The bestselling author Rachel Hore tells Historia about the time research for a new novel unearthed a character so compelling that she took over, and changed, Rachel’s thoughts about her book – which became the recently-published A Beautiful Spy.
Serendipity must be the origin of many a historical novel.
I was researching an idea for a completely different story when I came across Olga Gray. My potential 1950s female protagonist needed a meaty backstory, and a perilous career as a wartime spy was one of several possibilities I was entertaining. Amongst books I leafed through were two biographies of the legendary MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight (‘M’) and there she was in their pages, Olga, waiting for me.
Olga had been active as a spy in the 1930s, an earlier period than the one I required, but I found I couldn’t get her out of my head. After a weekend of intense reflection I pushed my original project onto the back burner (where it still sits) and began to read everything I could find about Olga Gray.
Olga was recruited by M in 1931, at the age of 25, to spy on members of the British Communist Party. This was a time of political upheaval and the Government was concerned that Communist values were taking root in certain sections of the working population and that the Soviet Comintern was fomenting revolution.
A mutiny by naval ratings at the Scottish port of Invergordon in September of that year, following rumours of job losses, had caused particular alarm, for the Russian Revolution had started in a similar manner, and these mutineers sang the Red Flag, the Communist anthem.
Olga was an experienced secretary and, office skills being in demand, it was fairly straightforward for M to plant her in a fringe cultural organization called the Friends of the Soviet Union. In time she progressed to the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain itself, where she was secretary to its leader, Harry Pollitt.
For six years she lived a double life. Not even her closest family were allowed to know of her work as a secret agent. Her only confident was her handler and she came to rely totally on M as her anchor.
The work was hard and unrelenting. It compromised her integrity, wrecked her personal life and took a terrible toll on her mental health. In the later years of her spy work she lived in constant fear of her life.
What was it about Olga Gray that attracted her to me so strongly? I had written about a female Special Operations Executive spy in an earlier novel, A Gathering Storm. Beatrice, its protagonist, was an imagined character, though inspired by real-life examples.
Parachuting into enemy territory by moonlight, hiding from Nazi soldiers, suffering torture after she was caught had made for an action-packed story. Much of Olga’s work, by contrast, was mundane and office based, and she rather liked some of the people she was spying on.
It was this apparent ordinariness that appealed to me for it hid complexity beneath its surface. Olga was middle-class, a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, and her widowed mother expected that her eldest daughter would work as a typist for a few years before finding a nice young man to marry and giving up work to have a family.
Olga, too, seemed to think this would be her fate, but at the same time she was restless. A psychologist might highlight her father’s bullying treatment of her in childhood, following a family tragedy. Olga had certainly been almost relieved when her father was later killed in Flanders.
A misfit, she’d become a troublemaker at school. Grown up, she bleached her hair and dressed provocatively. Yet she was also loyal, reliable, family oriented and patriotic. A woman of her time, but one who yearned to step beyond what society ordained for her. She was an ordinary woman who became extraordinary.
I wanted to explore what she might have been like, what drove her, what it was to have been a certain kind of woman then and how she responded to the various pressures on her.
As an old lady, in 1984, Olga was interviewed about her work as a spy for the Mail on Sunday, when she was candid about having lived in constant fear.
Documents in the National Archive, particularly M’s detailed account of Olga’s role in the Woolwich Arsenal Case of 1938, provided primary evidence about her character and what M looked for in a spy.
She wasn’t the only woman he recruited; indeed, he later reflected that in his world of secrets “a very high percentage of the greatest coups have been brought off by women.” Henry Hemming’s biography of Maxwell Knight, M, offered many additional insights into Olga’s psychology, yet I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to bring Olga to life with my own pen, for her to tell me herself what it had all been like.
It was the first time that I’d felt possessed by the urge to fictionalize a real-life historical figure. One or two had slipped into earlier novels as shadowy minor characters – such as Vera Atkins, the SOE handler in A Gathering Storm – but I’d not had to inhabit them in the way that one does a protagonist.
Indeed, I’d actively avoided including real-life people in my novels for two reasons. One was that I feared falling foul of some impossible high scholarly or ethical standard I’d set myself – my research wouldn’t be sufficiently thorough; I’d offend living descendants or historians; how could I presume to imagine someone else’s innermost thoughts or give them a voice? The other reason was a creative one – I much prefer my characters to be entirely mine; that is until I set them free on the page, when they leap up and acquire lives of their own.
The first reason, about standards, continues to haunt me. On publication day my heart plummeted when I received an excited email from a lady who’d bought the novel and claimed to have known Olga at the end of her life, in a residential home in London, when I thought she’d died in Canada. The relief when I discovered that this lady’s elderly ex-spy had not been Olga was considerable.
When I put my research into Olga to one side and started to write, I found it much more difficult than I’d expected. The scenes themselves were straightforward to draft, especially the ones informed by historical and biographical evidence, but Olga seemed stilted to me. I felt I was observing her as an outsider and despite going over my writing many times I wasn’t satisfied.
It was only when I decided to change her forename, a mark that I was fictionalizing her, that I became more confident. Whether anyone who knew Olga (who died in 1990) would feel that my ‘Minnie’ Gray conveys credible aspects of Olga, I still hope.
We must bear in mind that characters in fiction are always simplified constructs, different from real-life people. I have sent a copy of my novel to Olga’s nephew and maybe I’ll hear what he thinks. Perhaps what I’ve attempted by fictionalizing Olga is what many fiction writers do – take the singular and make it universal. With A Beautiful Spy I’m simply having a carefully aimed shot at imagining how a woman like Olga might have been.
Rachel Hore worked as an editor at HarperCollins for many years before moving to Norwich where she taught Publishing and Creative Writing at the UEA until recently.
Photo of Olga Gray: supplied by author
Maxwell Knight (M): MI5 website. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
Harry Pollitt, leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1925: via Wikimedia
Metropolitan Police mugshots of Percy Glading, a Communist Party of Great Britain official and Soviet spy in the Woolwich Arsenal: MI5 website. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.