Book review: The Spy who Loved – The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley

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(Pan) paperback £7.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

In the years following World War II the name of Christine Granville has been eclipsed in the popular imagination by those of her fellow Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents Odette Sansom Hallowes and Violette Szabo. Due in no small part to the highly successful films, Odette (1950), starring Anna Neagle in the title role, and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), starring Virginia McKenna as Szabo, and the best-selling books on which they were based by Jerrard Tickell and R.J. Minney.

This would in all probability have been very different had the plans of Granville’s close friend and former SOE colleague, W. Stanley Moss, to write both a biography and a screenplay for a biopic of her come to fruition. Ill Met by Moonlight, Moss’s memoir of his own SOE years published in 1950 was a best-seller and was followed in 1957 by Powell and Pressburger’s very popular film adaptation of the book. For Moss’s proposed film about Granville, Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s actress daughter, was already slated to play the lead role and apparently gave her reason for choosing the part as being that, “Christine was her father’s favourite spy” (although as Clare Mulley explores in The Spy who Loved this is an anecdote which is not possible to conclusively verify).

Similarly ultimately unverifiable but equally enticing is the suggestion that Ian Fleming and Granville were lovers and that he based the character of Vesper Lynd on her in the first of his James Bond novels, Casino Royale (1953), and thus perhaps over the years there have been silver screen representations of her, in the form of Ursula Andress in 1967 and Eva Green in the 2006 film, though the latter actress is far closer in looks to both the real Granville and how Lynd is depicted in the book (after writing which I then discovered that Eva Green has been linked to the role of Granville in the biopic that Polish film director and screenwriter, Agnieszka Holland, is said to be working on, Christine: War My Love). As Mulley writes, “a dark and enigmatic European agent, perpetually caught between sunbathing and action” and who Fleming characterises as being a fluent French speaker, who is in love with a Pole, and combines being “full of consideration without compromising her arrogant spirit” and whose raison d’être is “doing everything fully, getting the most out of everything one does”.

Lines which do serve very well to encapsulate the real Granville, although through her research Mulley believes that it far more likely that Fleming was inspired by stories he read of Granville rather than the woman in person. The title of Mulley’s biography of Granville playfully alludes to the ninth book in Fleming’s Bond series (The Spy who Loved Me), but as her story unfolds through its pages one quickly discovers that it would it would be far more fitting to find that she was an inspiration behind the character of Bond himself than a Bond-girl. One also discovers through Mulley’s excellent telling of Granville’s real-life story that it is far more compelling, extraordinary and larger than life than any fiction could dare to be.

Christine Granville

Krystyna Skarbek / Christine Granville

Purely by stating the facts pertaining to the beginning and end of her life, that she was born Countess Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908, to a Catholic scion of one of Poland’s oldest families and a Jewish, banking heiress mother, and that when she died in 1952, murdered by an obsessed former lover in an hotel in London, she was a British citizen called Christine Granville and holder of the George Medal, an OBE, and the Croix de Guerre, one would know that a fascinating and ultimately tragic story had unfolded between those two points.

Her restless desire for action and adventure, her abilities with outdoor pursuits and her love of nature, her bravery her beauty, and later her love of sex, were threads that developed through her childhood and early life which retrospectively appear as though they were all in preparation for the role she played in World War II. Her father inspired her love of the outdoors, teaching her to ride almost before she could walk, to hold a gun, to use a knife, and also passed on his innate connection with dogs and horses. From her mother, a noted beauty, she certainly inherited her looks; at the age of 21 Granville was shortlisted in the Miss Polonia beauty contest and was declared “a national star of beauty”.

But it could also be said that her resilience and fearlessness in the most desperate and dangerous situations came from her mother; despite the best efforts of her daughter to persuade her otherwise, her mother stayed in Warsaw after the Nazi invasion, living outside the ghetto and teaching in a clandestine school, for both of which she could be executed on the spot, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious Pawiak prison where she is believed to have died.

