Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Traitor’s Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allison Pataki. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When turncoat Benedict Arnold aided the British during the Revolutionary War, he wasn’t acting alone. Orchestrating the espionage was his spouse, the beautiful socialite Peggy Shippen, whose treachery nearly cost the fledgling nation its fight for freedom. In The Traitor’s Wife, Allison Pataki brings to life an intriguing slice of American history, told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid, Clara Bell, who must decide where her own loyalties lie.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Before moving to Philadelphia, Clara spent her entire life on a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside. How does Clara’s identity evolve throughout her years of service to Peggy and Benedict Arnold? What character traits does Clara retain? Discuss which characters have the greatest impact on Clara’s growth and development.
2. Why does Clara take a nearly instant dislike to Major John Andre? Why is she relieved when the Judge and Mrs. Shippen refuse to allow Peggy to attend the Meshianza? Compare the way Andre treats Peggy with how Caleb treats Clara.
3. Clara is flattered at “having so quickly become her lady’s confidante and friend” (page 119). Does Peggy sincerely consider Clara a friend, or is Clara misreading her mistress? Why does Clara so desperately crave Peggy’s approval, and even friendship? At what point does this begin to shift?
4. Discuss the theme of loyalty in the novel. What drives the different characters’ allegiances? Who is the most loyal character?
5. “I hate the man, and I always will,” says Peggy of Benedict Arnold (page 146). Why then does she begin pursuing him the first time they meet? Does she truly come to care about him, or is it all an act?
6. What is your view of Benedict Arnold? Trace his evolution from ardent patriot to turncoat. Do you think he would have committed treason without Peggy’s influence? Why or why not? Discuss both his and Peggy’s motivations for aiding the British.
7. “My husband knows how to win on the battlefield. It’s all brute strength and fighting. But spy work is different—it requires poise, and self-control, and grace. It’s like a delicate dance. And if anyone knows how to dance, it’s me,” says Peggy (page 326). Which traits make Peggy better suited for espionage than Arnold? Why does the couple freely discuss their plans in front of Clara? Is it because they trust her not to reveal their secrets or, as Clara believes, because they find her invisible?
8. When Arnold’s treachery is revealed, he immediately flees and leaves Peggy behind. Given the circumstances, are his actions justifiable in any way? Why doesn’t Peggy hold it against him? Share whether or not you were surprised that Peggy was able to so easily convince George Washington and his companions of her innocence.
9. Does Clara intentionally or unintentionally help the Arnolds commit treason by cracking Andre’s code and translating the clandestine correspondence? Does her role make Clara partly to blame? What would you have done if you were in her position?
10. At one point in the story, Clara laments that she is not the master of her own fate. How do she and Caleb take charge of their future, both individually and as a couple? Discuss Clara’s warring emotions of impotency and desperation to intervene in the Arnolds’ plot.
11. When Clara confides in Mrs. Quigley about the Arnolds’ plotting, why is the older woman so quick to dismiss her claims? When Mrs. Quigley later understands exactly what’s happening, why does she still advise against Clara and Caleb taking action to stop the Arnolds? Explore how Mrs. Quigley’s response to the news differs from Caleb’s response to the news. Does either of them understand Clara’s position and perspective?
12. Examine the character of George Washington. Why does the novel open on the morning of his visit? What does George Washington mean to Benedict Arnold? To Peggy Arnold? To the servants like Hannah, Caleb, Clara, or the Quigleys? Discuss whether George Washington’s disapproval was the impetus for Arnold to agree to treason.
13. How does Clara use tactics she learned from observing her mistress to achieve her freedom from Peggy? What gives Clara the strength and courage to stand up to the imposing Peggy? Would Clara actually have reported Peggy’s guilt, or was it a bluff?
14. When news comes that Arnold successfully escaped, why is Clara relieved he won’t hang for his crimes? Why does she promise to keep quiet about Peggy’s role in the plot?
15. In what ways did The Traitor’s Wife give you new insights into the Revolutionary War? What, if anything, did you learn that surprised you?
A Conversation with Allison Pataki Q: It seems remarkable that one woman might have come so close to single-handedly turning the tide of the Revolutionary War. Why do you suppose Peggy’s part in the treasonous plot didn’t come to light sooner?
A: My thoughts exactly! And why don’t more people know about the role Peggy Arnold played in her husband’s notorious plot? That was how I felt when I came across the story, and that’s been the consistent reaction I’ve gotten as I’ve told people about The Traitor’s Wife. People find it hard to believe the story is true, because if it was, why hadn’t they heard about it?
