on 2 July 2012
Once again Clare Mulley has produced a wonderful biography about a woman I wish I had known a lot more about a long time ago. The remarkable twists and turns in Christine Granville's life are beautifully described in this book. It seems that the author has captured the essence of Christine's intriguing personality in this page-turner. Clare Mulley's scene-setting is such that I could feel my heart racing at key points during Christine's WWII experiences.
on 7 October 2012
I have to admit that I didn't warm to Krystyna Skarbek in the early chapters of this biography. Perhaps it was the aristocratic I-don't-give-a-damn impression, perhaps I was jealous of the beauty. Anyway it didn't matter as Clare Mulley wasn't asking me to like her subject, just to become aquainted with this unusual personality. I like Mulley's narrative approach throughout. She stands back and describes events with the quiet assurance of thorough research. This enables the reader to stick with Christine (as Krystyna became) through the ups and downs of her extraordinary life. It also makes it easier to see her in context - both the close context of the people who worked with or managed her and the wider historical context. I felt I had learned a great deal more than the story of a life - I had a new angle on WW2 and its aftermath and an unexpected insight Polishness and the quality of extraordinary bravery.
Clare Mulley's 'The Spy who Loved' is the very compelling story of Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WW2, who was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbeck, in Warsaw in 1908, the daughter of a dissolute Polish aristocrat and his very wealthy Jewish wife. Although the daughter of a count, Christine was never really accepted in the upper echelons of Polish society, due to her being half Jewish and she often felt on the margins of that society; however this only served to make her the ferociously driven and independent individual that she was.
Christine was beautiful, resourceful, courageous, highly motivated and highly sexed; she was fiercely determined and addicted to danger, excitement and adventure. Married to her first husband when she was twenty one years old and married for a second time when she arrived in England after the outbreak of war, Christine presented herself to the British Secret Service and offered to ski over the Tatra Mountains, (with her one-legged lover) into occupied Poland and return with a first-hand account of the situation in Warsaw. And, surprising as it may seem, she was commissioned to do just that, and this hazardous journey over the frozen mountains into Poland, was just one of many dangerous missions undertaken by this rather amazing woman. Apart from skiing into Poland, she served in Egypt, parachuted into occupied France, and saved the lives of many British, Polish and French officers. She made a significant contribution to the war effort by managing to infiltrate her way into the enemy camp and then smuggle information into Britain sewn into the lining of her gloves, with a cyanide tablet sewn into the hem of her skirt in case she should get caught. Highly decorated, Christine was awarded the George Medal, an OBE and the Croix de Guerre, so it is surprising to read that at the end of the war, this amazing woman who, it is believed, inspired Ian Fleming's spy stories, was dismissed with one month's salary and then virtually ignored by the British Authorities.
This is a very well researched biography where the author has drawn on a varied range of resources to produce an excellent life story of a rather exceptional woman. We know before we start reading this biography, that Christine met her death at the hands of the last of her many lovers, as he stabbed her to death in a Kensington hotel after she rejected him, and Clare Mulley deals with this in a vivid, but sensitive manner. One of the women who knew Christine well commented on her death by saying: "One cannot help feeling that her early death was somehow inevitable and the manner of it in keeping with the many dramas of her life". Christine's murderer was obsessed with her to the end, and his last statement when he left his cell was: "To kill is the final possession". But, as Clare Mulley says, he was wrong; he had never possessed Christine; no one had ever possessed her - she was possessed by her own mission to free Poland.
on 19 November 2012
Of all the books I have read this year nothing comes close to this wonderful story of Christine Granville, who served as a secret agent throughout the Second World War. Born Krystyna Skarbek into an aristocratic Polish family, at a time when women were typically not expected to aspire to anything except becoming wives and mothers, she began her intelligence work for the Allies long before they had set up organizations for this purpose and travelled across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in pursuit of her work, returning with invaluable information. Beautifully written, this fast paced book is full of danger, intrigue and tragedy but also gives an excellent insight into the character of a supremely courageous yet vulnerable woman. This really is a book not to be missed!
The Spy Who Loved is the story of Christine Glanville born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, reputedly Churchill's favourite spy from WW2; she was also sometimes dubbed Britain's most beautiful spy, possibly as she had once taken part in a 1930 Polish beauty contest. There are several recently published books on the same subject and their almost simultaneous appearance is a curious coincidence. However, as she was later employed by SOE after it was established in 1940, the title 'spy' is not one that they would accept - agent was the accepted description.
Christine Glanville was originally a nom de guerre, although she formally adopted the name post-War when she opted to remain in Britain, used by the daughter of a Polish Count and a Jewish mother. Not truly accepted by relatives on either side of her family, she sought more from life than she had been served. A family relationship with the Polish composer, Chopin, gave her no advantages. Once Poland was invaded, and with her Jewish connections likely to make life more complex had she stayed, she was later able to escape to Britain where she underwent extensive training. She had initially worked as a spy in Poland and then moved to France where her knowledge of the language served her well, all within the first months of the War. On escape to Britain, she was recruited by the newly born SOE and continued under their umbrella until War's end, becoming their longest-serving female agent. She returned to Poland several times in order to act as a courier, physically transporting information that could not be sent via radio.
As a spy she was highly capable and successful operating within Europe and North Africa. She was able to gain information and sometimes hid slips of paper within her gloves where they went unfound. When colleagues were captured she was able to use her charm to secure their release. For her exploits, she was awarded the George Medal and later made an OBE by a grateful Britain and also received the French Croix de Guerre. Monetary rewards did not follow and Christine's life was not an easy one as she was effectively stateless and unemployed.
