The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

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Overview

The Untold Story of Britain’s First Female Special Agent of World War II

In June 1952, a woman was murdered by an obsessed colleague in a hotel in the South Kensington district of London. Her name was Christine Granville. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising; that she had survived the Second World War was remarkable.

The daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his wealthy Jewish wife, Granville would become one of Britain’s most ...

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Overview

The Untold Story of Britain’s First Female Special Agent of World War II

In June 1952, a woman was murdered by an obsessed colleague in a hotel in the South Kensington district of London. Her name was Christine Granville. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising; that she had survived the Second World War was remarkable.

The daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his wealthy Jewish wife, Granville would become one of Britain’s most daring and highly decorated special agents. Having fled to Britain on the outbreak of war, she was recruited by the intelligence services and took on mission after mission. She skied over the hazardous High Tatras into occupied Poland, served in Egypt and North Africa, and was later parachuted behind enemy lines into France, where an agent’s life expectancy was only six weeks. Her courage, quick wit, and determination won her release from arrest more than once, and saved the lives of several fellow officers—including one of her many lovers—just hours before their execution by the Gestapo. More importantly, the intelligence she gathered in her espionage was a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, and she was awarded the George Medal, the OBE, and the Croix de Guerre.

Granville exercised a mesmeric power on those who knew her. In The Spy Who Loved, acclaimed biographer Clare Mulley tells the extraordinary history of this charismatic, difficult, fearless, and altogether extraordinary woman.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ben Macintyre
As Clare Mulley reveals in her admirable and overdue biography, The Spy Who Loved, Granville was not a straightforward personality, and all the more fascinating for that…Mulley…makes excellent use of newly released archive material, the voluminous secondary sources and interviews with former colleagues, friends and lovers.
Publishers Weekly
Apocryphally dubbed Churchill’s favorite spy and possibly the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Vesper Lynd, Warsaw-born Christine Granville (1908–1952) was the “willfully independent” daughter of a charming but dissolute and caddish Polish aristocrat and a Jewish banking heiress. In England, following Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Granville, armed with “her gift for languages, her adroit social skills, formidable courage and lust for life,” volunteered for the British Secret Intelligence Service and hatched a bold plan to ski into Poland from Hungary, via the Carpathian mountains, in order to deliver British propaganda to Warsaw and return with intelligence on the Nazi occupation. In other heroic feats, Granville parachuted into occupied France to join a Resistance sabotage network, bribed the Gestapo for the release of three of her comrades just two hours before their execution, and persuaded a Polish garrison conscripted into the Wehrmacht to switch allegiances. Getting short shrift from Britain after the war, Granville supported herself with odd jobs before becoming a stewardess on an ocean liner, where she met the man who would fall for her and become her murderer. Mulley (The Woman Who Saved the Children) gives a remarkable, charismatic woman her due in this tantalizing biography. 16 pages of b&w photos & 2 maps. Agent: Andrew Lownie, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency (U.K.). (June)
Kirkus Reviews
Mulley (The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, 2010) delivers a biography of the first woman to serve as a field operative for British intelligence during World War II. The author examines the life of Christine Granville (1908–1952), daughter of a marriage of convenience between a Polish nobleman and a Jewish heiress. A free spirit from birth, the loss of her family's fortune and Poland's freedom propelled her into a life of adventure and danger throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Gifted with a magnetic personality that gave her power over men (and dogs), Granville provided valuable intelligence to the Allies and, late in the war, support to the French Resistance, despite seemingly having to fight her superiors at every step to be given the chance to serve. In addition to the difficulty of unraveling the secrets of spies and the passing with time of most of the primary sources, the author faces a major problem in the near-total absence of the voice of her subject, who famously hated to write letters and was known to embellish her war stories. What Mulley lacks in access to Granville's inner thoughts, she tries to make up for with meticulous research, though the level of detail occasionally slows the narrative momentum. Even after Granville began her service, much of her time was spent dealing with political infighting between various intelligence factions. Beginning with her assistance to France in 1944, Granville accomplished extraordinary feats, including freeing several of her colleagues from captivity on the eve of their scheduled executions. Following the war, Granville struggled to adapt in the face of what many Poles felt was the betrayal of their country by its supposed ally, Britain, and her abandonment by the postwar government. On June 15, 1952, she was stabbed to death by a rejected suitor. A worthwhile biography of an unsung heroine of World War II, but its subject remains elusive.
From the Publisher
“This summer’s most spellbinding saga of espionage and adventure.” —Vogue.com

