Author Elizabeth Buchan shares her inspiration for her new book, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, and gives us a glimpse at the women who worked in the shadows during World War II.
I am intrigued how it is that a writer may have already written on a subject, but it refuses to die and it nags away until something is done about it. But, then, who wouldn’t be fascinated by the women who worked in the resistance during the Second World War and/or the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where many of them were trained?
My second novel, Light of the Moon, was about an English girl parachuting into occupied France to work undercover as an agent for the Special Operations Executive where she discovers, like Edith Cavell, that patriotism was not enough. Researching the SOE was addictive, and I made many contacts and some cherished new friends who worked in the undercover agencies. They told me, among others, about beautiful, fantastically brave Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name with Pride by R.J. Minney), the equally splendid and intriguing Christine Granville, and the extraordinary Nancy Wake — all of whom my friends had known and revered for their cool bravery and resourcefulness. Many of these women met gruesome ends.
Several novels on, my obsession re-surfaced with a splash when I was talking to Noreen Riols about her recently published memoir, The Secret Ministry of Ag & Fish, which describes her work in SOE’s F-section. Back I found myself – deep into histories, biographies, memoirs and anecdotal evidence. It seemed there was no question of dodging the subject any longer and I Can’t Begin to Tell You began to take shape.
The women who worked in the shadows continued to fascinate me. Did they make good spies? Did they lead resistance armies effectively? What made them leave their children to go into the field? The answer was, like the men, some were superb intelligence gatherers and inspiring leaders — some less so. The point was, however, that women worked in the resistance alongside the men. Less easy to answer was the question about their children – and it is one I don’t think I can answer except to say that, at the time, they felt their reasons were compelling.
The point was, however, that women worked in the resistance alongside the men.
Yet, what else did the women employed by the SOE do? I dug around and discovered there were women coders and decoders – such as my character Ruby Ingram, brilliant mathematician and angry feminist. There were the lowly signals clerks, such as Mary Voss, who listened out day and night for the call signs of the agents. It was exhausting, often brain-numbing work. Although they had no idea of their sex or their names, the signals clerks grew to know their agents simply by becoming intimate with the agents’ ‘handwriting’ or ‘fist’ as they tapped out their messages in Morse from the field. Who was to say that the coders and listeners didn’t cherish — even love — these agents, and strove to protect them and to alert their bosses if they thought an agent was under pressure or on the run?
Older than when I wrote Light of the Moon, I was more interested in less obvious areas. The agents in the field were still as fascinating and important but so, too, was the organization that trained them, an unknown, shadowy organization whose component parts were slotted together with such secrecy and unorthodox thinking.
Novelistically speaking, I needed to build a bridge between the SOE home front and the agents. I chose coding and communication as the way to do it, and I also decided to set the novel in Denmark. Dubbed ‘Hitler’s Canary’, Denmark had been taken over by the Reich in April 1940 with minimum fuss, and what happened there does not tend to figure prominently in the history books. Yet, as the strategists must have asked themselves back at SOE’s HQ, even if the everyday surface was relatively quiescent in Denmark, there must be undercurrents and cross currents surging underneath? How best to access them? Who could they send into the field?
In August, 1943, the order went out to round up the Jews in Denmark – and it was then a country rose to magnificence and, overnight, most of the Danish Jews were smuggled to safety. It is a thrilling story and I wanted to include elements of it.
Life in Denmark must have been difficult. However peaceful it was in the early stages of the war, loyalties were conflicted which triggered much suffering. Searching to find the shape of I Can’t Begin to Tell You, I stumbled across a biography of an English woman who worked for SOE during the war and helped the Jews to escape, while her husband tolerated the occupation. They lived in a house with a lake in front of it.
I sat down to write.
Elizabeth Buchan, for Waterstones.com/blog