Pearl Witherington Cornioley was one tough cookie. The eldest child in a poor family, she led a hard-scrabble life, stealing half-rotten potatoes discarded by street vendors at the crack of dawn in order to provide something to eat for her mother and siblings, going to work full-time at age seventeen as a secretary, and teaching at night after work to make some extra money.
Abandoned by her charming but alcoholic father, Pearl did whatever it took to help her mother make ends meet in prewar Paris. A British subject, she was born and raised in the City of Light, an Englishwoman who spoke fluent French. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and France and Britain subsequently entered World War II, there was no doubt in Pearl’s mind that she wanted to do her bit to defeat the Nazis.
Code Name Pauline tells Pearl’s fascinating story—one that, for decades, she was reluctant to share, until, late in life, she relented, allowing herself to be interviewed for a French publisher. Chicago writer Kathryn Atwood has “gathered, translated, and gently edited” Pearl’s reminisces in this newly released memoir.
Tough and considerate, patriotic and determined, Pearl volunteered for service in Britain, becoming personal assistant to the director of Allied Air Forces and Foreign Liaison at the Air Ministry in England. Wanting to do more, she applied to the Inter-Services Research Bureau. Unknown to just about everyone at the time—and even for decades after World War II—that bureau was, in fact, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Britain’s secret organization created to conduct espionage, sabotage, guerrilla warfare, and reconnaissance missions in occupied Europe. SOE agents also recruited and assisted local resistance movements.
It was this work that Pearl undertook after parachuting into France in September 1943, when she was just twenty-nine years old. For months, Pearl, whose code name was “Pauline,” worked as a courier delivering coded messages and, later, as an organizer and leader coordinating the efforts of resistance fighters.
Code Name Pauline reveals Pearl’s life, from her scrappy childhood in Paris to her secret work in the SOE to the daunting postwar efforts she undertook advocating for recognition of SOE agents and resistance fighters. Like many of those who were part of World War II, Pearl never considered herself a hero, despite the danger she faced day in and day out. Modest and plain-spoken, Pearl’s story is revealed in a matter-of-fact manner that belies the real-life drama she encountered while working undercover in France.
The understated tone of Code Name Pauline can at times feel a bit dry. Pearl’s sense of humility does not lend itself well to a romantic tale of wartime adventure—indeed, Pearl herself hated it when others attempted to glamorize her story. As a result, Code Name Pauline at times feels a little flat, even if Pearl’s story is a compelling and significant one.
The understated tone of the book, however, does not diminish the meaningfulness of this important story. As one of only thirty-nine women to serve the British as undercover agents in France, Pearl’s story is exceptional. And, as more and more of those who served in World War II depart this world, it is important to hear the first-hand accounts of their service.
Code Name Pauline is intended for the young adult reader. Indeed, Pearl herself said that part of the reason she decided to share her story was to inspire young people. Young readers, however, may not be familiar with some of the places, people, and events that are featured in the book, which may make it a difficult read for them. Although Atwood has added some contextual details at the beginning of each chapter to help set the stage, some additional information may have been useful to paint a richer picture of Pearl’s wartime experiences.
In some ways, in fact, Code Name Pauline raises more questions than it answers. We get only sketchy information about how Pearl survived on a daily basis. We get only glimpses of the actions in which she participated. Little is said about the messages she delivered, to whom she delivered them, or what the result was. That’s not to say that Code Name Pauline isn’t without such stories; indeed, some of the stories she shares convey tension, fear, urgency, and even humor. But it seems Pearl has been selective about the memories she decided to share, and, in doing so, the story presented here feels somewhat incomplete.
Code Name Pauline provides a taste of Pearl’s life as an undercover agent during World War II as well as a glimpse into the SOE. As such the book will be of interest to anyone who studies World War II, particularly those with a penchant for stories about resistance fighters and of the women who contributed to the war effort. Readers who are familiar with such works as A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm (in which Pearl is mentioned several times) or with Sebastian Faulks’s novel Charlotte Gray will find much of interest in Pearl’s story.
August 2013, Chicago Review Press
$19.95, 184 pages pages, hardcover with maps and photo insert
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen