Tag Archives: liberated women

The Spy Who Loved, Clare Mulley

The paperback of this historical biography looks just about as substantial as a copy of Ulysses sitting on the shelf, but at 350 pages it is roughly half as long; is it printed on heavier-than-typical stock perhaps?   Or just buttressed by two Appendices, over thirty pages of attributive notes, a dozen of bibliography, and other supporting material.  Not that the story isn’t substantial, as we follow Christine Granville (nee: Krystyna Janina Skarbek) through the twists, turns, detours and (literal) dead-ends of WWII espionage in a depth of detail which is quite astounding, given that the crucial years of her life were lived in wartime, in secret and under varying names and legends.

Daughter of a dying aristocracy and a nation about to enter the two-stage coma of Nazism and Communism, Christine found purpose and a home of sorts among the secret service and, even more, the partisans, guerillas and Maquis of occupied Europe. For years she dared and dodged, evaded and enabled in ways that clearly contributed to the war effort. That she survived it all is little short of astonishing. When the war ended, however, and the British establishment decided it no longer required her services, she found herself adrift in many ways.  Despite the assistance and loyalty of many comrades, especially those also of Polish origin, she was still struggling to find a place in peacetime when a bit player – a merchant seaman with whom she had struck up a friendship of uncertain intimacy, then left – murdered her in an act of jealous impotence. 

Mulley does a fine job documenting all of this, and has clearly done an enormous effort in the research collating and checking departments.  More than that though, she has depicted the impact of the war from an original viewpoint, with special attention Britain’s taking advantage of Polish patriotism before abruptly abandoning their cause in order to appease Stalin – so he would assist the allies in correcting the damage caused by their earlier appeasement of Hitler…

Nor does the author ignore feminist elements of this story – the unusual degree to which Christine’s father treated her as equal or superior to her older brother, the many ways in which men in authority used her skills and then plied her for her favors, the independent and forward-looking manner in which she withheld or dispensed those favors for her own ends. And her own enjoyment. The tragic way in which what worked in wartime with principled and selfless patriots may have contributed to her death in a peacetime setting peopled by men with far fewer values or scruples. 

A bit slow to start, this slippery-slide through WWII gathers speed, tension and impact right up to its end, the final evening of Skarbec’s life, and more than retains interest through a brief but critical epilogue, where we see how several of the same men who competed for her love and endured disappointment when their efforts were not requited, formed an alliance to protect her memory from the worst tabloid exploitation and prudish disparagement.  That she engendered such loyalty is one more testament to the unique qualities of an extraordinary woman.  Brava.

Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

This third-novel, released ten years before the modern-day drama Room brought the author to a wider audience, is an historical romance written from a modern feminist understanding.  Donoghue allows the reader to believe for a time that young Mary Saunders may find a way out of the bindings of class, gender and culture, but then, as surely as forces of nature, those strictures of man close in, allowing her fewer and fewer options as time marches on.  A modern reader may imagine she could have chosen differently, but the character is so well and fully drawn, so grounded in her time and place, that the ending ultimately feels inevitable, regardless how much we may wish it otherwise.

Scenes of Mary’s early days on the streets have a liberated joy to them; it is unclear how fully  the author believes such joy and value could truly exist there, or is only reporting her character’s illusions, but either way, they offer a powerful contrast to the sense of grinding obligation which rules the rest of the story.

An alternate-reality Jane Austen perhaps; more true to the lives of a wider sampling of 18th century women than are the troubles of Austen’s well-to-do stratum.  That it becomes, toward the end, a tragic exercise is only another way of saying it feels true to its times.

With over a dozen novels published to date, plus five story collections and numerous other stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction, Donoghue is an impressive force in offering alternatives to the limited ways in which women have been allowed to appear throughout too much of fiction and history.  One whose other works this reader will definitely be seeking out in future.