Women of the Resistance: With Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell

By Marta Maretich

Themes of resistance and history were in the air as authors Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell brought distinct takes on female resistance fighters of the First and Second World Wars to the Upper Wimpole Street Salon.

McMahon’s novel, The Hour of Separation, tells the story of two generations of women working in the resistance movement in Belgium during two World Wars. Purnell’s nonfiction book, A Woman of No Importance, recounts the exploits of Virginia Hall, the one-legged woman spy who established vital resistance networks across France during the Second World War.

Host Catherine Temma kicked off the conversation between the two writers by asking: What draws you both to historical topics?

For McMahon, the author of ten novels including The Rose of Sebastapol, history provides a lens to examine ourselves and our society. Historical novels are relevant, she said, when they echo the themes we face at the moment and help us learn from the past. “If we don’t treasure their stories, we learn nothing.”

For Purnell, the choice of Virginia Hall as a subject grew out of a desire to write about a woman she could admire and to show her sons that women play important roles in history, though their stories are often buried. She went looking for female subjects to inspire her, she said, after writing a biography of Boris Johnson. The “remarkable” Clementine Churchill was the first of her admirable women subjects, followed by Hall.

Like McMahon, Purnell stressed the parallels between issues we’re seeing today—threats to democracy, fake news, the rise of right-wing nationalism—and the events leading up to both world wars. “If you lose truth, you lose everything,” Purnell warned.

Research, that tool for truth-telling, is a passion these writers share. Both extolled their love of—and obsession with—the process of discovering facts about their subjects. McMahon spends a year reading for each novel, she says, allowing the kernel of the story to emerge. Once it does, she lets it take over and drive further research, allowing it to “transform” the fiction.

Purnell admitted to researching Hall “obsessively” over two and a half years. She was driven by the desire to do her subject justice and to silence the (mostly male) critics that might be inclined to pick holes in her account—or dismiss it altogether.

Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell: The authors share a passion for research, a love of truth, and a firm belief in the value of reclaiming the stories of remarkable women in history.

Did writing about these remarkable women change you? Temma asked the authors.

“I always want to learn something from the books I write,” Purnell answered. From Virginia Hall and the almost unbelievable barriers she overcame as a female spy with a serious disability, she learned a simple lesson: Don’t complain.

For McMahon, writing the book made her appreciate how women are different from men in wartime roles—for example, in their attention to detail and their ability to organize. “We should value our differences and nurture them. We should be different and we need to be bold.”

This salon took place on 26th June, 2019. Follow these links for more information about the Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell. Their books are available at local bookstores and from major online retailers.