“Admirable and overdue.” —Ben Macintyre, The New York Times Book Review

“Oustanding.... While a few books about Christine have emerged in the intervening decades, only now, with the publication of Clare Mulley’s scrupulously researched and expertly rendered biography, do we have a multi-dimensional, uncensored, impartial portrait of the legendary spy—said to be Churchill’s favorite—whose 44-year existence was filled with more eye-popping adventures than we’d find plausible in any novel or movie.” —The Daily Beast

“Well-written and thoroughly researched… One British functionary described [Granville's] dispatches from the field as 'good reading.' The same can be said of Ms. Mulley's biography of this extraordinary woman.” —Wall Street Journal

“A stunning biographical achievement.” — Alison Weir, New York Times bestselling author of Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth

“Better than any James Bond novel… The most frank and comprehensive tribute yet to Christine… A thrilling account.” —Salon

“Excellent…. A romping adventure of international espionage, grand plots and sex, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance…. [a] well-researched portrayal, a fascinating and riveting account of an exceptional spy's exceptional life…. An exemplary feminist biography, which, without ever slipping into didacticism, takes its subject, her desires and her choices seriously.” —Haaretz

“A dazzling tale.” —Maclean’s

“Mulley gives a remarkable, charismatic woman her due in this tantalizing biography.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This is a breath-taking story, told with panache and sympathy for an extraordinary heroine. Mulley vividly brings to life not only a resourceful and unusual woman but in doing so helps us understand what makes an ordinary person act with superhuman courage in times of adversity. The Spy Who Loved is required reading for anyone interested in understanding what makes an ordinary person act with superhuman courage in times of adversity. This is a gripping read.” —Anne Sebba, New York Times bestselling author of That Woman

“Not only was Christine Granville Britain’s first woman agent in World War II but carried out some of the most daring missions ever conceived. Her biographer Clare Mulley has provided a vivid account of her activities yet maintains a balanced assessment of the results. Careful research has created sustained tension, vitality and immediacy which are truly page-turning.” —Gordon Thomas, bestselling author of The Pope’s Jews and Gideon’s Spies

“I enjoyed and admired The Spy Who Loved… A really gripping account of the remarkable Christine Granville.” —Simon Mawer, bestselling author of Trapeze and The Glass Room

“An astonishing story, brilliantly told. If a Hollywood movie isn't made about Christine Granville's remarkable life, I'd be amazed.” —Charles Cumming, award-winning author of A Foreign Country

“Impressively researched, and absolutely fascinating. Christine Granville is one of those women you can't help wishing you'd met in real life.” —Jojo Moyes, award-winning author of Me Before You

“Compulsively readable… Clare Mulley has done a dogged piece of detective work piecing together Christine’s ultimately tragic life… She has written a thrilling book, and paid overdue homage to a difficult woman who seized life with both hands” —The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Brings alive a glamorous, swashbuckling heroine” —Sunday Times (UK)

“Engrossing biography details the high-voltage life of one of Britain's most remarkable female spies... Fascinating” —Mail on Sunday (UK)

"Mulley's fastidiously researched tome provides the most detailed picture yet." Sunday Express (UK)

“The brutal end of Christine Granville’s short life – told with terrific élan and mesmerising detail by Clare Mulley – came when the last of a multitude of spellbound lovers stabbed her through the heart in the bedroom of a Kensington hotel…. [a] splendid book… [a] captivating female version of the Scarlet Pimpernel… Christine Granville remains as alive, well and compelling as ever: a figure of radiant magnetism, ruthless determination and a courage that – as several of them attested – could make a strong man shudder.” —The Telegraph (UK) Five Stars (out of five)

"Drawing on an unprecedented range of sources, Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved is a fine account of Christine Granville’s extraordinary war, told with skill and care... Mulley succeeds in making her human... What is quite clear from this inspiring biography is that Granville was as charismatic as she was courageous." —Roderick Bailey, Literary Review

