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1st but not best, female, spy: meet Marguerite Harrison

In this biography, Elizabeth Atwood tells us of the life and adventures of Marguerite Harrison, ‘America’s First Female Intelligence Agent’. In the book, a well-documented piece of research, we discover a woman of spirit, culture, and individualistic ways. However, one is left to wonder if the title, The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison, refers to the two times Mrs Harrison had to be rescued from imprisonment due to accusations of espionage in the nascent USSR; from her bourgeois background; or from the constraints being a woman imposed on her.

Marguerite Harrison, we learn, was born in a well off, and well known, Baltimore family. Never a conformist, she learned to use her social skills to influence others, to get her way, to reach beyond the home. Following widowhood, she decided to become a journalist, before deciding she wanted more adventures and to experience directly the aftermath of WW1 in Europe. Using her connections, her polyglot skills, as well as her wiles, she managed to get herself a position as a spy in Germany. From then, she turned to Russia, a country undergoing deep changes which impacted her so much she may have turned coat. Despite repeated stints in Lubyanka Prison she remained interested in international affairs, possibly even going to the Middle East on additional missions disguised as cinema, but was never really trusted again.

I find the Afterword most truthful: “Marguerite Harrison was a failure”, both personally and professionally. The accounts her biographer Atwood has to draw on (Harrison’s own memoirs) are suspect, whilst all other documents show a very short-lived flare of grace. The premise of a woman breaking stereotypes is tempting, yet The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison demonstrates that being extraordinary does not necessarily mean being admirable.

Who would enjoy this

Mrs Harrison’s biography is the sort of book that I would often suggest for people who like well researched work. This is particularly true for those who like biographies, not gossip. This is an unabashed investigative paper, reliant on its many footnotes and data.

Additionally, Atwood’s work is clearly an example of a woman overcoming social and political ‘glass ceilings’. Readers with an eye for female history will definitely find it both enlightening and empowering.

Who should give this a pass

As already mentioned, Atwood herself recognises that this is not a story of success. Therefore, I would not suggest it for readers who idealise or, worse, romanticise spies. Even less so if they are looking for a feminist and idealist woman ‘pioneer’ to use as example.

Another group who may not enjoy this volume are those who want light, rousing, biography. Even with the best intentions, and the narrator trying to justify her heroine from time to time, Mrs Harrison’s life was not inspirational.

Conclusions and suggestions

Elizabeth Atwood presents us with a book more academic than general biography. The depth and constancy of reference use is admirable, as opposed to many other similar works. Also, the author tries very hard to remain a mere biographer, not a judge, which deserves praise. Sadly, she cannot help but try to ‘save’ her subject from time to time with inserts which show clear leaps of faith, as well as lack of notes. The most extreme – the suggestion that maybe it was Mrs Harrison who was trying to lure Solomon Mogilevsky, head of Russian Foreign Intelligence, into becoming an agent for the US – makes one cringe.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the awareness Atwood shows, at the end of the volume. It speaks of honest reporting, her own interests and expectations notwithstanding (although clear in between the lines). Bravo, because The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison dares show that the sort of person to life such extraordinary a life is not nice, and thoughtful, and trustworthy. Even more so, it exposes how such a choice of lifestyle would impact those around, for generations to come.

So yes, I applaud Ms Atwood on a coherent narrative report. After all, my main issue with the tome is the unbelievable account of certain events, that I understand derives from having to depend on Mrs Harrison’s clearly unreliable writings as source. In turn, this takes me to my main suggestions for biographies:

- When there are no sources for comparison of claims, explicitly remind the reader to take it all with a pinch (sometimes, a whole shaker-full) of salt.

- Don’t try to justify any actions or put forward theories, unless you have solid evidence to back you up.

- Be conscious of the format you are presenting to your reader. Notes and references as a section at the end of the book are good in traditional print format, but an e-reader would find them less comfortable to access than as footnotes on the page.

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