Book Review: Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain

by @edent | #

It would be easy for the modern reader to conclude that women had no place in the world of early modern espionage, with a few seventeenth-century women spies identified and then relegated to the footnotes of history. If even the espionage carried out by Susan Hyde, sister of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, during the turbulent decades of civil strife in Britain can escape the historiographer’s gaze, then how many more like her lurk in the archives?

Nadine Akkerman’s search for an answer to this question has led to the writing of Invisible Agents, the very first study to analyse the role of early modern women spies, demonstrating that the allegedly-male world of the spy was more than merely infiltrated by women. This compelling and ground-breaking contribution to the history of espionage details a series of case studies in which women — from playwright to postmistress, from lady-in-waiting to laundry woman — acted as spies, sourcing and passing on confidential information on account of political and religious convictions or to obtain money or power.

It’s rare that I abandon a book – but I gave up half way through this and skimmed to the end. In theory, this should be an exciting book – Spies! Sex! State Secrets! But it quickly becomes little more than a list of names, dates, and locations.

There’s a tantalising glimpse into the tradecraft of spies. An all-to-brief chapter on codes, ciphers, physical deceptions, and invisible inks. But it doesn’t go into any depth. I’d have liked to have learned about how these evolved, and a bit more about the cat-and-mouse game between spy and spycatcher.

The book is expertly researched – and draws upon multiple sources. But much of the quoted material is physically hard to read. Some abbreviations have been expanded with italics part way through words – but original archaic spelling is preserved. Deletions and insertions are also marked. Which leads to quotes like this:

he [Charles Lyttelton] […] had several ^tymes^ mett with the said Maior [Henry] Norwood […] and particularly 4 or 5 tymes at the Earl ^Lady^ Newports ^in Lincolns Inn ffeilds^, where there haue been in her Company as he remembers (besides those of her family) one Mr Beuerly & one Mr Browne a kinsman of the Lord Harberts ^& some others whom he remembers not^.

The mix of italics and regular text is just unpleasant to read.

It is great to see that women were capable of committing treason, and it is interesting to see how they fared and the punishment they received. But the vast cast of characters is unweildly, and the timeline is muddled unless you’re already an expert in the era.

I’m sure it’s a fine academic work – but it was too much of a slog for this casual reader.

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