‘The history of Winston Churchill, and the history of the world, would have been very different without Clementine Churchill,’ declared Churchill’s chief-of-staff, General Ismay Hastings, after the war. That sums up this shy but formidable woman’s contribution to victory against fascism in 1945 and yet she has largely remained in the shadow of her husband and was shamefully overlooked for eighty years.
Emma of Normandy
You have probably never heard of her but she was crowned queen twice, married two kings – Ethelred the Unready and Canute – and give birth to two more (Edward the Confessor and Hardecanute). Emma was no mere wife and mother but a force of nature who combined the three dominant cultures of the early Middle Ages and in historical importance rivals Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.
A ‘burning brunette’ of ‘great sexual magnetism’, Germaine was a young brothel madam in Vichy France who became a pillar of the French Resistance and one of Virginia Hall’s most heroic lieutenants. By the time she was eventually caught and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she had sheltered dozens of agents and Allied escapees, and gleaned valuable intelligence from her German clients. She was left virtually destitute after the war and disappeared into obscurity.
A towering figure in France, but little-known here, Simone Veil was a Jewish girl of just sixteen when she was arrested by German troops and sent to Auschwitz. She survived but lost both parents in the Holocaust, a tragedy that led to a life-long belief in European unity and cooperation. After the war she championed women’s rights including the legalisation of abortion and became the first elected president of the European Parliament. Her humanity, dignity and courage set her apart to the end.
Arguably the most important woman the Labour party has ever produced, Barbara was perhaps the nearest we got to a female prime minister before Margaret Thatcher came along. Although clever, inventive and single-minded, she never got that far and is now rarely mentioned, but she was one of those rare British politicians who notably changed our lives for the better by introducing the breathalyser, seatbelt, child benefit and equal pay.
Discover another unsung heroine: Virginia Hall, in Sonia Purnell’s new novel, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Virginia Hall.
In 1942, the Gestapo would stop at nothing to track down a mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France. The Nazi chiefs issued a simple but urgent command: ‘She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.’
The Gestapo’s target was Virginia Hall, a glamorous American with a wooden leg who broke through the barriers against her gender and disability to be the first woman to infiltrate Vichy France for the SOE. In so doing she helped turn the course of the intelligence war.
This is the epic tale of an heiress who determined that a hunting accident would not define her existence; a young woman who gambled her life to fight for the freedoms she believed in; an espionage novice who helped to light the flame of French Resistance.
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 by Sonia Purnell is out now.