Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

This life of SOE agent "Christine Granville" - born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek in Poland in 1908 - took a while to get in to, not least because it's so dense with meticulous research. There is lots on the frustrations and false starts of a life running messages under Nazi noses, on the bureaucracy and "office politics" of rival intelligence factions, and on her tangled love life.

Peppered with good moments, it then really picks up once the firm (as SOE was known to its employees) finally gives Christine something to do, dropping her blind (without help) into France. She's brave, resourceful and charismatic, and it's thrilling to be at her side in the thick of the action. The odds against her and her comrades make these chapters utterly compelling - particularly the Nazi attack on Vercors, and Christine's attempts to rescue comrades when they're arrested and sentenced to death. Later, the Warsaw Uprising is just as deftly conveyed - Christine wasn't there, but we're haunted by the dreadful events just as she was.

We feel Christine's righteous anger when artillery is not dropped to the desperate resistance fighters in Vercors and Warsaw, despite repeated and urgent requests. There's also her justifiable fury at being constantly overlooked - a mix of sexism, xenophobia, Antisemitism and office politics. After the war, despite distinguished service and the support of such figures as Lord Selbourne - who appealed directly to the Home Secretary on her behalf - Christine was still denied British citizenship. In fact, says Mulley,
"it now turned out that Christine's service to Britain was irrelevant, because she was not a man. 'A married woman is disbarred, under the present law, from obtaining naturalisation independently from her husband...' a rubber-stamping official explained. Without evidence of [her husband] Jerzy Gizycki's death or a valid dissolution of his and Christine's marriage, the Home Office simply saw 'no point in considering whether she could be regarded as eligible in other respects'. Over six million Poles had died during the war, there were few official records, and Christine was in any case disbarred from returning to Poland because of her service for the Allies, but her marital status was more important than her war record. It was a low moment for Home Office policymakers."
Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved (2013), p. 289.
She felt the firm had also let her down, failing to find her suitable work after the war. She's a restless woman of action who doesn't fit easily in peacetime, and SOE was itself closed down at the end of the war. Christine didn't exactly help herself - she was spiky and rude, and refused to take on administrative or secretarial duties - but it's hard not to share her anger.
"'I am rather tired, after six years of more or less active service with the firm,' she wrote bitterly, 'of being treated as a helpless little girl.'
Ibid., p. 294.
We follow her efforts to find a place for herself post-war: a spell farming in Kenya; visiting a friend in Germany but too disquieted about being in enemy territory; working on passenger liners. And then too quickly it's over - shockingly, awfully, in July 1952 Christine was murdered by a jilted admirer.

Mulley is also good at picking through the accounts of Christine's life, weighing up their claims. She spells out the case for Christine having inspired Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale - written a few months before Christine's death. It seems quite convincing an idea until Mulley then unpicks it: there's no strong evidence Christine actually ever met Ian Fleming.

An epilogue detailing how Christine's friends tried to protect her reputation after her death is concise and moving. Mulley then offers a note on how she went about collating this story - from an extraordinary range of sources.

But the book then ends on a sour note, with one appendix speculating on why Christine never had or seemed to want children, and then another other giving more detail about her murderer. They're surely appendices because they don't fit with what's gone before, and there's a feeling of prurience, even disrespect to the difficult, brilliant agent who deserved something more.

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