IN­VIS­I­BLE AGENTS

WOMEN AND ES­PI­ONAGE IN SEV­EN­TEENTH CEN­TURY BRI­TAIN

The Oldie - - HISTORY -

NA­DINE AKKERMAN OUP, 288pp, £20, Oldie price £12.77 inc p&p

As Jessie Childs re­lated in the Tele­graph, Su­san Hyde, sis­ter of the Earl of Claren­don, went un­der­cover for the Sealed Knot, the roy­al­ist se­cret so­ci­ety work­ing to re­store the Stu­art monar­chy. Go­ing by the name of Mrs Ed­wards, some­times Mistress St Barbe, Mistress Sim­burbe or Mr Gother­in­tone, she is among some fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ures in Na­dine Akkerman’s study of 17th-cen­tury fe­male Bri­tish spies. Akkerman, wrote Childs ad­mir­ingly, ‘has im­mersed her­self in the de­vices and net­works of her tar­gets. She knows their aliases and has cracked the codes. while scat­tered among her ex­ten­sive foot­notes are links to videos, which show all sorts of in­ter­est­ing things like how (in a time be­fore en­velopes) to “lock” a let­ter into its folds, or make in­vis­i­ble ink from ar­ti­choke juice.’

Le­anda de Lisle, in the Times, noted, ‘The per­ceived weak­ness and stu­pid­ity of women of­fered them the great­est ad­van­tages in the role of spy.’ She went on: ‘The Round­head press dis­missed “She in­tel­li­gencers” — the pe­jo­ra­tive term they used to de­scribe women agents — as mere gos­sips. The roy­al­ists were more open­minded, but they still warned Charles only to use women for the low­est level work, judg­ing them “ves­sels too weak for the re­ten­tion of strong liquor”. Charles ig­nored all such ad­vice, and “wove a web of in­vis­i­ble agents around him­self”, an en­tire spy ring of “she in­tel­li­gencers”.’

In the Sun­day Times, Do­minic Sand­brook thought In­vis­i­ble Agents ‘teems with in­trigu­ing women’ with the in­ter­ro­ga­tion of Su­san Hyde ‘like some­thing from Stalin’s Rus­sia’. But he also found it suf­fered from aca­demic dry­ness and a prose style that ‘is care­ful and clever but never builds up nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum’.

Spy: Lucy Percy by Van Dyck, 1637

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