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12 September 2021

Book Review - A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

Feeling accomplished, book one down; admittedly, not in the 10 days I hoped to knock it out in, but I got there in the end. 

I’m sure that most people have heard the name “Virginia Hall” at some point in their life; I was one of those, “Oh yes, Virginia Hall, wasn’t she a spy in WW2?” without really knowing or giving it much more thought. Not because I didn’t care about what she had done, but there were so many other stories of WW2 Heroics to be absorbed that were readily accessible, and if I’m honest, there was not too much out there about Virginia Hall’s exploits.

Fast forward many years to me standing in the bookstore searching for exciting books to take on for the Brothers In Books, 5 IN 50 Read-A-Thon. On an obscure end-shelf display, there she sat, bright red cover, emblazoned white writing “A Woman of No Importance”, and a photograph of a stern-looking lady in the background. Intrigued, I picked it up and read further, “The Untold Story of Virginia Hall, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy”. Here she was again, and still, I really had no idea what she had accomplished. “This looks like a good read,” I thought, flicking to the back to see the final page number - 399 pages – yikes, it’d be a challenge, but I was up for it.

I’m so glad that I did. The book starts us off on 06 April 1906 when Virginia was born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. She was the only daughter of Ned and Barbara Hall, a banker who clearly adored his daughter and supported her in all her endeavours. Barbara was an ambitious homemaker who had expectations that her daughter would marry into a prominent and wealthy family and live a life of privilege. However, from the get-go, it is evident that Virginia was strong-willed and would not be satisfied living a life defined and controlled by anyone other than herself and rebelled against this ideal (much to her mother’s chagrin). 

Virginia championed to go to university and study abroad, where she predominately studied in France, Germany and Austria and became fluent in French, German and Italian. While Virginia studied in France, she set her sights on becoming a US Diplomat and, in 1931, was employed within the US State Department. Her first appointment saw her deployed to Warsaw, Poland as a Consular Clerk, hoping that she could use this experience as leverage in her application to become a US Diplomat. Unfortunately, it seems this dream was not to be. In 1933, during Virginia’s second appointment as a Consular Clerk in Izmir, Turkey, Virginia suffered injuries from a hunting accident that left her amputated below the knee and living with a wooden prosthetic leg she affectionately named “Cuthbert”. While Virginia fully recovered and eventually returned to service (in Venice and Tallinn, Estonia), her many applications to become a Diplomat were declined; even an appeal to Franklin D Roosevelt was unsuccessful. 

It is here in the book that it becomes apparent that inequality and lack of freedom of choice for females in Virginia’s era differed significantly from those we enjoy today. Although she was a hard and diligent worker, who earned the praise of her immediate superiors, she still struggled to be recognised for her efforts and was often deemed to be “headstrong and outspoken”. Nevertheless, Virginia struggled to find her place in the world. She had a calling for a life that would give her adventure and excitement and leave her feeling fulfilled. 

The middle (and bulk) of the book is set in the backdrop of early WW2, in 1939, where Virginia quits her role with the consular service to drive Ambulances for the French as Germany commences its invasion of France. Unfortunately, France was defeated, and Virginia fled to Spain in 1940. She then went onto England, where she again signed up temporarily with the US State Department before joining the British Special Operations Section (SOE). Finally, in 1941, she deployed to Vichy, France, to build the resistance there. 

I would need another 10 pages to summarise all that Virginia achieved between 1941 and November 1943 when she returned to London… However, I can say that her feats (which included setting up networks for the SOE, disrupting the Germans, organising Jail Breaks for agents; oh, and no big deal – climbing the Pyrenees to escape capture, Cuthbert and all!) were not small and without doubt contributed significantly to the success of the resistance and the insertion of allied forces into France. 

Post-1943, the book covers further disappointment for Virginia, who wants to return to France and continue her efforts, but is not granted permission by the SOE. But, again, never to be told no, Virginia offers her services to the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and returns to France in March 1944, where she provides further valuable contributions to the effort (and conveniently meets her husband to be, Paul Goillot (a US Army Officer serving with the OSS) until her resignation in Paris from the OSS in 1945. 

Sonia Purnell divulges that during and after the war, Virginia was nominated and appointed with a multitude of prestigious awards for her courageous efforts, including being made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and the American Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). However, being humble by nature and wanting to continue within the intelligence line of work, Virginia refused to be publicly acknowledged for any of her efforts and did not speak of her operations overseas. Furthermore, while many later wrote books on their experiences in her stream, Virginia declined to do so when offered.

Post WW2, we see how Virginia struggles to return to everyday life and becomes one of the first women to be employed within the Central Intelligence Agency, paving the way for many female intelligence operators after her. Finally, in her final years with Paul, we see how Virginia finds peace in her last years, passing away in 1982 in Maryland. 

How Sonia Purnell has researched, compiled the facts and written this book is brilliant. You feel every high and every low of Virginia’s journey. There are moments where I was gasping from shock and times where I struggled to hold back the tears. I am grateful to have stumbled across this book, and although it is almost 80 years on, grateful to have finally discovered Virginia Hall properly. I am awestruck by the courage she displayed and the sacrifices she made. As a Mum of a 10-year-old girl who marches to her own beat, I will ensure that she learns Virginia’s story, which is the epitome of a life of service. Contrary to the title of this book, she is most certainly a woman of significant importance.

Highly recommend this book, it is well written, and by the time you reach the halfway point, you will not want to put it down. I will note that my initial shock of 399 pages was unfounded as, in reality, there are only 354 pages of actual text, followed by several annexes and a Bibliography.

Enjoy.

Written by : Nyomie Horton