Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was my first brush with the notion that writers were spies. At nine I was Harriet, furiously scribbling in my notebook as I peered under gates and through knot-holed fences in my neighborhood. I spied on my family too. Great fun, until my intelligence activities were discovered.
Writers are natural people-watchers. They train themselves to be accurate observers. To survive the wrath of their loved ones, they learn how to disguise their truths and communicate information with subtlety. Often in love with language, many are also linguists, crossword-solvers, code-breakers. They understand nuance, plot and sub-plot.
The convergence, here, of the language of storytelling and the language of spying is no accident; the imagination to devise and unravel schemes is essential to both professions. One of the earliest writer-spies, 16th century playwright Anthony Munday, was described in a list of contemporary writers as ‘our best plotter’. Munday was one of several Elizabethan writers recruited for the fledgling intelligence service set up to infiltrate Catholic conspiracies aimed at assassinating England’s Queen Elizabeth I.
Thomas Watson, the poet who wrote the first English madrigals, was another. Watson travelled for seven and a half years through continental Europe, apparently infiltrating the Jesuit seminary at Douai, and later carrying government letters from the Paris embassy. Back in England, Watson testified in the court case of a woman who believed she was the King of Spain’s daughter: a dangerous claim when the Spanish king, widower of Elizabeth I’s half-sister Mary, wished to restore himself as ruler of a Catholic England. Subsequently, Watson became tutor to the children of Sir William Cornwallis, a prominent Catholic who had been placed under government surveillance. The assignment was to lead directly to the graveyard: Cornwallis had Watson thrown in prison for tricking his daughter into a marriage contract, and within weeks, the thirty-nine-year-old poet was dead. Whether Cornwallis knew of Watson’s dual role in his household is unknown.
Watson’s final poetic work was published posthumously by his friend, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was the playwright whose blank verse dramas were the model for Shakespeare’s and who apparently died after being stabbed in what is commonly described as a tavern brawl. But the house was no tavern: the owner, Mrs Bull, had high-level government connections and Marlowe’s biographer Charles Nicholl believes it was a safe house used regularly by intelligence agents traveling to and from continental Europe.
While Marlowe was wowing London audiences with plays like Doctor Faustus, he was also working as a government agent. When accused of trying to defect to the Jesuit seminary at Rheims, government ministers came to his defense, testifying he had ‘done Her Majesty good service touching the benefit of his country’. Five years on, Marlowe was betrayed in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands by a Catholic double-agent, a man he parodied as Barrabas in his play The Jew of Malta. The basis for his arrest was counterfeiting, but it didn’t lead directly to prison, suggesting a government-sponsored attempt to infiltrate the assassination plot of (Catholic convert and traitor) Sir William Stanley: Marlowe was ‘following the money’. Spying, however, was ultimately the playwright’s downfall. The two witnesses to the likely concocted ‘brawl’—most scholars think the inquest was a cover-up—were also intelligencers. Marlowe left behind a body of work stamped with traces of his time in the Queen’s service.
More contemporary examples of writer-spies include Graham Greene. Greene published poetry after leaving Oxford and had been established as a novelist for a decade before the outbreak of the Second World War. He went to work for the Ministry of Information, writing propaganda, but found the work dull and joined the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in July 1941. Sierra Leone, where Greene worked for fourteen months as an intelligence officer, became the setting for his best-selling work The Heart of the Matter, and he gave his code number, 592000, to a character in his parody of the espionage world, Our Man in Havana. Clearly, writers not only make good spies; spying makes good material for writers.
Ian Fleming was a journalist for Reuters in the 1930s and had begun writing stories, but it wasn’t until he became a spy that he found the material that would make him a successful novelist. He joined naval intelligence as a personal assistant and was quickly promoted to Commander, liaising with the prototype CIA before Pearl Harbor, and overseeing operation Goldeneye, a plan to maintain intelligence if the Germans overran Spain. After the war he spoke of writing spy thrillers, but returned to journalism. It wasn’t until 1952 that he wrote Casino Royale, spawning the still-popular phenomenon of James Bond.
David John Moore Cornwall began writing espionage novels in the 1960s under the pen-name John Le Carre while actively working for MI5 and continued to do so when he transferred to MI6. He wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold while working in Hamburg as a political consul. His intelligence career was ended in 1964 when traitor Kim Philby—formerly Graham Greene’s supervisor—blew his cover. Le Carre, now established as a successful novelist, would later depict Philby as the ‘mole’ George Smiley hunts in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The majority of writers aren’t spies. The majority of spies aren’t writers. Nevertheless writers and spies share affinities and skills. Both gather and communicate sensitive material. Both spend time pretending to be someone they’re not. Both are prone to secrecy about their work. And writers and spies share this important secret in particular: though their professions have a public face of glamour and excitement, much of the work is rather routine.
Keep this to yourself, obviously. But on the whole, writing and spying are desk jobs.
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Ros Barber was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in England. She is the author of three poetry collections and her poetry has appeared in Poetry Review, London Magazine, and The Guardian among many other publications. Ros has a Ph.D. in Marlowe studies and has taught writing at The University of Sussex for more than a decade. In 2011, she was awarded the prestigious Hoffman Prize for The Marlowe Papers. She lives in Brighton, England.