Seventy years ago, in September 1943, Pearl Witherington parachuted into Occupied France.
A 29-year-old British secretary and agent of the Special Operations Executive, she was returning to the country that raised her; and to find the man that she loved. The only woman to run an SOE network, she would become a true `Warrior Queen.’
Carole Seymour-Jones is a biographer and historian. Born in Wales, she spent her childhood in Portsmouth, messing about in boats. She was educated at Oxford University. Her recent biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, A Dangerous Liaison, was shortlisted for the Marsh biography prize. Carole is also the author of Painted Shadow: the Life of Vivienne Eliot, the first wife of TS Eliot, longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, and Beatrice Webb.
Carole was formerly Deputy President of English PEN, the writers’ charity, and Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. In January 2014 she will be teaching Memoir and Biography on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey, where she is a Visiting Fellow. She has previously tutored creative non-fiction at City University and the Arvon Foundation.
As a broadcaster, she has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week, Front Row and Woman’s Hour. She reviews for The Literary Review and has written for a variety of publications including The Daily Mail, Saga magazine and The New Statesman.
Recently Carole was one of the judges for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize for the best proposal for a new biography by an unpublished writer.
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How do I choose my subjects? I write about women, but it is the dynamic between couples, predicated on love and power, which particularly interests me: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In She Landed By Moonlight the powerful love relationship between Pearl Witherington and her fiancé, later husband, Frenchman Henri Cornioley, drives the narrative.
When on Pearl’s death in 2008 the National Archives released her papers, and I began reading her Personal File I immediately realised that here was the untold story of one of the bravest women of World War II. Pearl, like many agents of the Special Operations Executive, had resisted the idea of a biography after the war, despite several approaches by writers, as she felt that she was bound by the Official Secrets Act. Her papers remained classified. She stayed in the shadows.
But as I scanned the pages of Pearl’s file I recognised not only her courage, but her leadership ability. Many women agents died in France, and their tale of sacrifice and suffering has suggested to commentators that women couldn’t cut the mustard. The women died in the camps, by lethal injection or in the gas ovens. They were brave and patriotic - but hopeless.
Pearl – or Agent `Marie’ - defies this stereotype. She is unique in being the only woman to run an SOE network of Resistance fighters, and to command a Maquis. In the Southern Loire she revelled in her combat role. In the run-up to D-Day the Gestapo put a million franc bounty on her head, but Pearl defied the Germans to become a guerrilla leader of a `private army’ of 3,800 men. Adored by her maquisards, who called her `notre mère’, she fought a desperate battle to stop the crack 2nd SS Panzer Division `Das Reich’ reaching Normandy and throwing the allies back into the sea.
The documentary evidence gave me the bare bones of Pearl’s story, but I needed to put flesh on those bones. Following in her footsteps in Central France, in the woods and valleys of the Indre and Cher Valley, I found the woman who, with Henri by her side, became a true `Warrior Queen.’
What writers have influenced you? I was a bookworm as a child, an omnivorous reader who devoured historical fiction and non-fiction, from Georgette Heyer and John Buchan to Edward Gibbon and AL Rowse. More recently I have been influenced by fellow biographers such as Richard Holmes, Hermione Lee and Claire Tomalin, and by historians such as Antony Beevor and Matthew Cobb, but my love of words owes most to great men and women of literature: poets such as Virgil, Dante, Thomas Wyatt, TS Eliot, and my favourite Victorian novelists, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.
The truth is that Sebastian Faulk's novel...stands on its own, but so does She Landed by Moonlight, the long-awaited biography that Agent Pearl deserves.The Times
Dialogue is recreated, scenes are set and we are given a character's thoughts, feelings and reactions. Pearl's story [is] so well-documented and her exploits so extraordinary.Independent Book of the Week
Quietly moving... Carol Seymour-Jones has done an excellent job in bringing Witherington's courage, commitment and ability to light, sensibly focusing on her war years when she lived to her full potential.Spectator
It took until 2004 - four years before her death - for her own country to belatedly present her with a CBE. As this biography makes clear, the brave and wholly admirable Pearl Witherington deserved much, much better.Sunday Times
Carole Seymour-Jones does full justice to a truly remarkable and little-known woman.Country Life
This biography successfully establishes her in the pantheon of the very bravest and best, up there with such legendary figures as Violette Szabo, Andree Borrel, Madeline Damerment and Nancy Wake.Mail on Sunday - Sebastian Faulks
Thoroughly researched and perceptive.The Lady
A gripping tale. A story of narrow escapes, lost and betrayed comrades and incessant danger.Literary Review
A riveting true-life story.Daily Mail
Seventy years ago, in September 1943, Pearl Witherington's parachute dropped behind enemy lines. This is her incredible story.
La storia della donna che affrontò le SS per ritrovare l'uomo che amava
22 settembre 1943. Pearl Witherington viene paracadutata nelle campagne francesi tra le linee nemiche.
"A Dangerous Liaison" tells the intense, passionate and sometimes painful story of how these two brilliant free-thinkers - and rivals - came to a share a relationship that was to last over fifty years.
This biography of Vivienne Eliot completely belies the long-held view of her as merely a demented woman. When Tom and Vivienne married in 1915 they had known each other only a few months. The predatory and exploitative Bertrand Russell, under the guise of taking the Eliots under his wing, soon drew Vivienne into a sexual relationship.
Beatrice Webb was born in 1858 into a wealthy and privileged family. However, she renounced society life to fight for the "people of the abyss", venturing in disguise into the slums of the East End, and challenging Lloyd George in a campaign to abolish the workhouse.
Voices of Conscience from Around the World
An anthology of powerful stories from writers persecuted and imprisoned for exercising the freedom to write, and supported in their ordeals by English PEN.
WAAF Flight Officer Pearl Witherington, alias Agent `Marie,’ organiser of the Wrestler circuit
Lt Col Maurice Buckmaster, Head of the French (F) Section of SOE
Vera Atkins, his assistant, the `brains’ behind F.
Major General Colin Gubbins, head of SOE, known as `CD’
Sir Stewart Menzies, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as `C.’
Air Commodore Douglas Colyer, Pearl’s boss at the British embassy in Paris
Major Francis Suttill, alias Agent `Prosper,’ organiser of the Physician circuit
Squadron Leader Maurice Southgate, alias Agent `Hector,’ organiser of the Stationer circuit
Amédée Maingard, a Mauritian aristocrat, alias Agent `Samuel.’
Major Arthur Clutton, alias `Stafford,’ OC Jedburgh `Julian.’
Wing Commander FFE `Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas, Agent `Shelley’ of the Gaullist RF Section of SOE, nickname `The White Rabbit.’
In the early days of SOE agents used a poem-code to encode their messages to the Home Station in London. Tennyson’s `In Memoriam’ was a favourite:
Be near me when my light is low
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And time, a maniac scattering dust,
And life, a fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the terms of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
To cryptographer Leo Marks, Head of Codes, this poem seemed like an appeal to the Home Station. It expressed the fear felt by even the bravest of agents in the field.
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