Sonia Purnell on "A Woman of No Importance"

Erin Kodicek on April 15, 2019
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Purnell.JPGWith just the right mix of historical detail and spycraft, Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance is the fascinating story of Virginia Hall, a socialite who, despite her prosthetic leg, became one of the Allied forces most feared secret agents.    

Virginia Hall is one of the greatest spies in American history, but her story has never been fully told until now. How did you first learn about Virginia, and what drew you to her as a subject?

The Second World War is a period of history that has always drawn me in, perhaps because my late father fought in the war and so, unusually for someone of my age, I have a direct personal connection. He was always reluctant to speak of what he did—although his heroism is mentioned in books and various accounts—but I knew from my mother and his old comrades that only a tiny part of his story was ever told beyond the small group of soldiers who witnessed it. This seems to be a constant theme with those who really did make a difference, and so when I stumbled across Virginia, I had a feeling that here too, there was more than met the eye. Here was a young American woman who, in a time when women were often relegated to the sidelines, managed to go behind enemy lines in occupied France and help lead the Allied resistance. Virginia was always reticent to speak of her accomplishments, so there was much mystery surrounding her… and my hunch that there was more to her story proved correct a hundredfold.

One of the first things I learned about Virginia was her disability. When she was twenty-seven, she tragically lost her left leg after a hunting accident in Turkey—but didn’t let this setback stop her from going on to change history. While deciding whether to write the book, I took my teenage sons to see Mad Max: Fury Road and was immediately gripped by the female hero, played by Charlize Theron, who has lost her forearm. It was almost as if she was a fictional, futuristic Virginia. Well, I had to go ahead then!

By design, the work of spies is not always documented or shared publicly, for their own safety and for the success of their missions. Can you talk about your research process for the book and how you were able to connect the dots of Virginia’s life? Where did you meet challenges, incomplete records, etc.?  

Tracking Virginia’s story required a lot of detective work over three years with barely a day off – so many files, papers, documents have been lost, destroyed, or misfiled. She operated under so many different codenames that people hadn’t really pulled together all the strands of her operations before. There is no shortcut. Dates and places and people have to be matched up until you have the full picture. This is laborious, but also constantly enticing, as you piece together the jigsaw puzzle. The nature of her work and the chaos of war means that many accounts, memoirs, reports are contradictory in places and, as the author, I had to decide which were most likely to be accurate. Occasionally that was not possible—and I’ve pointed out those times in the text, along with my belief in what is the most likely truth—but biography and history often involves that process.

My great good fortune is that one of Virginia’s comrades in the Resistance, Pierre Fayol, had done a huge amount of research on her in the decades after the war when people were still alive, memories were fresh, and documents that have since been lost were still available. Without Fayol’s incomparable yet bizarrely overlooked collection on a dusty trolley in Lyon—opened to me very kindly by the Resistance museum there—my job would have been even more difficult, perhaps impossible. Virginia’s full story might have been lost to us forever.

Like many women, Virginia was constantly overlooked or underestimated because of her gender—even after she had proven her worth in the field time and again. How do you think that affected her personality and her career trajectory? What do you think has (or hasn’t) changed about women in the workplace, in warfare, and in the world, since Virginia’s time?

Virginia had always loved adventure, but after losing her leg and her chances of a Diplomatic Service career, she took that love to a new level. In the process, she showed an astonished male establishment—on both sides of the Atlantic—just what women could do in warfare. The topic of women in combat is still controversial today, but nearly eighty years ago Virginia was commanding men behind enemy lines with daring and aplomb. She virtually single-handedly kept Allied intelligence alive in France when most of her colleagues had been captured, and helped to form the nucleus of the secret armies that later went on to help liberate France. She directed, trained and armed guerrilla units who, without professional military help, freed whole swaths of France. She pioneered the sort of clandestine special forces cells that even today inform how our intelligence agencies operate overseas.

The CIA now publicly acknowledges Virginia’s heroism, but for a long time, her achievements remained largely unknown and uncelebrated. Gina Haspel, the new, and first female director of the CIA has spoken about how her promotion to the top job was possible only by the breaking down of barriers by pioneering women of the OSS and CIA. This is widely understood to include Virginia, and perhaps her most of all.

Virginia was twenty-seven-years old when she lost her left leg to gangrene. How did she cope in the aftermath of her accident, and how do you think her disability—and the discrimination she faced because of it—shaped her life?

One of my great interests is motivation – why did Virginia take insane gambles with her own life for the sake of another country? Why did she run towards the guns, the horror, the terror when others were running away? What gave her the idea that she might survive when others too quickly succumbed to the Nazi death machine? I believe that the tragedy of losing her leg perhaps answers all these questions. She was a perfectionist, the hardest of taskmasters with herself, to show that she was capable of greatness even in spite of her greatest mistake in accidentally shooting herself in the foot. She was driven to prove her worth, to triumph despite all the cruel rejections she had faced, to make a difference when most thought it impossible. The fact that she was a disabled woman made her mission even more difficult, but also intensified her iron will to succeed.

Virginia also became intolerant of fools, or the lazy or weak, and her temper could be explosive. For her, though, the war was her salvation. The desperate need for someone willing and able to go into Vichy France in 1941 to help fan the flames of Resistance meant that her gender, her disability, and her lack of training or experience had to be ignored. Britain’s urgency was her breakthrough. War was her liberation. And peacetime became, in some ways, her prison.

