Today we have a first at the Renaissance Mathematicus, a book review of two interrelated books that have nothing, or at least very little, to do with the histories of science and mathematics. They, however, both deal with England during the Revolution (Civil War) and Interregnum in the middle of the seventeenth century, so very much home territory for this blog.
The word spy is one that for most people instantly evokes a male figure, for someone of my generation, a man in a dinner jacket with a martini glass in one hand and a Beretta pistol in the other. Very few people would immediately associate the word spy with a woman, although there have been some notable female spies throughout history. Dutch historian of early modern English literature Nadine Akkerman, Reader at Leiden University, stumbled across a female spy during her research into the correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596–1662), who lived out the last forty years of her life in The Hague. Inspired by this discovery Akkerman, who believed that female spies were perhaps not so rare as one might suspect, began to systematically search archives for traces of other women involved in espionage in the seventeenth century. The result of her researches appeared in a book two years ago, Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain.  The paperback, that I’ve been reading, was published just this month.
Akkerman’s book is a truly excellent piece of historical scholarship. Her, apparently tireless, excavations of the archives have turned up a large amount of evidence for the existence and activities of female spies, or as she prefers to call them she-intelligencers, as they were then commonly known, in the three decades of the seventeenth century, 1640s to1660s, in Britain. She has sorted, analysed and interpreted this flood of data to produce a coherent narrative about her she-intelligencers. From the start she explains that there is both too much data and too much of it fragmentary to produce a complete picture of the women involved in espionage in this period so instead she presents the reader with a series of case studies.
The first chapter deals with the mostly aristocratic women who worked as she-intelligencers for Charles I during his imprisonment by the parliamentary forces acting as couriers in the various plots to free the king. These women, on the whole, engaged in these activities out of loyalty to king and country. This is contrasted in the second chapter with accounts of the largely working class women, who sold information to Thurloe the parliamentary spymaster. Here we should note in particular, for later, her account of Diana Stewart, who appears to have supplied information to both sides, a double agent perhaps, or was she simply some sort of early modern con artist?
The third chapter is dedicated to the story of Susan Hyde, the sister of Sir Edward Hyde, a prominent royalist politician, who became 1st Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor under Charles II. Susan Hyde was an active royalist she-intelligencer but has till now remained under the radar and Akkerman is the first to entangle and tell her story, giving it the attention it deserves. The next two chapters deal with Elizabeth Murray, who unlike Susan Hyde is a well-documented historical figure. Here Akkerman displays her analytical talents to the full. In the first chapter she deconstructs the accepted historical narrative about Murray and shows why it is at best dubious and at worst false. In the second chapter she reconstructs Murray’s story using the sources that she has excavated in her research.
Following Murray we have another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Carey, Lady Mordaunt. A she-intelligencer, who together with her husband was involved in espionage during the late phases of the Interregnum. Of particular interest here is Akkerman’s analysis of Carey through her correspondence with the gardener and diarist John Evelyn. Next up, is Anne, Lady Halkett and another deconstruction by Akkerman. This time she deconstructs the interpretations by other literary historians of Halkett’s own extensive written account of her espionage activities. The final figure in the book is probably the most well known female English author of the seventeenth century Aphra Behn, who was also a she-spy, or was she? Another deconstruction job by Akkerman.
Each subject in the book is presented in the full political and social context of her times. Her activities are described in as much detail as the sources allow and we, the readers, are introduced to the full array of early modern espionage activities. The post offices and the post routes the coded letters, the cyphers used, the secret societies, the counter espionage activities of the other side and the fate of those, who were trapped by those counter espionage activities. After having read Akkerman’s book one comes away with a rich knowledge of the activities of the seventeenth century English she-intelligencers.
Akkerman’s book is a masterpiece in the assimilation, ordering and interpretation of archival sources within a given historical area and can be held up as an example of how to do and present historical research. The book bristles with extensive footnotes, no endnotes, and has an equally extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. The index is first class and is followed by an Index Occultus, a key to all the code names used in the original source documents for the historical characters in the book.
As far as I know this is Langman’s first novel but it is not, by a long chalk, his first artistic endeavour. A one time rock guitarist and then music teacher, he has worked as a music journalist, is a cricketer and along the way acquired a doctorate in early modern literature with a thesis about Francis Bacon. On a side note he gently and politely corrects me when I say something stupid about the Viscount St. Alban. Pete Langman also suffers from early-onset Parkinson’s disease and is the author of the highly acclaimed Slender Threads: A young person’s guide to Parkinson’s Disease.
Pete Langman is also Nadine Akkerman’s partner and has borrowed two of the central figures from Invisible Agents, Diana Stewart and Susan Hyde, to weave a semi-fictional tale of espionage in the Interregnum, imaginatively filling out the gaps in Akkerman’s research.
Langman takes his readers on a fascinating journey through the streets, alleyways, drinking holes, apothecaries and seats of espionage of Interregnum London, evoking an authentic picture of life in the capital city in Cromwell’s time. A wide cast of fascinating and captivating characters lead the readers through the twists and turns of a risky espionage coup and the counter espionage moves to prevent that coup from being put into effect. None of the characters is entirely good or entirely bad but each of them is a real human being with all the normal faults and virtues, meaning that one doesn’t end up rooting for one side or the other, or at least I didn’t. There are enough twists and turns in the narrative to delight Agatha Christie fans and things don’t necessarily turn out, as you might have expected during the earlier chapters.
Langman’s voice is the authoritative voice of the seventeenth century historian but is is the voice of the story teller and not the lecturer, the artist and not the teacher. He recreates a visceral and authentic picture of a period of English history when the populous was torn between two philosophies of life and politics and some paid for their beliefs in one or other of those systems with their honour and even their lives.
His book is both an excellent historical novel and an excellent espionage novel that should delight fans of both genres and is also a wonderful companion to Akkerman’s historical presentation of the material. I would recommend both books to anybody interested in seventeenth century Britain, the history of espionage or simply just good writing. According to taste a potential reader can choose one or the other, but if you should choose to read both then I would recommend first reading Langman’s novel and then Akkerman’s historical presentation as the back story.
Disclosure: As should be obvious from various comments in this review, Pete Langman is an Internet friend, known as @elegantfowl on Twitter, with whom I share a mutual interest in the guitar playing of Gary Lucas and the history of seventeenth century science, amongst other things. Unbound is a crowd funding book publisher and when Pete announced on Twitter that he was trying to publish a novel on Unbound I became a subscriber, which is why I came to read Killing Beauties. Having read it, I was intrigued enough to acquire Invisible Agents when it appeared in paperback. Some might therefore not regard me as a neutral reviewer but as I have said in the past in similar circumstances if I didn’t like the book then I wouldn’t have reviewed it.
 Pete Langman, Slender Threads: A young person’s guide to Parkinson’s Disease, Self Published, 2013. On a personal note, Pete said some very sensible and comforting things when I discussed my own problems with coming to terms with my brother’s Parkinson’s with him.