Criticism & Features

Year 2019: 30 Books

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell: 2019 Biography finalist

By Mary Ann Gwinn

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (Viking)

Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II elevates the jacket copy phrase “gripping narrative” to a whole new level, as Purnell tells the true story of woman warrior Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who took enormous risks in the service of helping the French Resistance during World War II.

By virtue of her moneyed upbringing, Hall learned early on some skills that would come in handy in a war: to “ride a horse, sail a boat, shoot, scale mountains, ski or cycle.” She longed to serve her country, but after being shut out of the American diplomatic corps, by the 1930s the best she could achieve was a clerical posting at the State Department. After she shot herself in the foot (literally) in a hunting accident in Turkey and lost her leg below the knee, it appeared she would never achieve a position of any consequence.

Well, no. As World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded France, Hall took up driving ambulances there, despite her reliance on a new prosthesis she called “Cuthbert”). Then she talked her way into the Special Operations Executive, Winston Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” a band of Brits devoted to waging guerilla war against the Nazis. The British, impressed with her knowledge of French terrain, ease with the French language and sheer courage, smuggled her back into France. She ran enormous spy networks, supervised air drops of weapons and explosives and risked her life on a daily basis. After D-Day, she coordinated sabotage operations as the Allies fought their way through France. Along the way, she lost a heartbreaking number of friends, both men and women, to the Nazis and the odious police of Vichy France – of the 39 women the SOE sent into France, one in three never came home (131), and those captured endured horrifying torture and eventual execution.

There’s enough danger, suspense and tragedy in Hall’s story for a dozen spy novels. The obstacles and dangers she faced ranged from the rank misogyny of many French Resistance leaders to the determination of Nazi Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Leon,” to capture and make an example of the woman known as the most wanted Allied agent in France. There’s romance, atmosphere and even humor – cabling her British handlers about her escape from France over the Pyrenees, Hall wrote of her excruciating artificial leg that “Cuthbert is being tiresome, but I can cope.”

Why this story isn’t better known is a mystery – one reason is that Hall chose to remain anonymous, accepting her many awards for valor only in secret (she does have a building at the CIA, where she worked after the war, named after her). Purnell has told the story of an astonishing woman of bottomless courage, and has brought her story to a world sorely in need of heroes. Wrote Mick Herron in the New York Times: “If Virginia Hall herself remains something of an enigma — a testament, perhaps, to the skills that allowed her to live in the shadows for so long — the extraordinary facts of her life are brought onto the page here with a well-judged balance of empathy and fine detail. This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down.”

— Mary Ann Gwinn