WOMEN AND ESPIONAGE IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BRITAIN
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