The never-before-told story of one woman’s heroism that changed the course of the Second World War
This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman–rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg–who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill’s “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.
Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the “Madonna of the Resistance,” coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had “more lives to save,” she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell’s signature insight and novelistic flair, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war.
This book is an exceptional read even if parts of it are a little dense and hard going. I would also recommend the reader take advantage of the character chart at the beginning of the book to keep track of the French and German characters and their cover names which are interwoven throughout history. It was interesting to learn that the author learned about Virginia Hall from her research for her previous book, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill (2015).
Virginia Hall was an American resistance fighter in France during WW II. After reading her non-fiction biography, I kept thinking that this story would make a fabulous movie so, it was rewarding to learn that this book has already been optioned by Paramount Pictures.
Ironically, I also learned that another historical drama movie called “A Call to Spy” was released in 2019 at the Edinburgh Film Festival which details the history of three women (including Virginia Hall) that worked in Churchill’s secret service. “A Call to Spy” is currently available on digital platforms including Netflix.
2020 marked the 75th Anniversary of World War II so recently there have been many books published reviving this history. Given the significance of this biography about the first female CIA operative, I was surprised that I had not heard of Virginia Hall. The author Sonia Purnell appeared to do extensive and in-depth research, citing several detailed interviews with as many living resistance relatives as possible and quoting several newly released secret documents (British, French, American) which were specifically “opened for this book”.
Any of the historical topics presented would make for an excellent book club discussion. Such themes include:
- the history of the French resistance fighters
- the forerunners of the CIA, (Central Intelligence Group) was the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) SOE (Special Operations Executive) became MI6(British Intelligence Services)
- the German occupation of France and the extreme famine and harsh conditions faced by French citizens
- the importance and dangers of Radio operators during the Second World War
- the brutal treatment of the “filles de joie” at the end of the war especially given that many of these women passed along important and unattainable information to the resistance
- gender equity throughout military service
For anyone who would like a more dramatic read about the same topic, the historical fiction entitled The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck has recently been published (2021)