“This is the first book about [Granville] for more than 30 years - and it painstakingly disentangles her complex story and equally complex character.  Clare Mulley has made a fine and soberly thrilling addition to the literature of the undercover war - the sort that does not exaggerate or mythologise… Christine did not want a normal life: all she cared for was freedom, independence and adventure - the more dangerous, the better. This book, massively researched and excitingly told, brings an extraordinary heroine back to life.” —Daily Mail (UK)

“This is a meticulously researched but also highly readable account of [Granville’s] heroic but unfulfilled and deeply tragic life, without any attempt at gloss.  It is one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year.”  —Alistair Horne, The Spectator (UK)

“Assiduously researched, passionately written and highly atmospheric biography… Not just the story of a uniquely brave and complicated patriot, but also a scholarly and tautly written account of secret operations in occupied Europe.” —The Economist

Library Journal
Christine Granville (1908–52) was born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, but the onset of World War II and the fate of her country led her to spy for Britain as the UK's first female secret agent. Sexually emancipated, fiercely loyal to both Britain and Poland, and braver than most men, she was a feminist before the term was widespread and an enigma to many throughout her life. Works about her are few: a secret agent naturally has much to hide, and Granville inspired such loyalty from her compatriots and lovers that little about her has ever been published. Mulley (The Woman Who Saved the Children) has meticulously mined private archives, conducted personal interviews, and consulted previously published and unpublished sources in order to give the reader a balanced account of the woman behind the legend. VERDICT Mulley successfully sorts fact from fiction in this long-overdue and well-researched biography. Readers will love the romance and suspense the author evokes and will wonder why they didn't know about Granville before. Those who enjoy spy stories, such as the James Bond franchise (Ian Fleming was rumored to have based his first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, on Granville's exploits) will delight in this arresting and ultimately tragic story.—Maria Bagshaw, Elgin Community Coll. Lib., IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250030320
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 91,090
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

CLARE MULLEY is the author of The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize.  She is a contributor to The Arvon Book of Life Writing and is a seasoned public speaker.  She has written for History Today, The Express, and The Church Times.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: BORDERLANDS

Perhaps appropriately for a secret agent, the deceptions and confusions that surround Christine’s life start with her birth [Although she was ‘Krystyna’ until 1941, to prevent confusion I consistently use her adopted name, ‘Christine’, of which, she later wrote, she was so proud]. One story has it that Christine was born at the Skarbek family estate on a stormy spring evening in 1915, and that her arrival coincided with the appearance of Venus, the evening star, in the sky. As a result she was nicknamed ‘Vesperale’. In an even more romantic version of events, she was born ‘in the wild borderlands between Poland and Russia’, to a family that was noble, ‘tough, used to invasions, warfare, Cossacks, bandits and wolves’.1 In fact Christine arrived in the world on Friday 1 May 1908. One of her father’s childhood nicknames for her was ‘little star’, but she was born at her mother’s family house on Zielna Street, in central Warsaw, now the capital of Poland. Then, however, Warsaw was technically in Russia. Poland as we know it today was not a recognized country: apart from a brief reappearance, courtesy of Napoleon, for more than a century Poland had been partitioned into three sections, each of them subsumed into the empires of Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia. Christine was born into a family of aristocratic patriots, loyal to a country that would not officially exist again until she was ten years old.

She was a small and seemingly frail baby, so frail in fact that her parents feared for her life, and she was hastily baptized Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek by a local priest less than two weeks after her birth. Five years later, Christine would go through the rite a second time in Beczkowice, where her parents had moved in 1913. The record of this second event has somehow survived in the local parish archive despite a series of wars and regime changes. Written in Russian, it was dated with the Russian Julian and Polish Gregorian calendars, as both the 17 and 30 November 1913. The Church does not officially sanction second baptisms, but Christine’s parents, one a rather lapsed Roman Catholic, the other a non-practising Jew, had long wanted a more elaborate celebration of their daughter’s arrival than had been possible at her birth. Their move out of Warsaw had conveniently provided a new local parish priest with whom to make arrangements.