According to Arnold biographers, people didn’t learn of Peggy’s role in the plot until the nineteenth century, after all of the principle players in the plot were deceased. Apparently Aaron Burr (the man responsible for Alexander Hamilton’s death – of all people!) confessed what he knew of Peggy’s role on his deathbed, based on Peggy’s own confessions while she was alive. Whether or not the Burr deathbed confession is credible (though many historians have debated that point and assert that it is), there is plenty of other proof of her involvement. The New York Public Library has letters exchanged between Arnold and Andre, on which you can see Peggy’s handwriting. And, how else would her former suitor have come into contact with her husband?
I think Peggy understood and skillfully harnessed the belief of the time – the flawed supposition that women were much less intelligent or capable than men. Boy, did she use that to her advantage!
Q: As an epigraph to The Traitor’s Wife you selected a quotation by Lady Macbeth, and another from Benedict Arnold’s own letter. Why did you select these quotations?
A: I love epigraphs and I’m always intrigued by which quotations writers choose to begin their books with, and why. The Lady MacBeth quotation was on my mind from the beginning. I went back and re-read MacBeth before I began writing The Traitor’s Wife because I wanted to revisit some of the themes of the play. I especially wanted to read Lady MacBeth’s speeches to her husband. Lady MacBeth is literature’s consummate double-dealer. She charms the men and welcomes them into her home, all the while she’s whispering into her husband’s ear to kill the king and take his crown. She uses soft, beautiful words to incite gruesome and treacherous actions.
I was intrigued by the similarities between Lady MacBeth’s style and how Peggy Arnold enacted her plot. Peggy, like Lady MacBeth, believed in her husband. She felt that he had been denied the glory he deserved. She was patient and strategic and bitter and ruthless. She knew how to charm and coax and manipulate people with her words. And she welcomed the leader, George Washington, into her home with a smile, all the while intending to betray him and quite possibly cost him his life.
The whole thing just felt so Shakespearean, with all the plotting, the human foibles, and the drama. I kept telling people as I was working on it: the Arnolds’ story is so salacious, you really cannot make this stuff up! And it’s true. One difference, however, is that Lady MacBeth gets her comeuppance in the end, whereas Peggy Shippen Arnold makes it out unscathed. Maybe Peggy was the greater wit, even more cunning than Lady MacBeth!
And then the Benedict Arnold quotation just makes me sad every time I read it. In that letter, you are seeing Arnold attempt to exculpate himself in the hours after his plot had failed. He wrote it knowing that all ties to the country he had once served and loved were irreparably severed. Knowing that his greatest hero, George Washington, now wished him dead. It’s tough to imagine how Arnold must have felt while writing that letter. Did he truly believe that what he had done had been in the best interest of the country, or was he simply making a justification? And, if it was just a justification, to whom was he speaking? To himself? To Washington? To history and the crafters of his legacy? It’s hard to know. But I do think it’s true what he says – that the world “very seldom judge(s) right of any man’s actions.” The truth is always more complicated than it appears.
Q: Peggy and Clara are on opposite ends of the social spectrum, one born into a wealthy family and the other a servant and orphan. Did you find it challenging, energizing, or both to write about these two very different main characters?
A: I found it exciting. It was fun to explore the ways in which these two women, with their different resources and perspectives, would have navigated the events into which they were thrust. In some ways, Clara and Peggy are similar. They are both young women of pretty much the same age (Peggy is one year older). Both of their fates are inextricably tied to the fate of not only the Arnold family, but also the new country. They resemble one another physically. Look how easy it is for Clara to masquerade as Peggy’s sister once she has the right hairdo and the right dress.
And yet they occupy completely different worlds. Clara begins the novel as a naïve, friendless servant who has never known anyone so sophisticated and worldly and charming. Clara has never had fancy dresses, or gentlemen suitors, or even her own bed. That is why, at first, Clara is so enamored of Peggy Shippen. Clara’s new mistress is this popular, witty, fashionable force who has all of Philadelphia society at her feet, and Peggy not only wants Clara to work for her, but seems to want Clara as a friend. Clara is, in her own way, just as seduced by Peggy as many of the other characters in the novel are. Given the social and economic disparities between the two of them, it’s clear why Clara becomes pretty much entirely dependent on Peggy.
But just as Clara is reliant on her mistress, so too is Peggy dependent on Clara. She invites Clara out with her; she asks for Clara on her wedding day; she moves Clara with her to set up her new home. You see time and again that when Peggy is in a particularly tough spot, it’s Clara whom she asks for. But then, as Peggy’s luck worsens, it’s Clara who suffers. It’s the classic case of someone venting their anger on the person nearest to them, the person they trust so implicitly that they take his or her presence entirely for granted. That’s why, even after everything devolves with the plot to turn over West Point, Peggy reacts so violently to the idea of Clara leaving her employ. She can’t fathom the possibility of Clara not always being there.
Q: How would it have been different had you written this novel from Peggy’s perspective?
A: The novel would have been entirely different had I written it from Peggy’s perspective – both for the reader, and also for me as the writer. I think introducing Clara’s perspective allowed it to be a more well-rounded story.
Writing from Clara’s perspective allowed me to interject feelings like hope, optimism, insecurity, and idealism into the novel. All of the feelings that one might have felt as they witnessed a new nation’s fight for independence. Clara and Caleb are the consummate idealists – they completely believe in what the fight for American freedom would have been at its best. They believe in the new country, and in George Washington, and in the futures they see as possible. And they, like the new country, are young and naïve and incredibly vulnerable to forces that seem more powerful than they are.
Written from Peggy’s perspective, the book would have been a much more tense, much more uncomfortable experience, I think. With Clara as the protagonist, the reader can be introduced to Peggy, just as Clara is. The reader can be seduced by Peggy, but also repulsed by her. I hope that Peggy is the woman that you love to hate. Seeing it through Clara’s eyes, the reader has a front-row view to the scheming and the double-dealing (which can be really fun to witness), but also enjoy a refreshing dose of sincerity and guilelessness. Peggy is anything but guileless!
Q: The upstairs/downstairs aspect of the novel is intriguing. Did you intend from the start to juxtapose the lives of a well-to-do family with those of their servants, or is it something that developed during the writing process? What kind of a shift is there between older servants like the Quigleys and younger ones like Caleb and Clara?
A: I absolutely set out with the intention of weaving those two different worlds together. So many of the old Colonial era homes I’ve seen have the front half of the house, and the servants quarter of the house. There are separate doors, separate stairways, separate bedrooms. A “servants wing” seems like such an antiquated architectural feature now, doesn’t it? But I was always fascinated by the upstairs/downstairs dynamic, and how these households must have felt so differently depending on which side of the door you lived on. I think, in many ways, the dramas and perspectives that play out in the servants wings of this book are even more exciting than what is going on on the other side of the house. And, like I mentioned above, the fates and futures of the servants would have been just as tied to the outcome of the American Revolution as were the fates of families like the Shippens or Arnolds.
Benedict Arnold is a figure who could have easily moved back and forth between these two realms. He was always so beloved by his men, and was really known as a man of the people. I tried to illustrate that, and to show his longing, at times, to be able to shed the pressures and burdens of his upper-class lifestyle in order to share in the camaraderie and companionship of people like Clara or the Quigleys.
I imagined the shift between the older servants and the younger ones as I would describe it today, even if that is slightly anachronistic. I’m not sure whether it is or not. Caleb and Clara are young and healthy and strong – and naïve. Of course they are going to be more willing to take risks. They might even be, at times, reckless, as young people are more wont to be. The Quigleys, I imagined, would be much more risk averse. They have known nothing their entire lives but the life of the servant, and they are content. Why tamper with that? Why hazard everything, including your life? But yet, that can be naïve too, because if you fail to take action, you make yourself powerless to the events around you. Both perspectives benefit from hearing the other one. That was how I saw it.
Q: While others around Judge Shippen, including his brother and Peggy, are vocal about supporting one side or the other during the Revolutionary War, he refuses to align himself with either. How unusual was his decision to remain neutral and not take sides?
A: Not unusual at all. John Adams wrote that one third of the population supported independence, one third remained loyal to England, and one third remained neutral. Historians aren’t unanimously agreed on the percentages, but it was by no means a universal sentiment that the colonies should break from England. Judge Shippen probably felt a personal allegiance to the British, but publicly he remained neutral.
Q: Could something like this happen today?
A: Espionage obviously persists to this day, but I don’t think it could have happened like this. What struck me was how much longer it took for information to be transmitted. News could only spread as quickly as a horse could carry a messenger. Or, more often, as quickly as a person could walk a letter from point A to point B. The fact that Washington didn’t hear of Arnold’s treachery because the messenger took the wrong road and didn’t deliver the letter in time astounds me. Especially when Arnold escaped by only a matter of minutes. Nowadays, it would have been a text message or a cell phone call and the plot would be known in seconds.