In her twenties in the 1930s, frustrated by life with her first husband Granville became an expert skier spending a lot of time at the ski resort of Zakopane at the foothills of the Tatra Mountains on the Polish/Hungarian border, where, as Mulley writes, she “satisfied her need for excitement by dodging border patrols to smuggle cigarettes across the frontier into Poland”. This now appears a strangely prescient dress rehearsal. Because a few years later when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, by which stage she had married for a second time and was in Africa with her husband, she hurried to London and offered her services to the British SIS (MI6) who duly accepted her offer, and sent her to Hungary. From where she ran many missions skiing across the treacherous mountain ranges into Poland to lead British airmen to safety and also to compile and carry intelligence reports.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming – it has been suggested that Fleming based the character of Vesper Lynd on Christine Granville

As a female agent working in the field for British intelligence from the outbreak of war she was very much a pioneer. Indeed it wasn’t until two years later that SOE, as Mulley writes, “was officially given the green light to recruit women for operational duties”. So Granville was very much a forerunner, paving the way for agents such as Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo.

Through six years of war Granville’s missions, adventures, and exploits, are as manifold as they are thrilling and fascinating to read about. From the challenging and treacherous mountains, to escaping Budapest in the boot of the British Legation’s official car, smuggling microfilm in her gloves, to mesmerising vicious guard dogs trained to kill to not only not give her and comrades away but also on one occasion to convince a Nazi Alsatian to swap sides permanently! From driving with her childhood friend, lover, and fellow SOE agent and Pole, Andrzej Kowerski, in his Opel Olympia overland from Yugoslavia to Egypt, often only one step ahead of the Nazis, to parachuting into occupied France, joining the Maquis at the Battle of Vercours, to saving another lover and SOE colleague, Francis Cammaerts, and two other fellow agents from the Gestapo HQ in Digne, France, just before they were about to be executed… and many, many more tales beside.

Throughout this time she also left a string of lovers in her wake, often to be picked up again whenever and wherever the circumstance presented itself. Mulley recounts that W. Stanley Moss described her as having a “‘mesmeric power'”, and that “her attractiveness lay in ‘a blend of vivacity, flirtatiousness, charm, and sheer personality… like a searchlight’ which when she chose could blind anyone in its beam.”

Sadly the last man to be blinded in this beam murdered her. The tragedy inherent in her death is compounded by the fact that as an agent on active service for British Intelligence from 1939-1945, she had survived six years often in theatres of war where the expected survival rate was six weeks, and also that had she lived into old age she would have witnessed the restitution of, and been able to return to, an independent Poland, her patriotism for which had always motivated her. Also she would have lived through a cultural shift and seen the beginnings of a world where empowered and independent women were ‘allowed’ to be so, not only during wartime, but in peace time too.

An Opel Olympia similar to that driven by

An Opel Olympia similar to that driven by Christine Granville and Andrzej Kowerski from Yugoslavia to Eygpt

For a women who was so empowered, so independent, and in many ways so ahead of her time, the fact that up until now her name has been allowed to be largely forgotten, especially in relation to Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, is not because of her bravery but in many ways because of her beauty, the effect it had on men, and the many men who fell under her spell. Because in an extraordinary further twist to her life story following her tragic murder, an all-male ‘Panel to Protect the Memory of Christine Granville’ was set up by Kowerski, Cammaerts, and three other WWII friends and colleagues.  Over the years they successfully vetoed plans for biographies and films (including Moss’s mentioned at the beginning of this review), and only finally allowed the first biography to be published in 1975, but then with a content that very much presented the image of Granville that Kowerski wanted presented – purer than pure.

Nearly 40 years later, Mulley has been free to tell Granville’s full story, presenting the complete and remarkable woman in all her complexities. The Spy Who Loved is an extraordinary story exceptionally well told. Through her unstinting research for the book she has had access to a wealth of previously unseen archive material and also in meeting people who knew Granville and the families of those who knew her, in Britain, France, and Poland, holding items that belonged to her, and retracing the journeys she took and the places she knew, she has gained an intimate understanding of her subject which underscores the vitality and vividness of Mulley’s writing. Indeed her research process including being arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw… during filming outside the flat she had been leant by the son of one of Granville’s close friends, to the green parrot that nuzzled the neck of one of her interviewees throughout their two hour interview, would also make a wonderful book in its own right. The Spy who Loved is thoroughly engaging, wonderfully considered, endlessly illuminating, and highly recommended.

 

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Clare Mulley will be talking about Krystyna Skarbek/Christine Granville and reading from The Spy who Loved at the P-TCP Live Edition: Mustered No.6 on Thursday 30th May 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1. For more details click here.

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Links

Clare Mulley http://www.claremulley.com/home/

Pan Macmillan http://www.panmacmillan.com

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