I recently finished a novel of the historical hue, called Killing Beauties. Set in 1655/6, slap bang in the middle of the interregnum, when Cromwell was Lord Protector of England (and brutaliser of Ireland, amongst other places) and Charles II was in exile, the book follows the adventures of two women, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, both of whom were she-intelligencers, or spies with broad portfolios.
It’s now live on Unbound, so go and pledge your support as a patron.
Susan was postmistress for the royalist secret society the Sealed Knot, and what is best described as Western Union for the court in exile. Diana was much more mercenary. A coney-catcher, or cozener, Diana was primarily a confidence trickstress, Diana returned to England after the hard graft she had put in to conning a couple of royalists out of a heap of cash was uncovered. She was subsequently arrested, and proceeded to spill the beans that she had accrued in parallel to her cash-gathering activities to the parliamentarians. She appears to have escaped unscathed. Susan was caught and subsequently died, forgotten even by her brother (latterly the Earl of Clarendon, author of the massive History of the Rebellion, in which he failed to mention Susan, let alone that she died while under arrest for espionage).
I used Nadine Akkerman’s awesome Invisible Agents as inspiration. Jessie Child’s excellent review of Invisible Agents latches onto the story of Susan, a story that is quite difficult to tease out of the archives, as of particular interest. She was right to do so, though the interest to the historian and to the novelist are subtly different – there are several lacunae in the papertrail that allowed me to speculate in a manner that would be impossible for a real historian. In a fictional context, I was able to fill in the gaps with what suited my story.
What follows is my re-imagining of Susan’s death, from one in which she appears as helpless victim to one in which she seizes agency. Enjoy!
Killing Beauties – an extract
Tuesday 23rd September 1656, 5pm
Nathaniel met the minister at the front gate and led him down through the labyrinth that was Lambeth House into the area that housed Susan.
‘Is that your master I hear?’ said the minister, in a soft Scottish accent.
‘Merely a goat,’ said Nathaniel, shaking his head. ‘Though it is true to say that master Secretary has been sporting a very particular beard of late.’ Nathaniel wondered whether this might not make a useful rumour. He looked at the minister who seemed to grow paler with every step he took. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Nathaniel. ‘Most people get an attack of nerves on their first time down here. Especially the prisoners.’ He scrabbled with the lock and the door swung open. The minister hesitated. ‘Go on, minister, your sinner awaits. I shall allow the woman some privacy.’
‘Thank you, Nathaniel,’ said the minister, as he walked into Susan’s cell. He almost retched. The smell of piss, shit, blood and fear leaked from the very walls. Susan was thin, pale, and wrapped only in a filthy sheet. ‘My child,’ he said. ‘What have they done to you?’
‘Everything that is indecorous,’ she replied, in a whisper. ‘Thank you for coming, Colonel Talbot, though you know it may well be your end.’
‘Indecorous?’ said Talbot, opening his Bible. ‘I will not allow it while I live.’
‘On that we are agreed. But I do not wish to hear from a man,’ she said, shivering slightly in the cold, damp cell. She coughed. ‘Take my testament.’
Talbot took out a piece of paper from between the pages of his Bible and placed it on top of the leather-bound tome. Then he dipped his pen into his ink and held it, poised. ‘Ready,’ he said. And Susan began to speak.
I am Susan Hyde.
Sister to Edward Hyde.
Sister of the sisterhood.
Daughter of Ophelia.
Je suis la différence.
This is my testament. None may read it but she who holds the key to all hearts.
I was born a sister, then a daughter. I will never be a mother, though I have held that office by proxy.
I lie here, already in my burial shroud, and soon my sisters will lay me in the stream, where my sins will be washed away, and I may finally become forever faithful to the sisterhood. Then this too sullied flesh will melt and I will join our eternal mother.
Though my sojourn on this spinning orb was short, in that time I have known love, laughter, misery, pain and more. I have been faithful even as I betrayed, I have been honest even as I have lied, and I have been true even as I proved false.
I am Susan Hyde. Je suis une fille d’Ophelia. Je suis une agent invisible. Je suis le premier, le dernier.
