Tracking the Real Virginia: The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck
Erika Robuck’s sixth novel The Invisible Woman (PenguinRandomHouse 2021), is something of a departure from her previous works. Robuck is best known for “wife-of-famous-male-writer” plots, as the author herself describes it. Ernest Hemingway’s wife Pauline in Hemingway’s Girl (Berkley 2012) and Zelda Fitzgerald in Call me Zelda (Penguin Group USA 2013) are typical examples. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year.
In her latest novel, Robuck once more chooses a real-life story featuring an American woman of the 20th century, but this time the woman, Virginia Hall, World War II spy in occupied France, is the centre of the story. The man in her life, who she later married, is only introduced towards the end of the book. “Paul came late to the war and their story began after most of her work was complete,” Robuck says. “It felt like a breath of fresh air that she would meet him when she did.”
Robuck is constantly seeking “extraordinary people from the past who come from places familiar to me, or to whom I feel a personal connection”. Virginia hit the mark on both counts, growing up in Robuck’s home state of Maryland and being such an extraordinary woman that Robuck suggests she could launch a subgenre of “husband-of-famous-woman” books. Virginia was an unlikely choice for an undercover spy in a foreign country. Although, as her niece described her to Robuck she was “intimidating and scary-smart” she came with two great disadvantages – one was that despite being fluent in French she spoke it with a strong American accent. The second was that she had lost a leg below the knee following a hunting accident in her twenties. Her wooden prosthetic leg (nicknamed Cuthbert) gave her a pronounced limp. Once the Gestapo discovered her existence, they called her “The Limping Lady”.
Robuck overcame a number of challenges writing the book. First was the difficulty of writing it in the Covid year of 2020 which ruled out her travelling to the site of the events of the novel. Virginia Hall’s work covered in the story took place in France, while Robuck lives in the USA. For settings, she relied on Youtube, firsthand accounts, and her video treadmill that allowed her to “walk” and “hike” the paths Virginia traveled.
Fortunately, a great deal of material exists about this woman who was not only a much-decorated war heroine, but an early member of the CIA. Robuck researched her subject using periodicals, biographies, buried mentions in war memoirs, even Virginia’s declassified personal files at the National Archives to get the details of her missions. Some of the source material was written in French. She was thrilled at being granted access as a researcher to the museum at CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Among the exhibits are Virginia’s Distinguished Service Cross, one of her passports, and a wireless transceiver, tricks of the trade (including rat “letterboxes”), and a painting of Virginia Hall with one of her maquisards—“Les marguerites fleuriront ce soir” (the daisies will bloom at night).
Perhaps more important to Robuck’s research was Virginia’s niece Lorna in Baltimore who Robuck met with many times. Lorna coloured in the details behind the “black and white sketch” Robuck had built up, “with her photographs, artifacts, and remembrances of her ‘Aunt Dindy’.”
Next came the task of making this brilliant and forceful character, the ultimate strong woman, into a heroine that readers of a novel could sympathize with and wish to succeed. Robuck confesses that this was difficult. Multiple readers gave feedback that she needed to make Virginia more likeable. Even Virginia’s landing partner on her third mission did not think highly of her because of how she cut him off from the network. Several leaders of French resistance fighters had contentious relationships with her. The dangerous rivalries between groups reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the insubordination from male resistance leaders resentful of having a female commander imposed upon them, all contributed to Virginia as an unapproachable figure. It was Robuck’s editor, Amanda Bergeron, who suggested a solution to the problem might be giving the reader a look at young Virginia in a prologue. Robuck took her up on the idea, showing Virginia before the war and all its losses—not only before the amputation—and the early days of Virginia’s love affair with Paris.
The last major challenge was deciding on which parts of Virginia’s life to focus on. After training by the British she spent 13 months in France in 1941-42, working for the United Kingdom’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE). She organized spy networks, ran safehouses, and delivered important intelligence to the British government – all while staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. After narrowly escaping from France, she returned in 1944 shortly before the D Day landings, this time working for the Americans.
It took two and a half years and four iterations of the novel, to find the story that needed to be told told, Robuck says. She began writing the book as a dual period novel including a female Iraq War veteran. The second version was a dual protagonist novel with another SOE agent, but Virginia “insisted this was all about her”. Robuck started the novel again, set during Hall’s first WWII mission to France, but decided that was all backstory. Finally, she wrote the novel as it is, set during Hall’s second WWII mission to France, overcoming the guilt and trauma of having survived the destruction by the Nazis of her first network, conquering her demons as she builds, arms and trains a new network. It was a painful exercise to chop all those pages, Robuck says, but the sacrifice has clearly been worthwhile.
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She is writing a series set in 17th century England during the English Civil War. Book 2 The Tawny Sash will be released in 2021. You can follow updates on her blog.