When I heard that Sonia Purnell was coming to the Fairfield University bookstore, my immediate reaction was to run into our weekly pitch meeting to announce to Gracie, our Vine editor, that I had to interview this woman. As I have professed in this paper before, I love reading. In a wish to make more time for my favorite hobby, I have taken on the challenge this year of trying to read more for fun, and one of the best books to come out of this challenge was “A Woman of No Importance” by Sonia Purnell. I read it over the summer and simply couldn’t talk enough about it. The book follows the life and adventures of Virginia Hall, a real life American woman who became one of the most successful undercover agents in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The larger-than-life story is thrilling and inspiring in a way that a book hasn’t made me feel in a long time. This is largely in part due to the amazing prose of its author, Sonia Purnell.
Purnell is a journalist who has written for “The Telegraph” and “The Sunday Times” in the United Kingdom and for other publications such as “The Wall Street Journal” in the United States. She has also released two other books, “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition” about her time working as a secretary for the current Prime Minister and “First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill” about the wife of famed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
So, I went to the bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 4 p.m. more excited than I can properly convey here in this article. After some introductions, Purnell came out to speak to a crowd of about 40 people, and began to describe the story of Virginia. She did leave some of the more important details to the book, but gave just enough to intrigue people into buying it.
When speaking on the beginning of her journey researching this story she stated, “I knew it was a good story, I didn’t know it was going to be a great and epic one.” Purnell spoke about the path that led Virginia to becoming what she called, “the highest security threat to Berlin in France at the time–as classified by the Germans.” The story of her going from an upcoming Baltimore socialite to working for the American embassy is full of twists and turns, and why the book is so interesting. Virginia faced so many struggles in her personal life and career, from losing her leg in a hunting accident to being pushed out of the career that she wanted to pursue because she was a woman.
During her speech Purnell said, “I think we can all learn things from Virginia everyday.” Not only is this James Bond-esque spy thriller, it is also the story of one woman having enough strength in her convictions to stand against literal armies by herself and fight to protect anyone that she believed needed her help.
After her speech ended, I was given the amazing opportunity to have a brief interview with Purnell about her writing, which was an absolute dream come true. As a biographer, Purnell has written about both modern and historical figures, so one of the things that I was most curious about was how she picked who to write about. She responded that, “I always like to say that they picked me.” She also spoke about the difference of picking someone like Boris Johnson, who she believed had been given too much public attention, and then someone like Clementine Churchill, who she admired and believed hadn’t gained enough notoriety.
There was also a point were she acknowledged that she was so intrigued by Virginia’s story because it seemed so outlandish, “that if I pitched this idea as a novel people would have said ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, how could a one-legged woman do all of this?’ But it is all true.” There is also the interesting fact that both “A Woman of No Importance” and “First Lady” have been optioned to become films; “A Woman of No Importance” is even slated to have J.J. Abrams at his production company Bad Robot involved in the project and to have Daisy Ridley star as Virginia Hall.
Purnell expressed, “We see so many hero men on the screen, let’s see a hero woman for a change, who did extraordinary things, things that no one believed she was capable of doing.” I couldn’t agree with this idea more. Virginia is the perfect proof that a woman can be just the same amount of action hero that a man can be, and it’s important that we reflect that on screen and in books.
Our conversation was frank and lovely, and I can’t thank her enough for taking the time to meet with me. I also really want to thank the people who ran the event, Craig Kennedy and Nancy Quinn from the Fairfield bookstore and Stephanie Coakely from the Pequot Library for all of their help with this interview. I truly loved it and hope that I have inspired you to go pick up a copy of “A Woman of No Importance” immediately, you won’t regret it!