The Spymistress reveals the story of an almost forgotten yet pivotal woman in American history, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew. How did you first encounter Lizzie Van Lew’s story?
I first discovered this remarkable woman while researching an earlier historical novel, The Union Quilters. One of my characters, a regimental surgeon in the Union army, was captured at Gettysburg, and when I investigated where he likely would have been taken, all paths led to Richmond and to Libby Prison. Every account I read of that notorious prison mentioned Elizabeth Van Lew and the astonishing, audacious risks she took on behalf of the Union captives there, and I was compelled to include her in The Union Quilters as a minor but very significant character. Even as I wrote her chapter, I was convinced that she was so remarkable, so heroic, that she really deserved an entire book of her own. I’ve wanted to write her story ever since.
Through your rich, descriptive writing, readers can really picture Elizabeth Van Lew’s daily life and relive her experiences. What kind of research did you do to so effectively put yourself in her shoes?
I relied upon numerous memoirs and journals written by Richmond civilians and Union prisoners of war, as well as newspaper reports and official documents from the National Archives. My first and best resource, however, was Elizabeth Van Lew’s “Occasional Journal,” an intermittent diary and scrapbook she kept of her wartime experiences. It was really more of a collection of loose papers than a complete, bound volume, but it was incredibly dangerous for a spy to keep any detailed record of her illicit activities at all. During the war, Van Lew would hide most of her journal and keep certain incriminating pages by her bedside in case the house was raided during the night and she had to burn them. After the war, Van Lew declined an offer to publish a memoir, believing with good reason that doing so would further provoke the anger of her Richmond neighbors, many of whom still resented her for her wartime support of the Union. Instead she hid the manuscript away for many years, revealing its location only upon her deathbed. When the box was brought to her, she examined it and exclaimed, “Why, there is nearly twice as much more. What has become of it?” The missing pages, if they truly existed, have never been found, but what remains offers a fascinating if incomplete glimpse into Elizabeth Van Lew’s remarkable wartime adventures.
In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you illuminated the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, her most trusted confidante and friend. The Spymistress paints the picture of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, during the same time period. What was it like researching and writing from the opposing side of the war?
I wouldn’t say that I wrote from the opposing side of the war, because Lizzie was staunchly loyal to the United States, and so even though the story takes place in the South, I still wrote from a Unionist perspective. After coming to know wartime Washington, D. C., so thoroughly for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, it was fascinating to examine the Confederate capital, and to find significant differences as well as striking similarities in the experiences of their residents. It was especially intriguing to study the political heart of the Confederacy from the perspective of Elizabeth Van Lew, a proud native Virginian and well-established member of the Richmond social elite who, upon secession, suddenly found herself in the unsettling position of political outsider, surrounded by friends and neighbors she believed had gone utterly, disastrously mad.