacy and secrecy? What can we reveal? What can we conceal? How much can we give away without losing ourselves? How much can we hold back without getting lost in our selves? It's spy vs. spy in the Cloud and we're all guilty.

[COOPER, James Fenimore].
The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground by the Author of "Precaution." New York: Wiley & Halsted, 1821. First edition. Two twelvemo volumes (7 4 1/4 in; 178 x 108 mm). xii, 251. [1, blank]; 286, [2. blank] pp. BAL 3826. Spiller & Blackburn 2.

[HAYWOOD, Eliza]. The Invisible Spy by Exploralibus. London: Printed for T. Gardener at Cowley's Head..., 1755. First edition. Four twelvemo volumes. (6 5/8 x 3 3/4 in; 168 x 95 mm). iv, 287, [1, adv.]; iv, 312; iv, 312 pp ((p. 158, v.1, and p. 223, v.2 incorrectly numbered 358 and 123 respectively). Woodcut vignette to title pages, woodcut head- tailpieces, initials. Spedding Ab.69.1. Whicher 32. ESTC T142450.

Spy vs Spy image by Antonio Prohías, for MAD magazine, and is courtesy of Alfred E. Neuman, with our thanks.

1 comment:

  1. A most interesting item. Thanks for writing it. Interesting that, when searching for the roots of the modern espionage novel, it seems that most Brits today prefer to cite the Erskine Childers book, "The Riddle of the Sands" (1903), and when they mention "The Spy" at all, it is usually dismissively, with some claiming it was simply too poorly written to qualify as an entry. But those passages you've cited go straight to the heart of the matter of the whole business of spying.


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