Friday, February 06, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books:
A Diplomatic Woman by Huan Mee (1900).

Contributing my bit to Patti Abbott's series on Friday's Forgotten Books, I choose Huan Mee's A Diplomatic Woman, which features an early female spy (hat tip to Douglas G. Greene, aka Super-Mystery History Man).

As the "cleverest woman in Paris," Mademoiselle Aidë Lerestelle takes on the thefts of secret ciphers involving dastardly Russians, the abduction of the British ambassador, the infatuation of a prince with a "third-rate actress," a jeopardized alliance between France and China, and a stolen document that threatens to plunge France into war. Some Gothic touches and a certain floridness of style are evident:
"It's you who are mad. All of you, for you've come to your death. And you're in your coffin now!" (57).
(Ahem. Pause for cackling, twirling of oversized mustaches, etc.)

As an unmarried woman is involved in these tales, there must be at least a bit of romance, but the sensible Mademoiselle Lerestelle is not one to have her head turned:
"Yes, ma chère, you are the one woman in the world who is brilliant enough to do it, because—"

"Not so much sugar, if you please, monsieur." (128)
Undoubtedly Mademoiselle Lerestelle's cases involve decidedly domestic situations. But it is pioneering, given the 1899–1900 period of these stories, for two male writers to have created a female spy whose brains take precedence while good looks are a pleasant afterthought. In addition, she is loyal, fond of adventure, and independent, treating the payment that she receives for her services as incidental.

Huan Mee was the pseudonym for British journalists and brothers Walter E. and Charles H. Mansfield. Other works by Huan Mee include A Beauty Spot (London: Gale, 1894), Wheels within Wheels (London: Ward, 1901), Weaving the Web (London: Ward, 1902), and The Jewel of Death (London: Ward, 1905). A list of some of the Huan Mee short stories appears here; a list of Charles Mansfield's short stories appears here.

About the photo: Illustration by A[rthur]. H[erbert]. Buckland, from the June 1899 Cassell's Magazine publication of Huan Mee's "The Russian Cipher" (part of A Diplomatic Woman).

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