Tuesday 28 October 2014

Finding truth in facts and fictions, by Clare Mulley

As I understand it, biography is about finding out the truth about people and reporting back. This seems perfect work for me, as I am naturally nosy about - let’s say interested in - people and the world in which we live. However I quickly discovered that researching the life of a secret agent, as I did for my last biography, The Spy Who Lovedcontains inherent difficulties. Many official and unofficial papers relating to Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the war, have been destroyed - on accident or by purpose - while others may remain unreleased. Furthermore agents like Christine were trained to cover their tracks, and not leave a paper trail. Christine certainly kept few records. Until I started my research there were only a couple of letters known to have been written by her.

Letter from Christine Granville to Harold Perkins, March 1945

The letter above is kept at the National Archives. It was written in March 1945 to Christine's SOE boss, Harold Perkins. Here she is volunteering desperately for a final mission: 
‘For God’s sake do not strike my name from the firm [SOE]… remember that I am always too pleased to go and do anything for it. May be you find out that I could be useful getting people out from camps and prisons in Germany just before they get shot. I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day’.
I laughed when I read this, thinking at first that Christine was joking – but, no, she was absolutely sincere. When this letter was written, she had already given five years of voluntary service, repeatedly working behind enemy lines at huge risk to her life. Her desperate request here tells us so much about her, her determination, her love for action and service and, above all, her courage.

But letters, so wonderful at preserving the evidence of that most intangible thing, emotion, are notoriously unreliable for facts. Letters are often full of mistakes, opinion rather than fact, or attempts to mislead. During my research I found many more letters to and from Christine, and what I discovered was that while the facts often did not add up, Christine’s character did: she loved to tell a good story.

'Let Gold Eat Gold', courtesy of Countess M Skarbek 

Stories were always an important part of Christine’s life. Her father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, had brought her up with proud Skarbek family stories intertwined with patriotic Polish history. The etching above illustrated one of these stories, when the first Count Skarbek (with outstretched arm, right) refused to bow before a German Emperor (seated). Scorning the coffers of riches he was shown to try to buy his loyalty, the Count took off his own signet ring and threw it in the chest declaring ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles trust our steel’, meaning their swords. He later helped rout the invading German mercenary forces. Listening to her father tell this tale, and many others, Christine quickly learnt how stories could be used for propaganda!

As a special agent Christine would later use her own stories to effectively cloud the details of her activities or motivations. I came across several versions of the same, wonderful story about her flirtatiously securing the unwitting help of a Wehrmacht officer to smuggle clandestine documents through train checkpoints in occupied Poland. Intriguingly however, in each version, the departure and destination train-stations were different. Perhaps Christine sensibly wished to keep her precise movements hidden, even years later. Certainly duty had required her to frequently change her name and identity, and arguably also her age and date of birth: fictions were part of her life. 

Sometimes, however, Christine simply seemed to enjoy not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story. This might explain some of the more colourful reports I found of her parachute descent into France in the summer of 1944. In his memoirs, Patrick Howarth, an SOE colleague, wrote that Christine indulged ‘in the most outrageous fantasies when talking to people to whom she was not disposed to take seriously'. Who can blame her? But the net result was that it was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish fact from fiction.  

Me, in front of Christine's childhood home, Trzepnica

To try to get to the bottom of things, I decided to retrace Christine’s steps, gathering evidence on the way - a process that Antonia Fraser calls ‘optical research’. First stop was Poland. The photo above shows me in front of Christine’s childhood home, Trzepnica, about an hour from Warsaw. It was wonderful to walk on Christine’s lawns, see the vast oak trees she loved, the house and the stables. My kind friend Maciek, who had come with me to translate, even managed to find the key to this now derelict building, so that we could look around inside.

As you can imagine, I got very excited and took photos of everything. At one point Maciek asked me why I was taking a shot of a blue plaque on the outside wall. ‘You never know what secrets it might hold’ I said in jubilation'. ‘It says…’ said Maciek dryly, ‘Please don’t play football on the grass.’

From Trzepnica we went on to Warsaw, where Maciek stayed with his aunt while I was lucky enough to have the use of a beautiful flat in the restored old town that belongs to Jan Ledochowski, the son of Count Wladimir Ledochowski, one of Christine’s close friends from the Polish resistance. 

One morning I came out of the flat at 9am to meet Maciek and head off to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, in search of more facts. As I emerged into the morning light a Wehrmacht officer in full uniform started shouting at me. Then he charged up and started jabbing at me with the perforated barrel of his hand-held machine gun. It was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever had. At first I thought, ‘OMG, I have just been arrested by the Wehrmacht’. Then I thought, ‘OMG, I have just completely lost my marbles’. Luckily Maciek soon arrived and managed to straighten things out. It turned out that, not understanding the polite Polish notice put through the door, I had walked into the middle of filming for a Polish WWII drama, ruining the take. But even this bit of fiction taught me something. I knew, rationally, that it must be something like TV filming, but I was still nearly crying to see that gun waved near my head. Christine, who was working for the British secret services, and was part-Jewish, was arrested several times behind enemy lines during the war, and always kept her cool, managing to talk her way out of danger more than once. Nothing could have brought home more clearly to me just how courageous this woman was, and what sang froid she had. 

Polish TV WWI drama being filmed

Among my primary sources for my last book were reports, awards and certificates held in British, Polish and French archives, and various public and private collections. These things all helped to build up a clear picture of when Christine worked where. But the fact is that there are emotional, as well as factual, truths. A good biography will reveal why people acted as they did, how they felt and what they believed, and ‘the truth’ - or perhaps I should say ‘the many truths’ - of someone, must be found in both the facts and the fictions of their lives.


Sue Purkiss said...

What a bizarre experience that must have been, meeting - apparently - a Wehrmacht officer! Can thoroughly recommend this book, by the way... what a brave and colourful character Krystyna was!

Celia Rees said...

Wonderful post, Clare. Thanks so much for this. It must have given you quite a frisson to encounter the Wehrmacht, even if they were only filming. A jolt from facts and documents right into Krystyna's world.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I can imagine your shock when facing the barrel of the Wehrmacht's gun. I have been held at gun point with a rifle trained on my forehead when I was travelling for The Olive Route. It is indeed terrifying and puts you briefly in the shoes of those you are writing about. Your passion for your subject shines through, Clare.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you for your nice comments HGs! While I love walking in the footsteps on my subjects, this certainly brought home to me that it is sometimes more comfortable to follow at a distance.

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating post! It sounds as if the actor had got fact and fiction a bit muddled - but so scary!