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Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman

The Eavesdropper by Nicolaes Maes, c1655

In the first series of HISTORY's Not What You Thought You Knew podcast, Dr Fern Riddell was joined by Dr Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English Literature at Leiden University to discuss the life of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright, poet and fiction writer and spy.

Akkerman's new book Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain, tackles the hidden world of female espionage in the 17th century telling the story of spies like Behn and her contemporaries. The book, the very first study to analyse the role of early modern women spies is a compelling and ground-breaking contribution to the history of espionage. Invisible Agents 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.

In writing Invisible Agents, Akkerman has set out to challenge misconceptions that have led to women being written out of the history of espionage, hence the title, Invisible Agents. Akkerman has immersed herself in archives, libraries, and private collections, transcribing hundreds of letters, breaking cypher codes and their keys, studying invisible inks, and interpreting riddles, acting as a modern-day spymistress to unearth plots and conspiracies that have long remained hidden by history.

It is by going back to the archives and taking a fresh look at sources that have been overlooked or misconstrued that Akkerman makes some of her most fascinating discoveries. Her chapter on Aphra Behn uncovers a genuine revelation about Britain’s first professional female writer, that shines a whole new light on Behn's writing career.

Behn (codename Astrea) was recruited as a political spy on behalf of Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665. Her mission was to recruit a double agent, based in Antwerp, to feed intelligence back to the court about the goings-on of English exiles in the city who were plotting against Charles II.

Her success as a spy never matched her later success as a writer and though providing some interesting biographical detail, Behn scholars tend to overlook her time in Antwerp, as it predates her writing career. However, what Akkerman shows in Invisible Agents, is that her spying career was the genesis of her writing career, rather than just an interesting preamble.

Going back to the archives, Akkerman notes out that copies of Behn's Antwerp correspondence were faithfully transcribed by W.J Cameron in 1961. Since then it is this printed text that scholars have referred to, to glean details on Behn's Antwerp life. However, by ignoring the source material, scholars may have missed an incredible clue, only obvious when you look at the original letters and their original handwriting. 

As Akkerman explains in chapter 9, 'All except one of the documents is in Behn’s own hand. It is possible - indeed, in sifting through all the evidence, it appears highly likely- that in order to earn a living as a spy she fabricated answers to letters she neither sent nor received’. As such, the documents she wrote in Antwerp ‘are not the work of a female spy but rather a writer of fiction’. This is a denouement worthy of a spy thriller when the spy's true identity and their deception are finally revealed, even after 355 years.

This fascinating and forensically-researched account brings the political intrigue and power games of the 17th century to life while offering an important corrective to the gender bias of modern historiography, that has resulted in many of these women and their important contributions being forgotten.

You can listen to Dr Nadine Akkerman discuss her work in Not What You Thought You Knew

Invisible Agents is available to buy in all good book shops.