That’s why I had so much fun with the theme of writing and reporting. Everyone in this book is always writing and reading letters and reports. There are the love letters to Peggy, then the newspaper reports about Arnold, then the damning letter of censure from Washington to Arnold. There are the secret spy letters to Andre, there are the letters between Clara and Cal, and of course you have the fatal documents found in Andre’s boots. All of this news was flying back and forth all the time, and so much of it got redirected or misinterpreted or apprehended. It made for so much confusion and so much drama.
Q: “When you’re in a position of power, the threat to you from your own side is often more dangerous than your enemy,” says Caleb in The Traitor’s Wife (page 186). Arnold certainly faced a number of critics from his own side. Why do you think that was? And how did those soured relationships impact his fate?
A: “Poor Benedict Arnold” was how I felt, time and again, while researching his life. As strange as that may sound. He really did face a legion of critics on the colonial side, and I do believe he was treated unfairly at times. His internecine rivalries and feuds began in the very first days of the Revolutionary War. When both Arnold and Ethan Allen led the joint mission to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Men enjoyed all of the credit. Some of Allen’s men, drunk after the victory, reportedly held a pistol to Arnold’s chest when Arnold demanded that they stop looting and drinking. The men taunted Arnold and threatened “another war inside the fort.”
During the Battle of Quebec, when he was first shot in the left leg, Arnold held out with just his rag-tag team of men for the entire winter of 1776. They were frozen and starving. Arnold paid his men and fed his men with his own fortune during the entire siege, and wrote on multiple occasions that he was fully prepared to die for the Revolution.
Arnold was fighting on Lake Champlain, preventing a British invasion, when his colleagues were in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, signing their names to the immortal Declaration of Independence. Arnold fought the British alone in Norwalk, Connecticut, famously shooting his own horse out from under him in order to prevent it from falling into British hands. Arnold was with George Washington just four days before Washington famously crossed the Delaware to victory in Trenton. Again, had Arnold been there just four days later, he might have been able to share in some of that glory.
The one battle where Arnold finally earned the recognition that was due to him was the Battle of Saratoga, the undisputed turning point of the war. It would have been a British victory, if not for Benedict Arnold. Arnold repelled the British attack, and then defied the orders of his commander, General Horatio Gates, to lead the crushing attack on the British. It was during this battle that Arnold was shot a second time in his left leg.
In spite of his skill in battle, Arnold seemed to make enemies at every turn. He was passed over for promotions constantly; he was never reimbursed by the Continental Congress for the thousands of dollars he had spent; and he was never again able to walk without pain. And in spite of this, he saw himself constantly mocked and delegitimized by his colleagues. Throughout the early years of war, though the American people absolutely adored him, it seemed that Arnold’s only ally in the army was General George Washington.
It was after all of these battles and feuds had occurred that Arnold assumed his role as military commander in Philadelphia. In that city, Arnold faced his greatest nemesis yet: Joseph Reed. Reed was a man who got along with no one. Reed even disliked Washington, whom everyone admired and loved. But Reed turned the majority of his vitriol on Arnold, slandering him to the press and deriding him to the Continental Congress.
This maddened Arnold, who wrote to Washington: “I have nothing left but the little reputation I have gained in the army.” In Arnold’s defense, much of the back-alley trading that he conducted in the city was a fairly common practice. And many American generals at the time butted heads with their civilian counterparts. But Arnold’s critics always seemed to win the public relations campaign, and he was time and again painted as a very ornery, apish, questionable figure.
If you use George Washington as the gold standard of how a leader at that time should have behaved, you see that even Washington was disappointed to see some of Arnold’s behavior in Philadelphia. And, perhaps, rightly so. Washington was a man whose own personal conduct was above reproach. It was at this time that Washington, who had been his advocate in every single previous internecine dispute, did show some frustration with the constantly beleaguered Arnold. But some historians assert that Washington had to issue this censure (which is actually relatively light). Reed had allegedly threatened to pull the Pennsylvania militia if Washington did not censure Arnold. In the letter Washington wrote after the court martial, the high commander states: “Even the shadow of a fault tarnishes the luster of our ?nest achievements. I reprimand you for having forgotten that, in proportion as you have rendered yourself formidable to our enemies you should have been guarded and temperate in your deportment towards your fellow citizens.”
These words, however measured they may seem, crushed Arnold. So, I’m not sure how exactly it all evolved. Was Arnold treated so unfairly, time and again, that he became bitter? Or was Arnold a difficult personality who invited all of this criticism and enmity? Perhaps it’s not black and white, and perhaps it’s some combination. I guess we will never know. But, unfortunately for Arnold, he got one big decision wrong. And that decision, to turn to the British, is how history has remembered him.
