A Woman of No Importance
Interview with Sonia Purnell by Bridget Osborne
A Woman of no Importance is the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who changed the course of World War II, whose story has never been told before. It reads like a thriller: ‘a suspenseful, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant tale of heroism and sacrifice’. (BookPage) and has been very well reviewed.
its author Sonia Purnell has form in producing well researched, beautifully written historical memoirs. Her last book First Lady, on the life of Clementine Churchill, was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent. Her first book, Just Boris, (about Boris Johnson) was longlisted for the Orwell prize. A Woman of no Importance is selling so fast it’s had two reprints in two days and Sonia, who lives in Shepherd’s Bush and has appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival, is currently promoting it on a book tour in the States.
“I’ve always been interested in spies” Sonia told me. “My father was a spycatcher, working in British counter-intelligence, so that world has always interested me”. She stumbled across Virginia Hall researching World War II spies on the internet and wondered why so little had been written about her. Glamorous, American, hugely successful and with the memorable feature of a wooden leg, she couldn’t work out why she Virginia seemed so elusive. She was without question a hero, who played a significant role in altering the course of the war. In 1942, the Gestapo made it a priority to track down the mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France. An urgent Gestapo transmission read: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”
As she dug deeper, Sonia realized that part of the reason Virginia Hall was not more celebrated was because after the war she went on to work for the CIA, so it suited her purpose to remain out of the public eye. But it was also that she didn’t conform to the romantic / tragic heroine stereotype, thinks Sonia. She was too good. “She didn’t conform to the feminine ideal” she says, “I’ve seen internal job appraisals from her former CIA bosses. Men tried to do her down because they saw her as a threat. Even her SOE controller during the war described her as ‘embarrassingly successful’.“
That Sonia should have read her internal CIA appraisals speaks volumes about the meticulous nature of her research. Virginia had “about 20 different code names” she says. She spent three years tracking down the story, spending time in the Resistance archives in Lyon and in Paris and America and getting to know Virginia’s family in Baltimore. She also discovered a historian of prosthetics at the Science Museum. It was an “epic detective operation” she says – “not easy”.
Photographs below – Virginia as a child with brother John and father Ned; Virginia and John as adults; Virginia as a young woman. She grew up on a farm and had an affinity with animals
Virginia became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines, despite the encumbrance of a wooden leg (she’d literally shot herself in the foot in a hunting accident in Turkey at the age of 27, and named her prosthetic limb affectionately ‘Cuthbert’). Working for the SOE – Special Operations Executive – she established vast spy networks throughout France, organized weapons drops and became a linchpin for the Resistance. When the Germans laid a trap and captured almost all the SOE operatives in southern France at one meeting, she didn’t go. She managed to get all 12 out of prison in a spectacular jail break involving classic subterfuge such as hiding files in pots of jam.
Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. Eventually her cover was blown and she escaped by hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain. “She couldn’t reveal she had a wooden leg” says Sonia, even though they were pushing through deep snow. “If they’d known she would have ended up in a ravine because they’d have thought she would slow them up”. Even after she escaped she plunged back in to the war in France, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.
A Woman of no Importance is available from Amazon and in all good bookshops – providing that is they’ve not sold out and are waiting on the next reprint.
Photographs below – ID papers from when she was posted to Tallin in the 1930s; steering a gondola in Venice; painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia transmitting messages from a farm in the Haute-Loire, July 1944; Virginia was the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. She received the medal in Washington, DC on 27 September 1945.
Read about Sonia’s previous books on Clementine Churchill and Boris Johnson here.