“A Homeric tale” is how Sonia Purnell describes the life of Virginia Hall, and that sounds about right. Certainly, hers was a story that must have been muttered about on hillsides, in the dark, by warriors, for Hall emerged from a middle-class American background to become one of the greatest figures of World War II: “the Madonna of the Mountains,” a hero who helped liberate France... That whispered-about legend she became during the war years in occupied France deserves to be loudly celebrated now. Sonia Purnell’s excellent biography should help make that happen. 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.
For a France under the German jackboot, the SOE agent Virginia Hall was a vital aid to eventual freedom. Hers is a cracking story of an extraordinarily brave woman.... In France when war broke out, she was co-opted into the fledgling SOE, trained in survival and killing techniques and armed with pills that poisoned, simulated a high fever, caused someone to sleep for a few hours or kept the swallower awake for hours on end. Even so, no one gave this one-legged 35-year-old desk clerk more than a 50-50 chance of surviving even the first few days, with the prospect of a grisly death her ever-present shadow.
How she did so is detailed in Sonia Purnell’s extraordinarily well-researched A Woman of No Importance.
Purnell’s meticulous research into Hall’s life and work has taken her not only through British SOE papers and resistance files in France, but also through nine levels of security at the CIA in Langley. The facts are right, so it is a pity to find a few sweeping statements, such as that Hall ‘alone… changed opinions about women in warfare’, when she was in fact one of several extremely effective female special agents. At the time, as the ironic title of this biography suggests, women were effective partly because they were so often considered to be ‘of no importance’. All too often since, such women are still celebrated for their courage and beauty rather than for their achievements. The great strength of this book is that Purnell has far too much respect for her subject to fall into that trap.
Hall’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, describes her activity as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”. [...] While Purnell’s extensive research brings the facts of Virginia’s life into brilliant focus, her subject’s reticent and self-contained character remains elusive. Perhaps that too is what she would have wanted.
Sonia Purnell’s publisher does her no favours by claiming this is an “untold story”, since Hall looms large in every history of the wartime SOE. It is drivelling to describe her as the Second World War’s “most dangerous spy”, but she nonetheless deserves a biography. The author might have addressed a question that should be asked about all agents: what did “Marie” achieve beyond surviving in occupied France?... It is easy to see why Hollywood is showing interest in Purnell’s account of Hall, an authentic heroine who was also American, disabled and a woman. “Marie” thoroughly deserved her laurels, despite the fact that she adopted a life of risk and adventure mostly, we may assume, because it suited her remarkable and extravagant personality.
Purnell’s account of Hall’s hectic, amphetamine-fuelled exploits never falters. It recalls Caroline Moorehead’s wonderful book, Village of Secrets, about defiance of the Nazis in Vichy France, but has an added touch of Ben Macintyre’s brio...A Woman of No Importance tells a redacted life. The erasures owe as much to Hall’s secretive and mystifying nature as to official censorship so it is a marvel that Purnell, who has previously written biographies of Boris Johnson and Clementine Churchill, has discovered so much. It is a pleasure to read a biography in which the author admires her subject so warmly. This might so easily have been a pernickety, fact-finding book, but instead it is a rousing tale of derring-do. Men, women and tomboys will all enjoy the courage and initiative of Virginia Hall.