Q: In the afterword, you mention that your family’s home is near West Point, New York, and across the street from the former Arnold residence. Did growing up in such a storied place influence your decision to write historical fiction?
A: This historical fiction in particular. West Point is right across the river, so we grew up looking at it every day and learning about the role it and the Hudson River Valley played in the American Revolution. And George Washington spent a lot of time in our area during the Revolutionary War, as a result. I have many memories of playing in the yard that was once Benedict Arnold’s yard. It made that portion of the story that much more fun to write – I had major home court advantage!
But yes, growing up in a place where history is so alive and accessible and ubiquitous definitely contributed to my love of historical fiction. My parents always stopped to read the historical markers, and we were always getting impromptu history lessons. In fact, I think it’s rare that a family dinner doesn’t turn to a history lesson – someone always has some fascinating historical nugget that he/she wants to share.
Historical Fiction is without a doubt my favorite genre to read. It was a no-brainer that it was also what I wanted to write. In college, I had a really hard time deciding whether to major in English or History. I went with English, but now, I don’t have to make that choice. I get to blend my two favorite dorky pastimes – reading/writing with history. Yes please!
Q: When writing a historical fiction, what role does the research play? How do you decide when to deviate from the facts, and when to stick to them? Discuss your process.
A: I hadn’t intended to rely as heavily as I did on the historical list of characters and events. However, it wasn’t long into my research that I realized I was dealing with some very intriguing material, and that the cast of characters I found, along with the events that unfolded around them, had the potential to inspire a very salacious plot. Obviously the servant characters – Clara, Caleb, the Quigleys, etc. – are entirely fictional, so that half of the plot is not based on any historical figures. But I would have been crazy not to rely heavily on the real facts!
In terms of the process, I definitely do most of the research before I begin writing anything. This allows me to map out the framework of the plot – dates, locations, characters, etc. So for this novel, I read as many biographies and historical sources as I could find. I visited the places where the action occurred. I visited museums and libraries in Philadelphia and New York. All of this was helpful in learning about the historical context and the events that made up the story. And then once I have the historical skeleton in place, I get to make up the rest.
While writing, I’ll come across moments where I realize I need to go back and do some more research. I’ll be writing and I’ll realize I don’t know what Peggy’s dress would have looked like, or what sort of furniture they would have sat on, or what sort of music they would have been listening to. It’s all very fun.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a first novel?
A: Do it! Write the novel. People are always telling me that they have a book idea and that they want to write. To which I always say: do it! This started out as a guilty pleasure for me – something I would do to unwind at the end of a workday or work week. I had no idea that it would turn into something real. You never know until you try. If you’re inspired to write a novel or a poem or a screenplay, you are lucky. Inspiration in any context is an incredible blessing.
Oh, and, the other thing I would say: be kind to yourself along the way. Don’t expect yourself to bang out a polished manuscript on the first try. If you do, then more power to you. But a first draft should be treated as a first draft, not a glossy, finished novel.
Q: Are you currently working on another book? If so, what details can you share about the story?
A: Absolutely! I’ve got several books in the works, at various stages of completion. They are all in the Historical Fiction genre. And I hope that they, like The Traitor’s Wife, will shine a light on a well-known, fascinating moment in time – but from a new angle or different perspective. The best part of reading a book, in my opinion, is being transported to another time period. You get to see that time period through another set of eyes. If I can give that experience to readers, then I will feel like I have accomplished my goal.
Enhance Your Book Club
Learn more about the Revolutionary War, including its major figures and decisive battles, at www.history.com/topics/american-revolution and www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty. On the latter website, you’ll find the “Road to Revolution” trivia game to add some friendly competition to your book club gathering.
Hit the road on a historically-themed outing. The interactive guide at www.nps.gov/revwar features places related to the Revolutionary War, which took place from Maine to Florida and as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana. Consider visiting Philadelphia, where Peggy Shippen met both Benedict Arnold and John Andre.
Peggy Shippen Arnold was renowned for her beauty. View a portrait of her at www.explorepahistory.com//displayimage.php?imgId=1-2-2E4, or search the website for “Mrs. Benedict Arnold and daughter.”
Show your patriotic pride by having book club members dress in red, white, and blue, as Peggy did when Benedict Arnold came to call on her. If your loyalties lie with the British, stick with red attire.