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In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."
The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill's "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and—despite her prosthetic leg—helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it.
Virginia established vast spy networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the skies, and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.
Based on new and extensive research, Sonia Purnell has for the first time uncovered the full secret life of Virginia Hall—an astounding and inspiring story of heroism, spycraft, resistance, and personal triumph over shocking adversity. A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war.
BORN: (big mystery!)
EDUCATION: Graduated from Sussex University with a degree in Law and Language
o (2012) Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity
Longlisted for the Orwell Prize
o (2015) Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill
Book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent
o (2019) A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War 11 (Wrote both the book and screenplay for movie which is currently in production with Daisy Ridley playing Virginia Hall)
2020 Winner of Plutarch Award for Best Biography of 2019
NPR Book of the Year
PERSONAL: Married with 2 sons; lives in West End of London
1. At the young age of twenty-seven, Virginia lost a leg to gangrene after a devastating hunting accident. She somehow found the resilience to not only survive but thrive, both for herself and for her beloved France. She mentions that she had a spiritual experience on her sickbed, seeing a vision of her father that told her she must survive, she must go on.
How do you feel this experience shaped the rest of her life and her adventures? What drives you to keep going in the face of hardships, great and small?
2. During the war, Virginia was often a rebellious figure, known not only for her courage but often for her disregard of directives, accurately believing herself capable of playing a larger role than she was given. Still, in her personal life, rather than cause a possible family upset, she hid her continuing relationship with Paul from her mother for many years.
What did you think of her decision to do so? What does it tell us about the Virginia hidden behind all her many disguises and bravery?
3. Virginia was wise, discerning, and perceptive beyond belief—her life depended on deciding whom to trust and how much. Against all odds, it seems she always made the right choice—except for Alesch. Given the skepticism that others around her had about him, why do you think she trusted him as she did?
4. Virginia had to put on many personas during the war, from the journalist she played during her first foray into France to the elderly peasant woman she pretended to be when she returned. She played all her roles with finesse and, apparently, very convincingly. . It's almost as if Hall had a sixth sense, which repeatedly kept her out of the Nazis' clutches. Talk about her use of disguises, her ability to build trust across borders, her sudden appearances and just as sudden disappearances. What are some of the close calls in which she escaped capture? Do some episodes stand out more than others—in terms as being more daring, more thrilling, or more anxiety-drenching?
Do you think her ability to commit to character was innate or a carefully acquired skill? What do you think are the key characteristics of a spy?
5. Discuss the many other individuals involved in the resistance network, those doing extraordinary work. Consider, for instance, Germaine Guerin. Or perhaps the woman who simply asks for three aspirins at a cafe.
6. Virginia Hall was a very private person. If you could meet Virginia, what is the foremost question you’d want to ask her?