Friday, 27 August 2021

A few formidable ladies of history


We have, in general, been led to believe that women are the weaker sex. If we look at women over the last 1000 years, there are so many unsung influential women, it is impossible to even scratch the surface in a blogpost.

It is quite irritating that going back to before the 17th century, we only tend to know about women who were either royal or notorious. In the royal category, we can put Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1190, at the age of around 65, Eleanor rode across the alps in winter to Navarre to fetch Berengaria and escort her to her wedding with Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart.

Another doting royal mother comes into the category of formidable women. Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. She worked tirelessly at the courts of Edward IV and later Richard III ensuring that Henry, in exile in Brittany, was kept abreast of events. When Richard’s blunt way of dealing with people made him so unpopular, Margaret steered her son’s journey from exile to the throne and the formation of the Tudor dynasty in 1485.

In the notorious category, I have to mention Cleopatra who is alleged to have said ‘I will not be triumphed over.’ She was—mythbuster—not beautiful but struck Julius Caesar and Mark Antony with her wit and charm. Another memorable woman is Bess of Hardwick, who survived four husbands, growing very wealthy in the process. A close friend of Elizabeth I, she also remodelled Chatsworth and built Hardwick Hall.

Moving forwards to the 20th century, Emmeline Pankhurst endured horrendous abuse in Holloway Prison when she went on hunger strike to win votes for women. And here I must mention Rosa Parks the African-American civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man. Hands up who knows the name Professor Sarah Gilbert. She is the scientist who designed the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine in an unbelievably short time and has saved countless lives.

Another group of heroic women who have only lately been acknowledged, worked tirelessly in constant danger to help the allies win World War II. I refer, of course, to the women agents of SOE. Some of these agents are now household names. Noor Inayat Khan, Codename Madeleine was the first female radio operator infiltrated into France. She was betrayed to the Gestapo, escaped at least twice, and was finally kept in chains and tortured for information. She revealed nothing. Her final word before being shot in the head was Liberté.

Most female agents were awarded civilian MBEs by the war office. Noor was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and only in 1949 did the British government award her a George Cross. Violette Szabo was also posthumously awarded a George Cross. She is noted for keeping up the morale of other captured agents. She, along with Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe, were executed in Ravensbruck by being shot. Bloch and Rolfe were so harshly treated, they were carried to their deaths on stretchers. For anyone interested in reading more, I heartily recommend Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks. I have read thousands of books but this one is definitely in my personal Top Ten.

It was reading about the heroines of SOE that inspired me to write Distant Shadows. Although the main action of the book takes place in 1953, my heroine, Peggy, was a radio operator in France in 1944, whose Paris cell was betrayed to the Nazis. She escaped but returned to England spitting accusations of treachery and was swiftly bundled out of SOE. Now in 1953, Peggy has uncovered a fraudulent operation relating to the assignment of contracts in the rebuilding of London. Outraged at the cynical duplicity of the perpetrators, Peggy writes anonymously to her old SOE supervisor. But in so doing, has she enabled the traitor from 1944 to find her again?

Distant Shadows is available here:



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