Once again, I’ve managed to accidentally read two books in a row that contrast nicely with each other. Both of these books deal in some way with women during WWII. The first is Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s memoir of her activities as one of the leaders of the Alliance circuit of the French Resistance. The second is Tessa Dunlop’s look at different women’s activities and experiences while working at or around Bletchley Park.
Fourcade’s memoir is intensely personal, and filtered through her own opinions and reminiscences about the Resistance and the people who made it up. The English version, called Noah’s Ark, is a translation and abridgement of the French original, which made me wish I read French well enough to try that. (I don’t at all.) I was interested in the various figures that Fourcade shows us, although I almost wished that I had read an overall history of the Resistance first. I felt I was missing various contexts and that we were really getting her opinion about people and events.
While Fourcade doesn’t focus a great deal of attention on this, she does talk a bit about the fact that as a fairly young woman (I believe in her mid thirties) she stepped into running a massive organization, in the middle of a war. She had to learn to command the respect of those who were more directly risking their lives. And it carried a great cost for her personally, as she ended up apart from her family and unsure of whether she would ever see them again.
For me, perhaps the most emotional part of the book came when she described the fate of Leon Faye, one of the main agents for the Alliance circuit, who attempted to escape from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris with Noor Inayat Khan. I had heard this story before, but had been pretty much entirely focused on Noor’s part in it. So it was quite unexpected to find her suddenly here.
At any rate, this was a fascinating, heartbreaking, informative book, but it was most certainly a memoir, recounting a particular person’s viewpoint and opinions. I would like to find a good history of the Resistance to compare it with.
Tessa Dunlop’s The Bletchley Girls is a little different in scope and approach. She made a point of finding and interviewing the Bletchley girls who are still alive (or were at the time of the writing) rather than relying on published histories. She weaves together the reminiscences of fourteen of the young women who worked at Bletchley Park. The overall effect gives the overview of women’s roles at BP a personal touch.
I suppose that, like most people, I have a fairly glamorous–or at least, vaguely exciting–image of Bletchley Park. And perhaps if one of the women who worked most closely with Dilly Knox or Turing were alive to give her testimony, that would be more present. But the accounts Dunlop collects show that for many of these young women, the strict secrecy and compartmentalization of the Park gave their work a monotonous flavor. Most of them didn’t really know until after the war how vital their particular work was.
While in a certain way this is slightly disappointing, it also helps dispel some of the mythos that surrounds Bletchley Park. Some of them loved it, and others were bored in the moment but appreciated the overall work. Some simply hated it. But interestingly, for many of them their work at BP changed the course of their lives. Not necessarily in dramatic ways, but by giving them opportunities, by introducing women who became life-long friends.
Because both of these books are primarily centered around personal accounts and memories, neither is entirely focused on the overall role of women in the war (Dunlop is more so). However, they both of course provide a picture of some of the many reasons women did enter the war, and how they made their way.