Two certificates of baptism, five years apart and showing three different dates, serve as notice for Christine’s birth. But she has a single death certificate, part typed, part closely penned into the printed boxes of a Royal Borough of Kensington register office form. Here her given name is ‘Christine Granville’, her occupation is listed as ‘former wife’, and although the certificate is dated 1952, her age is recorded as just thirty-seven. Somewhere between 1908 and 1952, Warsaw and London, life and death, she had changed name and nationality, left two husbands and numerous lovers, won international honours but buried her career, and cut seven years from her life.

Christine’s father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, was a charming man. Described by his cousins as darkly attractive with ‘a seductive little moustache’, and by his nieces as ‘a very handsome man of patrician beauty’, he had that enviable ability to be at once hugely popular among his male friends, and almost irresistibly attractive to women, who seemed to constantly surround him. But the Count’s dark good looks were matched by his dark intentions. He was the archetypal aristocratic cad and bounder.

Jerzy Skarbek led a privileged life, typical of the landed gentry and very far from the struggle for existence faced by much of the Polish population in the late nineteenth century. The Count had been a ‘master’ since childhood, accustomed to having a valet and a groom. It was part of the innate order of the world. And yet, arguably, Jerzy Skarbek was not a Count at all.

With the exception of some Lithuanian princely families, historically Poland’s large enfranchised class, or ‘szlachta’, did not hold aristocratic titles. It was traditional for them to regard each other as equals, to be addressed as ‘dear brother’, and even – when Poland was still an independent country – to elect the Polish king. But many of the ancient nobility became so impoverished that they were effectively peasants with coats-of-arms. And many families who sported illustrious titles, as opposed to simply having noble names, owed these to their imperial overlords, who were, as a rule, buying favours. It was the Russian tsar Nicholas I who granted the Skarbeks’ title in the mid-nineteenth century. The fact that Jerzy Skarbek was not descended from this branch of the family made little difference to his social status. He was known to be a member of one of the oldest families in Poland, and was certainly accepted as an aristocrat in the circles that he believed mattered [* Jerzy Skarbek referred to himself as Count, and was named as such in his press obituary and on his tombstone. Christine listed her parents as Count and Countess Skarbek on her British Certificate of Naturalisation, dated December 1946, and elsewhere. For Polish genealogy and titles see Tomasz Lenczewski, ‘The Marriage of Coats of Arms and Accounts’, Rzeczpospolita, 22 VII (2008)].

Jerzy Skarbek certainly felt the honour of his family keenly, and any perceived slight rankled. As a child Christine remembered him rising from the table when a guest claimed descent from the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. ‘[And I am] descended from a cobbler!’ Jerzy responded with some style, referring to the medieval Krako’w cobbler who had killed the fabled Wawel dragon by enticing it to devour a sheepskin stuffed with sulphur, and from whom he claimed descent.4 Few families boast a dragon-killer among their ancestors, let alone one who then married a king’s daughter. There were plenty more such stories in which the Skarbeks’ history was intertwined with Polish legends, and these would later fuel Christine’s own deeply held sense of personal, family and national pride. The one piece of jewellery that she wore throughout her life was not a wedding ring, but a Skarbek signet ring. This was designed with a slice of iron embedded in its face to commemorate the defiant eleventh-century Skarbek who would not bow to a German emperor for all his war chests of gold. Instead the proud Pole defiantly tossed his gold ring into the German coffers, shouting, ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles love iron!’ The insulted emperor was later routed in a great battle when Polish swords indeed proved their might over the mercenary imperial German forces.

Not all notable Skarbeks had been so warlike, however. The nineteenth-century count Fryderyck Florian Skarbek was a highly respected economist, historian, author and social and political activist who, as president of the Charities Council, had introduced many important social reforms. Count Fryderyck had grown up on the family estate of Zelazowa Wola in the flat but not particularly productive plains west of Warsaw, where he was tutored by a distant relative called Nicholas Chopin. The estate was not hugely rich, and the house itself was quite modest, with the traditional long stretch of low rooms flanking a four-column portico entrance with balcony above. Despite the grand piano in the drawing room, it was essentially a comfortable family home, with geese and ducks free to wander on the porch. When the tutor’s son was born in 1810, he was named after the count, who had sensibly been invited to be the boy’s godfather. Fryderyck Chopin’s first printed work, a polonaise, would be dedicated ‘to Her Excellency Countess Victoria Skarbek, composed by Fryderyck Chopin, a musician aged eight’.5 Count Fryderyck probably paid for the piece to be published, which would account for its dedication to his sister, and he went on to be one of Chopin’s earliest and most ardent supporters. The Skarbek family remained immensely proud of the connection, especially when, after Chopin’s death in 1849, he was widely regarded as the embodiment of Poland’s nationalist politics and poetic spirit.