I am Susan Hyde yet.
I see now all that I did, all that I said, all that I was is of no importance. As I await my death, like Cleopatra in her monument awaiting the figs in which her destiny slithered, I know that only those directly responsible for my end will mourn my passing. Those others who see it will curse their lack of agency, while to most all of the world, it will be of no import. It may change everything but no-one will ever know.
And you, John, my darling John who is both love and hate to me, who is both life and death, who is both the pillar that holds up my world and the storm that destroys it, to you, John, I bequeath the knowledge that I gave you, the worst of men, the very best of me.
But I do not die for you, John, nor yet because of you. I die for something more beautiful than you can ever know.
I am Susan Hyde.
And I am ready.
With this last word she reached out to Talbot, who gave her Bible and pen. Susan signed her name and returned the Bible to him. He sprinkled sand onto the inky page, shook it off and folded the paper together. He then took a flask, uncorked it and took a good swig, gasping as the alcohol drew a line of fire down his throat. He took out a wafer and poured some of the spirit onto it. He then took the wafer and placed it between the letter’s open flaps and pressed it hard onto his Bible before stamping it with a signet he wore. He placed both letter and flask back into back into his bag. He opened the book.
‘Take solace from the good book, my child,’ he said, holding the open book in front of her. There was a small compartment hollowed out of the pages in which sat a locket. ‘From Acts to the Epistles of John,’ he whispered, smiling. ‘No great loss.’ Susan took the locket from its resting place and smiled back.
‘And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne. The Revelation of St John the Divine. Sixteen seventeen,’ she said. ‘You have a poetic soul.’ She kissed the locket. ‘I am ready.’
‘Then take your solace, my child,’ said Talbot.
Susan looked at the locket, then opened it. Inside was a small vial, sealed with the image of a nightingale. ‘Thank you, father,’ she said. ‘Go in peace.’ Then she whispered the words ‘Good luck.’
‘May God forgive you,’ said Talbot, and stood up. He walked out of the door. ‘She’ll have none of it,’ he said to Nathaniel. ‘The whore is damned, there is no doubt of that. Allow me to take my leave of this accursed place.’
As he spoke, her door was once more locked, and Susan listened as the two men walked away. She waited a few minutes, and while she could still hear the plaintive but weakening cries of the goat, she fastened the locket around her neck, kissed it, and offered up a short prayer. Then she broke the seal on the vial and poured the contents into her mouth, throwing both vial and seal into a dark corner of the cell. ‘It is done,’ she said, and lay back on the floor and felt the darkness spread through her body until it claimed her, overwhelming the single light that burnt in her cell.
As Susan waned unsuspected behind her cell door, the two men walked. But of a sudden Nathaniel held back slightly, then stopped altogether, allowed Talbot to take three paces further before speaking. ‘Tell, me, minister,’ he said. ‘How do you happen to know my name?’ Talbot turned to face his questioner, his right hand reaching for the sword that wasn’t there. ‘You betray yourself now, swordsman.’ Nathaniel drew his blade.
Talbot threw down his Bible and opened his cloak. ‘We fought before. At Edgehill,’ he said. ‘You were brave and strong but limited technically. I watched as one of my fellow men-at-arms had you at his mercy but dallied, fatally.’
‘He quite lost his head,’ said Nathaniel.
‘Indeed,’ said Talbot. ‘I admired the speed at which you learnt that your sword was a danger to you. I watched you retreat against your next foe until the ground suited you. I would have followed but another called for my blade, and you were gone.’
‘And now my sword is my advantage,’ said Nathaniel. ‘And I have a grudge to settle. I will first best you, then make you pay for poor Jonny. For shame, not even a man and you took him from behind like a coward.’
‘Who?’ said Talbot. ‘I don’t know the man but I can assure you I did no such thing. I may be your sworn enemy, but I am a man of my word and I likewise believe you honourable, after your own fashion. I never kill a man who runs, for his cowardice is enough, and I never kill a man who does not know I mean to strike.’