During World War II, Virginia helped to pioneer a new kind of warfare, dedicated to sabotage, subversion, and guerilla tactics. What did this kind of work look like, and how it was so different from the kind of spycraft that had come before? In what ways did Virginia’s tactics have a lasting impact on espionage in general?

America had no great spying tradition; indeed in 1929 War Secretary Henry Stimson had summed up the national distaste for espionage with the pronouncement that ‘gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.’ Britain’s MI6 was an old hand – but its spies were traditionally posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, trained to observe and report but not otherwise get involved. They were scarcely a match for the depraved barbarity of the Third Reich and their supporters in Vichy France. One espionage historian has explained the difference: if MI6 saw enemy troops cross a bridge it would keep a safe distance, calculate the numbers, and report back to base. Virginia and the other SOE operatives would have simply blown up the bridge. It was this combination of intelligence, subversion, and missions such as sabotage and ambush that was pioneering and which set the stage for special forces operations for many decades to come.

Initially, though, Virginia’s job was to recruit secret cells of disciplined men and women prepared to put their lives on the line to spy, to courier messages and arms, and—only when the right time came—to fight for their lives and their country. In this, as in so much else, she was described by her commanders as ‘almost embarrassingly successful.’ No one had ever really done this before in a foreign country; she had to make up the rules as she went along. If she got it wrong, though, she would pay with her life.

Your last book, Clementine, was also a biography of an important, but often forgotten, heroine of World War II: Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston. Do you see any similarities between Clementine and Virginia?

Sheer grit, perfectionism, focus, selflessness, courage and the desperate, all-consuming need to prove their worth, to justify their existence. But also a disdain for the limelight – which is one major reason why their full stories had never before been told. Another reason is that the extraordinary role of certain women in WWII has hitherto not fitted into the traditional narrative of heroism. Women largely shrank back into domestic roles once the fighting had finished and what they had done during those extraordinary years of 1939-1945 was rarely talked about. I aim to change that!

Before the U.S. even entered the war, Virginia became the first female agent deployed to occupied France. In your words, “She had seen the realities of fascism with her own eyes, and her country’s isolationism did not preclude her form entering the fight on her own account.” What more can you tell us about what Virginia believed in, and what her life teaches us about the important of fighting tyranny?

Virginia had a ringside seat in Europe for the advent of fascism. She arrived in Paris during the Années Folles of the 1920s, soaking up the new emancipation for women and the flowering of literature, music, and art. It was a joyous intellectual and social awakening for her that gave her vistas well beyond what she’d been raised on back home in Baltimore. She was able to see beyond the concept of marriage entirely defining a woman’s life and to make friends and connections across borders and around the world. But this awakening was clouded by the European forces of fascism massing on the horizon – in Germany, Italy, Austria, and later elsewhere. Virginia saw what was happening with her own eyes, and the media manipulation, sloganeering, and constant distortion of the truth that went with it. Yet to her horror, the mounting hatred, racism, and lies that came with the march of the far-right – and in some cases the far-left - was largely met with apathy or incomprehension. Therein started her desire to alert the world to the dangers, and then give her life to fighting them. What alarms me is that much of what she fought for so valiantly is under threat once again today.

The book is full of daring missions and wartime drama, but there are also many small moments that speak to Virginia’s nature: doggedly persistent, often no-nonsense, but charming, warm, and genuine. Do you have a favorite Virginia story that you uncovered while working on the book?

There’s something unexpectedly tender about her love of a cup of tea – a fondness SOE did their best to satisfy by specially packing little packets of tea for her, in with all the guns and explosives dropped into the battlefields by parachute. But how can I not mention the fact that in the most unlikely and grueling circumstances, and after years of being alone, she eventually found love with her husband Paul Goillot. Shorter, younger, more junior than her, he covered her back from her enemies but also made her laugh. He lightened her life and after the war made it worth living. That thought, I confess, after everything she had been through, catches my throat every time.

You write that Virginia “operated in the shadows, and that was where she was happiest.” What are the challenges of unveiling the life of someone like her—whose work was secrecy and subterfuge, and who never sought recognition or praise for her service? How do you think Virginia would feel about A Woman of No Importance?

There’s a story in the book that I think exemplifies Virginia’s attitude toward receiving acclaim for her work. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General “Wild Bill” Donovan, and was the only civilian woman to receive this distinction in World War II. President Truman wanted a public ceremony in the Oval Office, but Virginia objected, saying she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.” This is typical Virginia: not interested in wasting time on what she saw as mere baubles when there was more work to be done.

But women have been too reticent for too long about their contribution to world events. So though it was difficult to uncover the details of Virginia’s life and of her missions, due especially to the kind of work she did and to her lack of interest in singing her own praises, it was worth it to tell her amazing story. Obviously, I hope she would love the book! It is an attempt not to glorify or romanticize what she did, but to tell it straight: the mistakes she made, but also her incredible successes.

Virginia is an inspiring figure, full of grit, courage, and intelligence. What about Virginia’s life and work most inspires you, and what do you think readers today can learn from her?

Like Churchill, Virginia never, ever gave up – but even in the toughest conditions imaginable, she never lost her humanity or compassion. I know that in my own life I now often look to her for inspiration when times are hard and I would like to think that others will soon be able to do the same. She sets for us all an example of courage, fortitude, and the understanding that we should all try to play our part to the very best of our abilities.

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