Elizabeth: Hidden in Plain Sight

I’m currently working my way through draft 457,338 of my Regency romance.  Yes, I did say I was going to draw a line under it and move on a few months back, but I had some Ideas recently, so it’s an active manuscript once again.  The story’s hero was a spy during the wars and, though the fighting is over and Napoleon is safely tucked away on St. Helena, there is one last mission that must be completed.  Cue clandestine messages, secrets, and mysteries to be unraveled.

John Nagy’s Invisible Ink (spy-craft of the American Revolution) and Sue Wilkes’ Regency Spies have given me some good ideas about how to pass secret messages, hide information, and generally do things right under peoples’ noses without anyone being the wiser, but I’m always on the lookout for new and creative ways to do so.  I’m especially on the alert for ways that women could be involved in the process.

Naturally, I couldn’t pass up this article without a closer look: This luxury hotel was once a spy base.  The article talks about St. Ermin’s Hotel in London which, for a time, was the home base for British spies and the wartime intelligence community.  British Secret Intelligence Service Section D apparently occupied the top floors of the hotel, while unsuspecting hotel guests slept in the rooms below.

“Even those who work in the closed world of secrets must have a base of operations, and what better place to hide in plain sight than the iconic and elegant St. Ermin’s Hotel,” espionage writer and editor Mark Birdsall wrote in the foreword to House of Spies.”

Though the hotel’s espionage days are long gone (probably), modern day guests can view a number of items on display, including scarf printed with radio codes needed to send information between the UK and France.  The scarf, which was easily packed and quick to burn if compromised sounds like a fantastic way to hide something in plain sight.

Today’s news feed brought me another helpful espionage suggestion:  Wartime Spies Who Used Knitting as an Espionage Tool.  I loved the “Grandma was just making a sweater.  Or was she?” subtitle for the article, as well as the mental image of a grandmother, knitting away on her front porch, hiding messages in a seemingly benign scarf or sweater.

“By making a specific combination of knits and purls in a predetermined pattern, spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message, buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or hat.”

In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge used knitting to encode the names of nobles, and real-life spies like Molly Rinker pretended to knit (a very believable cover-story) while spying on the British during the Revolutionary War.  One article I found said that the UK’s Office of Censorship actually banned posted knitting patterns in the Second World War, in case they contained coded messages.

These articles definitely have provided me with some food for thought.  I can totally see an innocent Regency Lady, diligently working away, hiding secret messages in her embroidery or lace or the like.  The trim on her gown, the ribbons on her bonnet – there are any number of possible places to hide messages in plain sight.  I definitely must think on this more.

So, help me out here – can you suggest other ways to hide messages in plain sight and/or ways to actually hide things in plain sight?  I have some letters that need to be”hidden”.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. When I read Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was so clever when Madame DeFarge knit the secret messages! But now, hiding letters—maybe they could be hidden in a hollowed out book? Or in a kitchen with the recipes?

    • The kitchen recipes sounds promising, after all, who would bother going down to the kitchens (or to the servants’ area) to look for anything. Servants were pretty much supposed to be invisible then and they wouldn’t be expected to be particularly literate anyway. Also works well into the theme that, even invisible, servants usually had an excellent idea about all that was going on in a household. They would be well positioned to learn secrets that would then need to be hidden.

      Must think on this more.

      • Secret letters. I was thinking maybe bury them in the household accounts–would those be the heroine’s responsibility? Or secrete them with her prayer book or a book of sermons. The family bible? Or somewhere in the house’s library, in a book so old and boring that no-one would ever read it?

        Also I wonder if it would be possible to pass messages or information via the lending library? So the conspirators wouldn’t have to meet, just borrow the same book. It would have to be one not in demand from other readers–or maybe somebody at the lending library works for the government and they pass lots of secret information around that way?

        Like Michaeline, I think fans would be fabulous. I know there was a language of flirtation, but they could also be a way to pass information. Could be either the way the fan was used, or the patterns cut into it. I think some of them were pierced as well as painted, right?

        • Oh, I like the idea of passing messages via the lending library! I think that would be a really good solution for two of my characters (that I couldn’t figure out how to get together) to share information. I’m already using a boring old book for some secret messaging, but bringing in the lending library aspect opens up a lot of interesting scenarios. Must think more on this.

    • I loved Madame DeFarge, too! Stupid patriarchy, discounting handicrafts. To expand on this a little, would your lady have some sort of still book (book of recipes for distilling colognes, making soaps, herbal medicines, etc? Could get some code words from that, and the old “leave the book on the still room table for the other lady to ‘browse’ through and pick up the missive” trick.

  2. Oh my gosh! So much good stuff here, and I only have five minutes, so I’ll tackle the spycraft.

    They LOVED secret codes in those days. Language of flowers, language of fans, etc. Letters in a hairdo commemorating some victory? Hidden in the lining of a trunk? Rolled up in the handle of a parasol? Pasted between the two papers of a fan?

    Ever since Nancy Drew, I loved secret codes! I still enjoy running across them in stories, although these days, codes are usually too difficult for lay people/lay readers to decipher themselves.

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