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A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
by Sarah Helm
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

78 of 79 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well researched but failed to portray Vera accurately as a person, 17 July 2011
My grandfather was Bill Rogers, described in the book as the doyen of the expatriate British community in Bucharest, and I knew Vera very well for 40 years up until her death. I found the book fascinating, particularly on Vera's early life which had been a bit of a mystery to me, but I had to take a lot with a pinch of salt. I tend to agree with reviewer S. Ricks that the author was excessively harsh on Vera and judged her out of context. The Vera I knew had a mind like a steel trap that could pick up any inconsistencies immediately and woe betide anyone who tried to get the better of her. However, she was also an extremely warm and loyal person, as well as vulnerable in certain ways, although it is true that she didn't suffer fools gladly. As S. Ricks states, she was from another era when they believed they had a duty to do whatever they could to protect their way of life from totalitarianism. Of course, Vera felt terrible sending young agents to France and she gave them time to reconsider after explaining to them that there was a strong possibility they would never come back. It was made easy for them to pull out without anyone else ever knowing. On the other hand, we have to take into account that the supply of potential recruits was extremely limited after De Gaulle prevented the British from recruiting French nationals. She talked of her agents often in later years and clearly felt deeply for them as human beings, as well as having a heavy sense of responsibility for those who failed to return which was why she insisted on being allowed to trace them and worked with War Crimes after the war. She once showed me a photograph of the defendants at the war crimes trial sitting like school boys with their headphones on. She remembered in detail what each was accused of what their sentences were but had felt no satisfaction in their punishment. Her task had been purely to find out happened to her agents.

I respect Ms Helm for the detailed research she has done. However, I feel that the book failed to portray Vera accurately as a human being and the reconstruction of her persona in the book is frequently unrecognisable to those who knew her (the unfounded insinuations about her sexuality and alleged racism are particularly uncalled for). This is not surprising, since Ms Helm only met her once. Whether rightly or wrongly Vera was adamant that she would not pen an autobiography. (I used to work in publishing and tried hard in the 80s to persuade her to change her mind without success.) She did, however, give a high degree of access to authors she took to but Ms Helm was clearly not one of them and the book unfortunately reflects this.
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