One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining new biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
Born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, to cite one of several examples, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And it is from here that Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless … ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.
Once, having been arrested by the Gestapo in Poland, she bit her tongue so hard as to make it bleed. The Germans, fearing she was suffering from the dreaded tuberculosis, released her. Mulley gives us plenty of examples like this, examples of what she calls Granville’s ‘sangfroid’.
Granville had ‘an almost pathological tendency to take risks’ and the British sought to find her work that was ‘sufficiently risky and bloodthirsty to appeal to her’. Her work gave her a purpose in life and, although hard to credit, its danger sometimes left her shaking with laughter, such was her addiction to adrenaline and risk.
Granville joined Britain’s SOE service, established in July 1940 on the orders of prime minister, Winston Churchill, and was to become the SOE’s longest-serving female agent.
Mulley takes us on an exhilarating journey as we follow Granville from Poland to Cairo and then, from July 1944, into Nazi-occupied France where she joined the resistance. It was here, in southeast France, that Granville embarked on perhaps her most daring undertaking. Three resistance colleagues had been arrested by the Germans and faced certain execution. Granville walked straight into the lion’s den of the Gestapo HQ and demanded to see the commander-in-charge. We read Mulley’s description of the episode with our hearts in our mouths; such is the extent of the risk and Granville’s bravado. It really is one of those occasions where, if you were reading this as a work of fiction, you would dismiss it as far-fetched.
The horrors of peace
Following the war, Granville, missing her adrenaline-fuelled life, found adjusting to ‘the horrors of peace’ difficult. Having been rendered stateless by Stalin’s post-war occupation of Poland, she had difficulty settling or finding employment. The British decorated her with enough medals and awards to make, as Mulley observes, a general envious, but they seemed particularly unable or unwilling to find her a job: ‘she is altogether not a very easy person to employ,’ wrote one dismissive report. That she had no office experience counted against her – as if a woman of Granville’s character could have been contained within the four walls of an office.
Christine Granville was murdered, aged 44, on 15 June 1952. This is not a spoiler, we know this from the off. But the way Mulley describes the impending tragedy is poignantly done. She describes Granville meeting Dennis Muldowney, a man with whom Granville experienced a brief if unfulfilling relationship, and we are filled with a sense of doom. Cast aside by Granville, Muldowney became obsessed by her. Without resorting to fiery prose, we, the reader, feel outraged as Mulley recounts the final days and hours of Granville’s life, leading to her violent and tragic end.
Granville loved men and men loved her. She was married twice, neither time particularly successful, and had numerous lovers. Men were hypnotized by her vibrancy and her love of life, but no man ever possessed her; no man would have been capable of it. As Clare Mulley states, writing for History In An Hour last year, ‘Nobody possessed Christine, not her father nor either of her husbands, not any of her lovers and certainly not her killer.’
Christine Granville’s life and personality were so charismatic that it needed a skilled writer to do her justice. Fortunately for us, sixty years after Granville’s untimely death, Clare Mulley has proved herself worthy of the task.
The Spy Who Loved: the Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley is published by Pan and is available as a paperback from 11 April 2013.
See also Clare Mulley’s article on Christine Granville written especially for History In An Hour.
For more about Clare and her work, visit claremulley.com.