Englishness and espionage: Edith Cavell as the good spy.

Rosie White

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


There is a long-standing connection between Englishness and the figure of the (good) spy. Britain formally established the first national intelligence agency in 1909 and their activities have inspired (and been influenced by) a number of iconic fictional spies, from John Buchan’s “Richard Hannay” to Ian Fleming’s “Bond” (Knightley, 2003). While these male fictions usefully foreground the inkage of English, Britishness with the secret service, they tend to overshadow the position of actual women spies. Yet women have played a central role in espionage from the establishment of spying as a profession. ... My discussion therefore begins with the consummate image of the (bad) female spy, Mata Hari, whose name has entered the language as an allegory of seduction and betrayal. As an alleged spy shot by the French during the First World War, Mata Hari represents not only the apogee of feminine espionage, but also the epitome of an Orientalised other (Said, 1978). Edith Cavell has come to represent all that Mata Hari is not. Cavell’s Englishness is to the fore in most accounts of her life; her identity as an English woman specifically cast in terms of appropriate femininity, ‘pure’ whiteness and middle-class respectability. This representation of the good woman spy continued to resonate during and after the Second World War in cinematic accounts of Cavell and the women of the SOE (Special Operations Executive).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHeroines and Heroes: Symbolism, Embodiment, Narratives & Identity
EditorsChristopher Hart
Place of PublicationKingswinford
ISBN (Print)978-0955124433
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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