It is possible that, had she not been murdered in 1952 in a London hotel room by a stalker with claimed romantic intentions which she did not welcome, her name and story could have been more widely known than it is. The story of her death as published in the newspapers of the day may have helped stop the publication of her wartime acticities for many years. She was then only 44 years old and could have had a long and happy life ahead of her had circumstances been different.
This book tells her story in some detail. Christine had a complex personality and the author has done well to 'get inside her head', which may explain why others had written rather little in the past. Her name had been mentioned by earlier authors but with very little detail of her exploits; those omissions and oversights are now corrected.
on 12 May 2014
This is a remarkable book about a remarkable woman. The phrase "stranger than fiction" comes to mind. In fact you have to wonder whether there are flights of fancy, not from the author herself but from the sources/memoirs she quotes. As Ms Mulley herself says, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. Apart from that, there are certainly one or two mistakes, for example that there were German troops being "massed along Russia's eastern (sic) borders" in 1941. And that Owen O'Malley knew Rupert Brooke at Harrow: they were both at Rugby.
Having said that, the book is a very good read: exciting and interesting. There's an underlying atmosphere of derring-do, And Christine herself comes across as a wild card, very brave, with a love of danger and quite a sexual appetite. But she was obviously not quite a superwoman: she never learnt to swim, disliked bicycles, was slow at Morse code and averse to office work. She even disliked guns, which is odd for someone in her job. These were countered, however, by many abilities: physical fitness, feminine charm, an aptitude for languages, powers of persuasion , an "almost reckless self-confidence" and "a repertoire of espionage skills".
Not that these were used throughout the War. After doing sterling work in Poland and Hungary at the start of the War and before going to France in 1944, she had two relatively fallow years in Cairo and Jerusalem. But her work with the Resistance (Maquis) in France is the stuff of legend.
There are some fairly poignant echoes too: the difficulties that war heroes found readjusting to civilian life, and indeed finding jobs, when peace came. And how the once welcome Poles found resentment when they took jobs in England. Yes, the post-war parts of the book are the saddest. And the manner of Christine's death, too, after all her bravery, is tragically ironic.
on 11 August 2012
This is a well written/researched book that takes you on an incredible journey. It is not for the faint hearted. It is daunting to read and be reminded of everything that happened during the War, the politics, the savagery. Great book, but not one you read before bedtime.
on 28 August 2014
I have just finished reading Clare Mulley's wonderful book "The Spy who Loved" about the Polish Countess Krystyna Skarbeck who became a secret agent and worked for the British Secret Services during the Second World War.
This is a very exciting book and worth reading simply for that alone but it is much more than that. It is an insight into the life of a remarkable woman. She was immeasurably brave but also extremely complex: impossible to pigeon hole. She was more than anything, a free spirit.
The book also provides deep insights into the character of Polish people and into the sufferings and injustices they underwent during the war and afterwards. I feel that I now know much more about this admirable people and their history than I did before.
The book also provides insights into the intrigue and inner workings of the secret services together with wartime history, such as the battle of Vercors, about which I had no idea.
The amount of work which must have been involved in accumulating all the information and then marshalling it all together in order to write this splendid book is astounding.
All in all, a thoroughly worth while read. if it was fiction, it might be regarded as being too far fetched but it is not fiction, it is the real thing.
on 14 February 2013
The Second World War threw up countless people who thrived in the stress and the unusual topsy-turvey situation of global conflict - they seem to have been born for those difficult circumstances. The subject of this book is clearly one of those people.
Clare Mulley's book, which I came across because of my Mother who knew Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville as she became) is a beautifully crafted pen portrait of this extraordinary lady's life and times.
Clearly a difficult woman, Christine shone in the odd world of war and she displayed huge courage along with reckless abandon and a lack of overt fear in the most terrifying situations. The George Medal and Croix de Guerre demand acts of great bravery and she was awarded both.
Her passions and her flaws were more than matched by her practical grit and her strengths. I don't think she would have been easy to spend too much time with but she generated love and sustained others with a life force that must have been extraordinary to experience let alone witness. That captivating nature could unhinge people and, in the end, it led to her untimely death at the hands of a broken man.
One the one hand this is an engaging and interesting book that tells us the story of an engaging and interesting woman. On the other it is a scholarly and well researched biography that perfectly illuminates previously unknown, to me in any case, aspects of the war.
I think this is a fascinating, elegantly written and empathetic book. I recommend it to anyone interested in real people, real celebrity and a world where truth really is stranger than fiction.
on 29 May 2013
Quickly delivered by Kindle. This is an excellent book, filled with the heroic acts of this Polish, half Jewish aristocrat - who adopted an English name so she could join the SOE in the Second World War and at the same time spy for what she (and we English) thought right and were prepared to fight to maintain. The fact that I, and many, many more, knew nothing about her exploits (and incidentally love life) before this time places her amongst the few we should now revere. She did not bother about fame and success - or the fact that she, with her winning smile and look, accomplished far more than many of the rest of us with the same ideals. Thank God for the likes of her. The book is beautifully written - and comes to its tragic denouement in a hotel in London in 1953 - it does its author great credit both in its presentation and accuracy - there is a proper and long reference section pushing the writing and publication into the top league. Go on- read it - then think sadly on all you missed and didn't previously know.