A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE by Sonia Purnell is billed as the never-before-told story of the American spy who changed the course of World War 2. You might imagine a James-bond like figure at the center of this true life story, but Virginia Hall was one of the first women to be recruited by the British Special Operations Executive to run a resistance campaign against the Nazi’s in occupied France during World War II. This is remarkable for several reasons, one being that she was a woman during a period of time when women’s work was relegated to the kitchen and the home and two, she had lost the lower part of her leg in a hunting accident and wore a prosthesis.
Virginia hailed from a once wealthy Baltimore family and her mother wanted nothing more for her than for her to marry well to buoy the family fortune. She attended Radcliff and Barnard, and finished her education in Europe where she traveled and became proficient in several languages. She wanted to serve in the foreign service, but time and again she was relegated to the secretarial pool.
Rebellious by nature, Virginia eschewed convention. As a young woman, she hunted, skinned her own game, rode horses bareback and once wore a bracelet of live snakes to school. The life of a spy suited her and she became one of the most important SOE officers, the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. It was a rough go at the beginning, with male agents pushing back against her authority, but soon she was running five companies of 400 spies, coordinating munitions drops, training agents in subterfuge, and constantly changing her appearance and her location to avoid arrest, certain torture, and death. The Gestapo considered her the most dangerous of all the Allied spies.
Purnell meticulously researched the book, scouring archives for long lost documents, reading correspondence, and interviewing Virginia’s niece. The narrative is dense, full of timelines, facts, and the names and code names of Virginia’s operatives who were often, to her great frustration, ill-suited to the work and reckless, putting herself and others at great risk. The book reads like an adventure story, and Virginia’s winning personality, charm, ability to change her appearance – and most of all her complete fearlessness – left an indelible mark on the course of history. Following the war, Virginia was one of the first females hired by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency.
I highly recommend A Woman of No Importance for fans of World War II literature. You might also watch for Erika Robuck’s forthcoming novel, The Invisible Woman, a fictionalized account of Virginia Hall’s life due out in February.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.