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The woman who inspired the character

A few years ago I interviewed a twinkly-eyed old lady about her war, Mrs. Underwood, who worked for one of the British spy agencies, MI5, during the war. With a wry little smile, she explained that she had to sign the Official Secrets Act, which meant that she couldn't tell me what precisely she did.

Was she a spy? I thought, utterly intrigued. "My mother loathed me working for MI5," she told me with a smirk, as if defying her mother even now. "She wanted me to do the old-fashioned thing and find a wealthy man to marry. She didn't see that the war meant we women had a chance to do exciting things." She took a deep breath and gazed out of the window as if remembering the excitement. Beneath the white wispy hair and pale skin, her blue eyes still gleamed with the enthusiasm of youth.

And there she was: Betty Braithwaite, one of the characters in THE SPIES OF SHILLING LANE. The twenty-year-old bright spark who had what it took to be a spy, in spite of what her mother said! The old lady was an absolute gem, and it was in imagining her as a girl that I formed the basics for the book. The bombastic mother, of course, became our beloved Mrs. Braithwaite.

Like Betty Braithwaite, many younger women were drawn to London to take advantage of the great opportunities now opened up to them by the men leaving for the front. Betty’s mother, Mrs. Braithwaite, from an older generation, thinks she should stay at home to find a good husband, a true mark of success as far as she is concerned. But will the war challenge that view?

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