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Women in the Shadows


To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, here’s a review of book written by an inspiring woman about brave, daring, bold and incredible women, most of whom have been ignored by historians and whose voices have been silenced: Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth Century Britain by Nadine Akkerman redresses the balance.

Akkerman’s robust research in archives, libraries and private collections has allowed these remarkable women to find their voices again and, in studying their words and deeds, she has created an important, must-read book of a long-forgotten slice of women’s history.

At a time when it was almost impossible for men of rank to travel, women – who were viewed as being too weak and feeble to be a threat – rose to the challenge, carrying documents, letters and arranging for the moving of important political prisoners. Each study challenges preconceptions, taking the reader on an adventure as an entirely new and fresh perspective of women and the role they played in the development of spy-craft is revealed. From the mistress of Charles I to women willing to risk their lives to further political causes, Akkerman’s meticulous research presents a revelatory version of the politics and espionage throughout the English Civil War. Previously ignored, the contribution of these women is finally lauded and analysed from a scholarly but eminently readable perspective.

Two of the women discussed have a higher profile than others: Aphra Behn and Anne, Lady Halkett. Behn is routinely studied and it has long since been suggested she was a spy. Akkerman revisits the theories with precise and unbiased analysis, giving a new perspective on a formerly well-known version of events. Meanwhile Anne, Lady Halkett has been compared with Charlotte Brontë, Daniel Defoe, Walter Scott and Jane Austen, yet she is remembered more for her romantic attachments. Akkerman’s thorough analysis of Lady Halkett’s work reveals a politically astute woman aware of how to manipulate words to her own advantage.

Women may not have shouted about their involvement but in a world where women and men often existed in largely separate spheres, Akkerman highlights the need for a reinvestigation of the contribution to espionage made by other generations of women. Invisible Agents will grip and astound you from the first page. Treat yourself, this International Women’s Day and be inspired by Akkerman and the women she has brought into the spotlight.

5/5 Stars

Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth Century Britain by Nadine Akkerman

Published by Oxford University Press

Available in paperback from 5 March 2020, RRP £12.99