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Guest Post: The Real Lady Spies by Ellen Butler

Last week, I shared my review of the delightful spy story, The Brass Compass. This week, I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from the author, Ellen Butler, in which she enlightens us about the origins of her fictional character Lily Saint James. Enjoy!

The Real Lady Spies
by Ellen Butler

Many people have asked if Lily Saint James is a fictional character. Indeed, she is however, her character is inspired by the actions of real female spies from WWII. An amalgamation of three women formed the basis of her background and traits.

Virginia Hall, an American, initially worked for the SOE and then the OSS. During college, Hall studied multiple languages and finished her schooling in Europe where she traveled all over the continent, much like Lily. Ultimately, she ended up working for the American Embassy in Poland. At the start of the war she worked as an ambulance driver in France. Later she joined the SOE and returned to France where she successfully organized resistance fighters in acts of sabotage and guerilla warfare. She also worked the underground helping downed pilots escape into Spain. Eventually, when the Nazis closed in, she herself fled over the snow-covered Pyrenees Mountains. She did all this with a prosthetic leg. The SS labeled her “the limping lady,” and considered Hall one of the most dangerous Allied spies.

Violette Szabo was a French-born SOE agent recruited after her husband was killed fighting in North Africa. Szabo trained in weaponry, cryptography, radio communications, and escape and evasion tactics. Like Lily, she parachuted into German occupied France, prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy, to organize local resistance groups and sabotage German communication lines. During one of her missions, Szabo was captured, tortured for information, and for eight months was shifted from one concentration labor camp to another. Eventually, she was executed at the age of twenty-three.

Noor Inayat Khan was born in Russia to an Indian Muslim father and American mother. During her childhood, she lived in London and a suburb of Paris. She studied at the Sorbonne and the Paris Conservatory. When the war broke out, her family fled to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and from there was recruited into the SOE. She trained as a wireless operator. Her fluency in French and knowledge of Paris made her a desirable candidate to serve in Nazi-occupied France. While in France, the network of spies and resistance fighters for whom she relayed messages were arrested by the Nazis; Kahn barely escaped the round up. Constantly on the move, she would transmit for only twenty minutes at a time to keep from being detected by the enemy. In October 1943, a French double-agent betrayed Khan leading to her capture, imprisonment and eventual execution.

Szabo and Khan were both posthumously awarded the British George Cross and French Croix de Guerre for their contributions. Hall, the lone survivor, was presented the Distinguished Service Cross—the only WWII civilian to receive this award. In addition, England made her an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Attributes from each woman went into creating Lily’s character. From Hall, her background traveling the European continent and multi-language fluency made her a desirable agent. Additionally, Hall returned behind enemy lines multiple times, this tenacity gave Lily the determination to return to Nazi-occupied territory. Szabo’s daring, extensive training, and resolve under interrogation gave Lily her resourcefulness. Finally, Khan’s refined education provided Lily her knowledge of artwork and protocol.

For more information on Ellen and The Brass Compass (including a video trailer!) visit her online.

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