A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)
An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer but a worthy addition to the list.
Hall’s wartime service is described by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”, her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale – or any other scale much. Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.
Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way. Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34) travelled to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver. Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines – and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.
In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be. Purnell explains:
“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence. Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”
Virginia Hall, however, was.
Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.
Reporter for a US newspaper was the alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie. This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to travel to Perpignan and cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral. This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:
“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”
was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival, along with an unfriendly guide and two other men, even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.
Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description, even though she limped and had a prosthesis. Even thought they put her on their most wanted list. She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.
The book is hugely readable and fascinating. But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady. Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader. If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story. Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.