Wirsansky on Purnell, 'A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II'

Sonia Purnell
Danielle Wirsansky

Sonia Purnell. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. New York: Penguin Books, 2020. 352 pp. $16.20 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7352-2531-2

Reviewed by Danielle Wirsansky (Florida State University) Published on H-War (March, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57535

Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II is a biography of Virginia Hall, an American woman who became one of the first female spies to operate in the field for the Special Operations Executive, a British intelligence agency. It gives a highly detailed account of her life and while it is focused on her wartime experience, Purnell takes the time to build up Hall’s account both before and after the war, creating more context for her time as a spy and, notably, connecting her wartime experiences to the events she faced once the war ended.

Though this is not the first biography of Hall to be published, most previous biographies were written for younger audiences rather than academics. However, 2019 was a busy year for Virginia Hall, who not only had Purnell’s biography published, but also Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America's Greatest Spy of WWII, by former CIA agent Craig Gralley, and The Lady Is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance, by scholar Don Mitchell.

There are few texts written about women spies that are not simply biography. But Purnell’s intention with Hall’s biography is not simply to highlight her triumphs and achievements, but to use Hall’s story as a lens to “reveal how one woman really did help turn the tide of history,” and in turn “how women can step out of the construct of conventional femininity to defy all the stereotypes, if only they are given the chance” (pp. 5-6).

Hall’s life is reconstructed through the use of small details. Other accounts mention that Hall lost her leg in an accident and had to use a prosthetic leg. Purnell goes into much further detail, noting how the leather straps of this type of prosthetic would chafe and cause wearers to bleed in the summer months and that, although hollow, the device weighed a whopping eight pounds and seriously affected the gait of any user (p. 17). She does this throughout the text, bringing new life and information to Hall’s story. The use of Hall’s own words is an important and effective strategy for inserting the woman herself into her own story, rather than giving an impression that it is being told by a removed, third-party narrator. Continuing in this vein, the use of primary sources to construct Hall’s experience is well done--Purnell uses new and interesting sources to analyze her life and construct a meaningful framework from which to view Hall’s life.

Purnell applies a feminist lens to Hall’s stories and emphasizes the gender politics of the time, observing, for example, that the Germans never suspected Hall because she was a woman (she notes the Abwehr thought that “whoever this resourceful ‘man’ was, ‘he’ was clearly the lynchpin of Allied intelligence,” p. 90), that Hall was concerned that she was seen as a “mother figure” rather than a leader to her network (p. 94), and that she was undermined by French maquis resistance leaders like Pierre Fayol, who began to call her “sorciere rousse (or redheaded witch)” (p. 240).

Though I am primarily focused here on the military experience of WWII, the final chapters of the book, which focus on her life after the war, were among the most fascinating for me. Much of the postwar experience of spies has not been recorded, and usually only vague details about their life after their service remain. This text spent a lot of time connecting Hall’s WWII experiences to her choices once the war ended and even how her experience as a spy caused others to treat her. This reconstruction is a rare look into not only how Hall shaped the war, but how the war shaped her.

Purnell is a master of context, providing so many small details that Hall’s story feel much more like a novel then a historian’s biography. Hall’s “story” is not simply being retold but instead relived repeatedly by readers. The book is a riveting read for WWII and intelligence history buffs and those historians interested in the intersection of gender and war.

Citation: Danielle Wirsansky. Review of Purnell, Sonia, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57535

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