Complicated Woman: A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton
BY LEE ANN ECKHARDT SMITH
When American novelist Stephanie Marie Thornton went looking for “an amazing spy story during the Cold War,” she stumbled upon Elizabeth Bentley, a Soviet spy operating in America from 1938 until she defected in 1945. In the two years leading up to her defection, Bentley ran the largest spy ring in the United States. Her confession to the FBI not only identified 41 Soviet sources operating throughout the U.S., it essentially took down the golden age of Soviet espionage, which had been ongoing for over 20 years.
Thornton’s latest novel, A Most Clever Girl (Berkley, 2021) brings Elizabeth Bentley’s story to light, and it proved to be a demanding task for the author. “As a spy,” she explains, “Elizabeth Bentley destroyed most of the evidence of her espionage activities.” With one exception: Bentley published a memoir, Out of Bondage (The Devin-Adair Company, 1951).
Having this source was both a help and a challenge to Thornton while writing her novel. “I could get an authentic feel for Elizabeth Bentley’s voice and also the main events of her very eventful life,” she says. “However, Elizabeth wrote this at a time when she was being vilified. America didn’t know at the time that she was telling the truth in her testimony about Soviet espionage to the courts and the FBI. It’s easy to see that she was trying to paint herself as a sort of responsible, matronly American woman. That meant I had to read between the lines for some events while relying on other sources for a more holistic view.”
Elizabeth Bentley is not the first unreliable narrator whose story Thornton has tackled. However, Thornton found that the spy “really upped my game because she is a classic unreliable narrator throughout the entire novel. People during Elizabeth’s lifetime didn’t know when she was telling the truth, and I wanted readers to experience some of that as she recounts her tale.”
Bentley is also Thornton’s “most obscure subject” to date. Her other, better documented protagonists have included Alice Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, whose lives, as Thornton points out, “have been preserved in great detail for posterity.” In contrast, Elizabeth Bentley was careful to leave no physical evidence of her activities. Also, her testimony to the FBI was part of the top-secret Project VERONA and only declassified in 1995. Thornton explains that with Bentley, “I had a bit more creative license, but I also had more gaps to fill in.”
Overall, Thornton contends that, “while Elizabeth Bentley was an incredibly complicated woman— and she sometimes made terrible decisions—I felt people needed to hear her story again, especially now that we know she was telling the truth (or at least, most of it) all those years ago. It’s time to polish away some of the tarnish on her forgotten legacy.”
Thornton is dedicated to retelling the stories of history’s forgotten women. This is a cause she explains she has been “obsessed with” since the age of twelve. “I am pulled in by those women who have a strong personality, are energetic, and have contributed something to [the U.S.],” she says.
“I think my biggest success,” she reflects, “has been dusting off the stories of women who have either been largely forgotten, or whose full stories aren’t necessarily known, and making them available for modern readers to reacquaint themselves with.” In addition to the three American women she’s written about, Thornton has also “been able to bring to life the lives of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Empress Theodora, as well as Genghis Khan’s and Alexander the Great’s women.”
As for finding new “forgotten women” to bring to light, Thornton credits being a high school history teacher. “It means I’m constantly surrounded by historical sources, so I come across a lot of women who aren’t necessarily household names. Typically, I stumble upon a reference to a woman I’ve never heard of and suspect there’s more to her story than the single sentence she’s usually allotted. Then I start researching and all that research often becomes my next novel!” In fact, Thornton says her biggest challenge has been “narrowing down who to write about – there are so many women from history with incredible stories!”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith’s passion for history and storytelling has driven her writing career. She is the author of two acclaimed non-fiction history books: Strength Within: the Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005) and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She’s written articles for many magazines and newspapers, primarily about how to write family history and memoir. She is currently working on her fourth collection of photographs and poetry, inspired by the beauty she finds in her everyday world. Find out more at her website.