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Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War.

Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War. By Sophie De Schaepdrijver. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Pp. xii, 258. $25.99.)

The author of this book describes it as "both a biography of Gabrielle Petit and a study of the way she was commemorated" (1). These two elements are inseparable, for it was the discovery of this relatively obscure young agent that provided devastated postwar Belgium with an enduring and galvanizing national symbol.

Unlike the two other Great War heroines with which she is usually associated--Edith Cavell and Louise de Bettignies--Petit did not enjoy a stable upbringing. Her father's myopic, intermittent, and ultimately fruitless attempts to become a successful inventor destroyed the family's economy, shattered his marriage, and plunged his three children into social chaos. After her mother's early death, Petit spent the remaining bulk of her childhood in a convent boarding school where she was noted for qualities that would one day make her a successful agent: keen intelligence, a boisterous temperament, and a fierce unwillingness to submit to injustice.

This latter feature eventually furnished teenaged Petit with a one-way ticket out of the school, which destroyed her dream of becoming a teacher and forced her to live by her wits and a frustrating series of low-paying jobs. But when the Germans invaded and Petit became one of the thousands of Belgian spies recruited by British Intelligence, she discovered what she had apparently been born to do. Not only did she gain confidence as the "roaming agent" Miss LeGrand--her chosen nom de guerre--but Petit also provided British Intelligence with valuable information.

Although Sophie De Schaepdrijver includes some of Petit's detailed reports, it was not this energetic young spy's attention to German armaments and troop movements that inspired postwar tributes in bronze and celluloid; rather, it was her behavior during her arrest, imprisonment, trial, and execution. Though "Miss LeGrand" never completely reined in her hatred of the German occupiers, the imprisoned Petit gave full vent to her patriotic rage: She insulted guards, scribbled pro-Belgian graffiti on her prison walls, and shouted during her trial and at her execution.

Postwar Belgium transformed this defiant personality into a civic saint. Devastated by four years of brutal occupation then virtually ignored by its allies at the Paris Peace Conference, Belgium was desperate for a way in which to regain a measure of national self-respect. But in their urgency to make Petit what they needed her to be, those who documented Belgium's wartime resistance plunged her story into a bog of hagiography.

De Schaepdrijver has expertly separated fact from fiction, presenting her material in a thoroughly engaging style. She acknowledges that writing the book's first section was "an exercise in documenting an obscure life," but when the facts are few De Schaepdrijver fills the blanks with knowledgeable inferences (1). In doing so, she has managed to bring Petit's life and legacy--along with all its variegated historical contexts--into clear focus.

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Author:Atwood, Kathryn J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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