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 was 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was one of the judges for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize for the best proposal for a new biography by an unpublished writer.
Her Literary Agent
Elizabeth Sheinkman | WME
Centre Point, 103 New Oxford St
tel: +44 207 534 6812
Carole Seymour-Jones very sadly passed away on May 23rd 2015
Biographer of ‘the real Charlotte Gray’ who also campaigned for incarcerated writers around the world
When the biographer Carole Seymour-Jones began to study the relationship between two of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, she was astonished to discover a web of systematic abuse of young women for which no moral outrage had ever been expressed. Her iconoclastic book A Dangerous Liaison (2008) attempted to break the “conspiracy of silence” on the sexual activities of a feminist icon.
As a woman who carved out a niche writing page-turning biographies about women, Seymour-Jones relished the controversy she courted in her portrayal of de Beauvoir as an unstable sexual predator who was so driven by fear of losing her lover Jean-Paul Sartre to a younger and more nubile rival that she preyed on her young female students and groomed them for Sartre who had a penchant for deflowering virgins. The book was praised for its meticulous research that drew on previously unseen material gleaned from de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter including letters written from women who were seduced by de Beauvoir and were emotionally scarred.
Seymour-Jones believed that de Beauvoir’s written pact with Sartre, enshrining their open relationship with a promise of full disclosure to each other about their “contingent lives”, had been downplayed in certain circles because it did not fit with the status of the author ofThe Second Sex as one of the great proto-feminists of the 20th century. Courteous and charming, Seymour-Jones had a gentle, slightly scatty, manner that belied a flinty determination to live by Voltaire’s famous adage, “we owe respect to the living, to the dead we owe only truth”. Power struggles in relationships were a theme of much of her work. “I write about women, but it is the dynamic between couples, predicated on love and power, which particularly interests me,” she said.
Seymour-Jones was not inundated with invitations to feminist symposiums and she also upset the TS Eliot Society with The Painted Shadow (2001), a fresh portrayal of the poet through the emotional vicissitudes of a mentally unstable wife. Seymour Jones was the first author to seriously posit the view that TS Eliot had gay leanings.
Her final book, She Landed by Moonlight, was inspired by her indignation at the lack of recognition given to Pearl Witherington, whom she regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. Seymour-Jones told the story of how the tall 29-year-old volunteered to be parachuted into France in 1943 as an SOE courier in the hope of being reunited with her lover Henri Cornioley — a subplot that led to the book being marketed as the story of “the real Charlotte Gray”.
The bilingual Witherington found her love but was also thrust into becoming the only woman to lead an SOE network in France with Cornioley as her second in command of the Maquis Group. As a child, Witherington had stolen from market traders for her alcoholic father and she showed similar guile at the head of a private army of nearly 4,000 French Resistance operatives who worshipped her as a modern-day Joan of Arc. Under her leadership, the Maquis sabotaged Nazi operations in northern France in the weeks before and after D-Day.
Seymour-Jones’s scholarly account was written with the verve of a romantic thriller as it followed the cool and resourceful heroine who never carried a written message because of her photographic memory. Vivid passages described her escape from the château that served as her HQ just before the Nazi’s set it alight, with Witherington eluding her pursuers by crawling through a cornfield. The book extended into the postwar period as Witherington settled down into marriage with Cornioley, but never received the Military Cross, refusing the offer of an MBE by writing back, “there was nothing civil about what I did”.
In between writing such biographies, Seymour-Jones chaired the Writers in Prison Committee of the literary network English PEN. Working full-time, she transformed the group into an effective and dynamic campaigning machine. She buttonholed writers at literary events and persuaded them to join her in demonstrations outside embassies to demand the release of dissident authors and poets. In 2003 she travelled to Belarus to try to secure the release of Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who had written about the dangers of continuing fallout of radiation from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, even after the government had claimed the country was free of risk. Seymour-Jones held an illicit meeting with Bandazhevsky’s wife in a forest near Minsk and met journalists whose computers had been seized by the secret police. She visited villages near the Ukranian border that were supposed to be thriving communities, but found them empty. Her deputy on the committee Trevor Mostyn recalled: “She made a lot of noise and about a year after our visit, Bandazhevsky was released.”
Carole Seymour-Jones was born in Towyn, northwest Wales in 1943 and brought up in Southsea. Her first love was the sea; her sister recalled Carole leading her younger siblings in an adventure in a dinghy to No Man’s Land fort in the Solent, which was out of bounds to civilians. At St Mary’s Calne boarding school in Wiltshire she strove for the grades that might win a place at Oxford and the approval of her surgeon father, whom she adored.
She duly won a place at Lady Margaret Hall to study history and was intoxicated by Oxford’s romantic surroundings. In the summer holiday after her first year she fell in love on a skiing holiday with Robert Bigland, a tall, handsome and well-connected young stockbroker. Her mother rejoiced at the match, and her father wrote to her tutors to inform them that their daughter was leaving to get married. Seymour-Jones regretted leaving Oxford for the rest of her life, but settled down to domestic life in Surrey, raising four children. She is survived by Emma, who runs a catering business, Ed who is an events manager, and Lucy Keaveny, who is a voiceover artist and yoga teacher. Another daughter, Sophie, died at the age of four.
Seymour-Jones continued to study. She completed her history degree with the Open University, did an MA at Sussex University, trained to become a history teacher, taught at a school in Dorking and began to write educational books. Her husband would arrive home after a day in the City expecting to find a meal on the table but often instead found her in rapt concentration in her study, which was so crammed with books that no one else could get in. They separated after 26 years of marriage.
As a writer she was determined to “make up for lost time” and wrote Journey of Faith: The History of the World YWCA 1945-1994. The success of the book led to her being invited to lecture on the subject all round the world. She settled down again with the radio playwright Geoffrey Parkinson. They married five years ago. Seymour-Jones was appointed chair of English PEN’s Women in Prison committee in 2004 and campaigned tirelessly for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and other dissident writers. She co-edited Another Sky: Voices of Conscience Around the World. As her partner became increasingly stricken by Parkinson’s disease, Seymour-Jones stepped down in 2010. She nursed him in his final years while continuing to write She Landed by Moonlight, and was devastated when he died last year.She was a vigorous and energetic woman, who retained her blonde hair even into her seventies. She was also youthful at heart, often accompanying her grandchildren to social events and playing court to their friends. She pushed her grandchildren academically and recently presented one grandson with a tome on Winston Churchill for his 13th birthday. She suffered from high blood pressure and asthma but she found it boring that her contemporaries were beginning to complain of deteriorating joints and other ailments. Forward propulsion was her motto until the day she collapsed and died suddenly in her garden from a brain haemorrhage.
Her hobby was sailing and in 2003 she formed part of a four-man crew that crossed the Atlantic in a 1907 38ft Nicholson gaff cutter, and narrowly avoided being shipwrecked after encountering Force 10 gales. According to Emma, one of her daughters, “She wasn’t scared of anything.”
Carole Seymour-Jones, biographer, was born on March 3, 1943. She died on May 23, 2015, aged 72
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.
How did I choose my subjects? I wrote about women, but it is the dynamic between couples, predicated on love and power, which particularly interested 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.
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.
Elisabeth Sheinkman | WME,
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