Jerzy Skarbek had inherited a noble name, a rich family history, and little sense of restraint. The Skarbeks owned acres of land, an assortment of houses, a collection of farms, and stables full of thoroughbred horses, but by his mid-twenties Jerzy’s indulgence in wine and women, roulette and racing had quickly diminished his income. In 1898 his family arranged for him to marry an exceedingly wealthy, clever and ‘absolutely beautiful’ Jewish banking heiress. In December that year, Stefania Goldfeder, newly baptized, was delighted to be embraced into the fold of one of Poland’s oldest families. The marriage was solemnized in the rites of the Helvetic Reform Church, apparently acceptable to both the Roman Catholic Skarbeks and the Goldfeders, who were non-observant Jews.

The wedding caused a scandal, albeit a minor one. No one in Warsaw had any doubts about the bridegroom’s motives, and there were some knowing smiles when the society pages chose to celebrate the Goldfeder family as belonging to ‘a class of financiers actively involved in the task of the material reconstruction of our martyred nation’. Jews, once sheltered by the Polish Commonwealth, had been heavily discriminated against by the Russian occupiers, and although there was a small assimilated Jewish intelligentsia, most Polish Jews spoke a different language, ate different food and wore different clothes. They were a source of curiosity, to be patronized or avoided. Even assimilated Jewish families were still subject to social ostracism, and if Jewish doctors and lawyers were popular it was partly because they brought with them a certain sort of professional distance. Once Jerzy and Stefania’s wedding ceremony was over, the members of the nobility and those of ‘the financial circles’ went their own ways, each with good reason to frown upon the motives of the other in this union. But while it was said that Jerzy did not marry Stefania, but rather he married her money, it is perhaps equally true that Stefania married the noble Skarbek name. The following year Jerzy bought a grand country estate at Młodzieszyn, which he felt both befitted a married man of his station, and was far enough removed to soften some of the noisier Warsaw gossip [Jerzy Skarbek is listed as the landowner of the Wechadlow estate, in the Pinczo district, where Christine probably lived until she was three years old, when they moved to Trzepnica].

Chapter 1: BORDERLANDS

Perhaps appropriately for a secret agent, the deceptions and confusions that surround Christine’s life start with her birth [Although she was ‘Krystyna’ until 1941, to prevent confusion I consistently use her adopted name, ‘Christine’, of which, she later wrote, she was so proud]. One story has it that Christine was born at the Skarbek family estate on a stormy spring evening in 1915, and that her arrival coincided with the appearance of Venus, the evening star, in the sky. As a result she was nicknamed ‘Vesperale’. In an even more romantic version of events, she was born ‘in the wild borderlands between Poland and Russia’, to a family that was noble, ‘tough, used to invasions, warfare, Cossacks, bandits and wolves’.1 In fact Christine arrived in the world on Friday 1 May 1908. One of her father’s childhood nicknames for her was ‘little star’, but she was born at her mother’s family house on Zielna Street, in central Warsaw, now the capital of Poland. Then, however, Warsaw was technically in Russia. Poland as we know it today was not a recognized country: apart from a brief reappearance, courtesy of Napoleon, for more than a century Poland had been partitioned into three sections, each of them subsumed into the empires of Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia. Christine was born into a family of aristocratic patriots, loyal to a country that would not officially exist again until she was ten years old.

