My favourite agents by Robyn Walker
Even before my book The Women Who Spied for Britain was published, almost everyone with whom I shared the manuscript with would ask me which one of the secret agents was my favourite. The questions continued after the book was published... interviewers and fans alike all seemed to want to know which agent I enjoyed researching and writing about most. It almost seems disrespectful to pick one above the others (I suppose with the exception of Mathilde Carré, whose treachery should make her ultimately unlikeable), since they all put their lives on the line in defense of their country. How do you quantify which one was best, which one was most heroic?
Then I realized that I was not being asked to provide a value judgement, people were simply interested in which secret agent I found most interesting. And after talking to several people who had read my book, I was amazed to discover that when I asked them about THEIR favorite agent in the book, their answers and reasons were both varied and fascinating. People connect with stories and individuals in so many different ways, and I was intrigued by the reasons readers connected with different agents and their missions. This forced me to do a little self-reflection about the subjects of my book, and I was amazed at what I ultimately discovered regarding my own feelings about the women who spied for Britain!
Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine) has a special place in my heart since it was her story that first got me interested in the female secret agents of WW2. I first ‘discovered’ her when I was 10, after watching the miniseries A Man Called Intrepid. I thought her story was incredible and immediately begged my dad to buy me the book. Book in hand I went immediately to the index and proceeded to selectively read all parts of the book that dealt with the intriguing Madeleine. For years (well before the age of the internet) she represented all I really knew about female agents of the Second World War, and her story made thirst for more. Khan truly was my starting point, and because of that I found this chapter quite enjoyable to write.
Odette Sansom was another agent I discovered through A Man Called Intrepid. Sadly, for me, she was simply a one name reference in the index (p. 254), and I learned only that she was a “young mother who left her children in Kensington to wind up in a Gestapo torture chamber”. I had no idea of her last name, let alone what her full story was. The name Odette seemed incredibly fierce and dramatic, and I spent many hours creating my own stories of Odette’s missions. When I finally learned her true story, I have to admit my imaginings weren’t anywhere close to accurate. Still, her chapter was an absolute delight to write. I think, in part, it was because after so many years of imagining her story that I finally found the truth. There’s also a plethora of material available about Odette which made this chapter ‘easier’ to write than some of the others. And finally, I absolutely LOVE the anecdote at the end of the chapter where the thief who stole Odette’s medals returns them via the post. I laugh every time I read his apology!
I loved writing the Diana Rowden chapter. It was by far the most difficult since there has been far less written about her than the other agents. Yet I found writing her chapter incredibly rewarding. As I learned more about her I definitely got the feeling that she and I could have been friends and it really bothered me that her story had been somewhat overlooked. There’s no way to know why this is, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it had something to do with the fact that she lacked the ‘glamour’ or physical appeal of the other agents. Certainly her bravery, contribution to the war effort and her tragic death were all compelling enough to make for interesting reading, so it really puzzled me that her story was not better known. Her chapter became my personal mission and it was incredibly exciting to discover the little facts about her life.
Ahh, Nancy Wake. The whole time I was writing about her I was both in awe and doubled over with laughter. She seemed incredible and fearless and almost, in my opinion, like some sort of super hero. Her story has it all, running away from home, love affairs, secret agent school, narrow escapes, gun battles, attempted assassinations and... a relatively happy ending. If her life story isn’t perfect for a big screen movie I don’t know what is. This chapter was fun, fun, fun from start to finish!
The chapter on Violette Szabo was the very first one I completed. She was so beautiful, it was hard not to be intrigued by her. I had trouble with this chapter in the beginning, since so many of the secondary sources I read offered vastly different accounts of what actually happened to her. My search for the truth led to my interview with Robert Maloubier, who served with Szabo. It was incredible hearing the REAL story from someone who had actually been there. His eyewitness account made the story really come alive, and added a special dimension to this chapter. The Szabo chapter also resulted in my making a new friend, the wonderful author Susan Ottaway, who had written an absolutely fantastic biography of Szabo. This was a chapter of interesting research and new friends!
Was there a chapter I enjoyed least? Yup. Christine Granville. Not that her story isn’t compelling. There’s just so much to it, combined with confusing Polish place names and given names the spelling of which seemed to change with every source I read. This chapter was very challenging, since her career as an agent was so long and she served in so many different locations. Granville’s sad end was also incredibly depressing for me for some reason. The complexity of Granville’s story and the overall feeling of gloom as a result of her murder took away from my overall enjoyment of writing this chapter, yet my mum informs that this was her favourite one to read!
I admit to feeling a sense of guilt when I confess that I liked writing about Mathilde Carré. She really was quite an awful person, and yet there was something about her self-centred awfulness that I really understood. Perhaps knowing that there are people as flawed as she was what made me feel better about my own short comings. Or perhaps I just know enough about myself to understand that if I was faced with the choices she was faced with, I might have done the same thing. So, she was not noble, there will be no plaques commemorating her role in the war, but her story is darn interesting and I really believe there is a little bit of Mathilde in all of us. Just hopefully not too much : )
My favourite of the agents, hands down, was the Sonia Butt chapter! Her story had all of ‘cool’ elements (like Nancy Wake’s), her family was incredibly generous in sharing their memories and photographs, she had a Canadian connection (cool for me) AND she had the glamour factor. All of these are compelling reasons for me to have loved this chapter best but... the real reason is, Sonia was exactly who I would have wanted to be! I connected with her on a deep level, and I have convinced myself, that had I lived during WW2 I would have been just like Sonia. I saw so much of myself in Sonia that every minute of writing her story was like living it myself. I’ve had to update my book to include Sonia’s death, this past Christmas, and it left such a strange and hollow feeling inside me. It was like saying good bye to an old friend.
Robyn Walkers paperback edition of The Women Who Spied for Britain is available for purchase now.