She was a small and seemingly frail baby, so frail in fact that her parents feared for her life, and she was hastily baptized Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek by a local priest less than two weeks after her birth. Five years later, Christine would go through the rite a second time in Beczkowice, where her parents had moved in 1913. The record of this second event has somehow survived in the local parish archive despite a series of wars and regime changes. Written in Russian, it was dated with the Russian Julian and Polish Gregorian calendars, as both the 17 and 30 November 1913. The Church does not officially sanction second baptisms, but Christine’s parents, one a rather lapsed Roman Catholic, the other a non-practising Jew, had long wanted a more elaborate celebration of their daughter’s arrival than had been possible at her birth. Their move out of Warsaw had conveniently provided a new local parish priest with whom to make arrangements.

Two certificates of baptism, five years apart and showing three different dates, serve as notice for Christine’s birth. But she has a single death certificate, part typed, part closely penned into the printed boxes of a Royal Borough of Kensington register office form. Here her given name is ‘Christine Granville’, her occupation is listed as ‘former wife’, and although the certificate is dated 1952, her age is recorded as just thirty-seven. Somewhere between 1908 and 1952, Warsaw and London, life and death, she had changed name and nationality, left two husbands and numerous lovers, won international honours but buried her career, and cut seven years from her life.

Christine’s father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, was a charming man. Described by his cousins as darkly attractive with ‘a seductive little moustache’, and by his nieces as ‘a very handsome man of patrician beauty’, he had that enviable ability to be at once hugely popular among his male friends, and almost irresistibly attractive to women, who seemed to constantly surround him. But the Count’s dark good looks were matched by his dark intentions. He was the archetypal aristocratic cad and bounder.

Jerzy Skarbek led a privileged life, typical of the landed gentry and very far from the struggle for existence faced by much of the Polish population in the late nineteenth century. The Count had been a ‘master’ since childhood, accustomed to having a valet and a groom. It was part of the innate order of the world. And yet, arguably, Jerzy Skarbek was not a Count at all.

With the exception of some Lithuanian princely families, historically Poland’s large enfranchised class, or ‘szlachta’, did not hold aristocratic titles. It was traditional for them to regard each other as equals, to be addressed as ‘dear brother’, and even – when Poland was still an independent country – to elect the Polish king. But many of the ancient nobility became so impoverished that they were effectively peasants with coats-of-arms. And many families who sported illustrious titles, as opposed to simply having noble names, owed these to their imperial overlords, who were, as a rule, buying favours. It was the Russian tsar Nicholas I who granted the Skarbeks’ title in the mid-nineteenth century. The fact that Jerzy Skarbek was not descended from this branch of the family made little difference to his social status. He was known to be a member of one of the oldest families in Poland, and was certainly accepted as an aristocrat in the circles that he believed mattered [* Jerzy Skarbek referred to himself as Count, and was named as such in his press obituary and on his tombstone. Christine listed her parents as Count and Countess Skarbek on her British Certificate of Naturalisation, dated December 1946, and elsewhere. For Polish genealogy and titles see Tomasz Lenczewski, ‘The Marriage of Coats of Arms and Accounts’, Rzeczpospolita, 22 VII (2008)].

Jerzy Skarbek certainly felt the honour of his family keenly, and any perceived slight rankled. As a child Christine remembered him rising from the table when a guest claimed descent from the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. ‘[And I am] descended from a cobbler!’ Jerzy responded with some style, referring to the medieval Krako’w cobbler who had killed the fabled Wawel dragon by enticing it to devour a sheepskin stuffed with sulphur, and from whom he claimed descent.4 Few families boast a dragon-killer among their ancestors, let alone one who then married a king’s daughter. There were plenty more such stories in which the Skarbeks’ history was intertwined with Polish legends, and these would later fuel Christine’s own deeply held sense of personal, family and national pride. The one piece of jewellery that she wore throughout her life was not a wedding ring, but a Skarbek signet ring. This was designed with a slice of iron embedded in its face to commemorate the defiant eleventh-century Skarbek who would not bow to a German emperor for all his war chests of gold. Instead the proud Pole defiantly tossed his gold ring into the German coffers, shouting, ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles love iron!’ The insulted emperor was later routed in a great battle when Polish swords indeed proved their might over the mercenary imperial German forces.

Not all notable Skarbeks had been so warlike, however. The nineteenth-century count Fryderyck Florian Skarbek was a highly respected economist, historian, author and social and political activist who, as president of the Charities Council, had introduced many important social reforms. Count Fryderyck had grown up on the family estate of Zelazowa Wola in the flat but not particularly productive plains west of Warsaw, where he was tutored by a distant relative called Nicholas Chopin. The estate was not hugely rich, and the house itself was quite modest, with the traditional long stretch of low rooms flanking a four-column portico entrance with balcony above. Despite the grand piano in the drawing room, it was essentially a comfortable family home, with geese and ducks free to wander on the porch. When the tutor’s son was born in 1810, he was named after the count, who had sensibly been invited to be the boy’s godfather. Fryderyck Chopin’s first printed work, a polonaise, would be dedicated ‘to Her Excellency Countess Victoria Skarbek, composed by Fryderyck Chopin, a musician aged eight’.5 Count Fryderyck probably paid for the piece to be published, which would account for its dedication to his sister, and he went on to be one of Chopin’s earliest and most ardent supporters. The Skarbek family remained immensely proud of the connection, especially when, after Chopin’s death in 1849, he was widely regarded as the embodiment of Poland’s nationalist politics and poetic spirit.

Jerzy Skarbek had inherited a noble name, a rich family history, and little sense of restraint. The Skarbeks owned acres of land, an assortment of houses, a collection of farms, and stables full of thoroughbred horses, but by his mid-twenties Jerzy’s indulgence in wine and women, roulette and racing had quickly diminished his income. In 1898 his family arranged for him to marry an exceedingly wealthy, clever and ‘absolutely beautiful’ Jewish banking heiress. In December that year, Stefania Goldfeder, newly baptized, was delighted to be embraced into the fold of one of Poland’s oldest families. The marriage was solemnized in the rites of the Helvetic Reform Church, apparently acceptable to both the Roman Catholic Skarbeks and the Goldfeders, who were non-observant Jews.

The wedding caused a scandal, albeit a minor one. No one in Warsaw had any doubts about the bridegroom’s motives, and there were some knowing smiles when the society pages chose to celebrate the Goldfeder family as belonging to ‘a class of financiers actively involved in the task of the material reconstruction of our martyred nation’. Jews, once sheltered by the Polish Commonwealth, had been heavily discriminated against by the Russian occupiers, and although there was a small assimilated Jewish intelligentsia, most Polish Jews spoke a different language, ate different food and wore different clothes. They were a source of curiosity, to be patronized or avoided. Even assimilated Jewish families were still subject to social ostracism, and if Jewish doctors and lawyers were popular it was partly because they brought with them a certain sort of professional distance. Once Jerzy and Stefania’s wedding ceremony was over, the members of the nobility and those of ‘the financial circles’ went their own ways, each with good reason to frown upon the motives of the other in this union. But while it was said that Jerzy did not marry Stefania, but rather he married her money, it is perhaps equally true that Stefania married the noble Skarbek name. The following year Jerzy bought a grand country estate at Młodzieszyn, which he felt both befitted a married man of his station, and was far enough removed to soften some of the noisier Warsaw gossip [Jerzy Skarbek is listed as the landowner of the Wechadlow estate, in the Pinczo district, where Christine probably lived until she was three years old, when they moved to Trzepnica].

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

    Christine Granville is a woman one will greatly admire for her c

    Christine Granville is a woman one will greatly admire for her courage, adeptness to any situation and big heart. This book encouraged me to fight on when I was in a situation that required a lot of courage. Christine's bravery was an example to me how one woman can do all she can and more in the face of live and death situations. A great read!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is the fascinating story of Britain's first female special

    This is the fascinating story of Britain's first female special agent in World War II. It is a story of pursuing greatness despite many obstacles. She went on to become one of her country's most highly decorated agents.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 6, 2013

    Incredible story of espionage and WW II history

    Clare Mulley takes us into the battle front and identifies the key players that helped Christine Granville provide vital information to help the Allies win WW II. Fearless, agile, and incredibly charming. Christine lived an incredible life. Clare eloquently describes it with a vernacular and zest that takes you into the war and has you fall in love with Christine. Christine was truly a spy who loved. A must summer read!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2013

    Interesting story of an interesting person

    Well written biography of the not so tidy life of a WWII spy who happened to be a woman. Brings to life Krystyna Skarbek and the world in which she lived.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews

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