When asked to write about someone who fascinates you and why, most historians will do one of two things: (1) latch on to an individual somehow related to their most recent research, or (2) scramble to choose one person out of an entirely too-long list of people who have affected them. Guess which one I fall into? (I’ll give you a hint–it isn’t the first one.)
I could easily talk about one of my British historical figures. Elizabeth I, William Wilberforce, Richard III, Henry V (of England), William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Thomas Middleton, Aphra Behn, Queen Anne, Jane Austen, Bloody Mary, Lady Jane Grey, Charles Dickens, and George MacDonald are just a few of the people who came to mind. However, choosing between so many people that I have studied or incorporated into my work as a historian seems a bit too much like cheating. Or maybe dishonest to myself and overly loyal to my studies would be a better description?
I can talk about someone who has inspired me in my personal life, I suppose, such as my friends, parents, sister, other family members, teachers, and other mentors. Goodness knows all of them have fascinated me at one point or another. But I don’t think I could do any of them the justice they deserve in a post like this.
So how do I decide? By lottery, sort of. I wrote a lot of names on scraps of paper, scattered them on the floor, and had Janie choose one. Then I ignored her choice (Queen Elizabeth I, btw), and went with the first name that came to mind.
I have recently become obsessed with finding the names of women who fought in the Resistance in WWII, so when Nancy Wake came to mind, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I still don’t know much about her, but what I do know makes the image of this fierce, frightening woman all the more intriguing.
Nancy Wake (b. 1912-d. 2011), born and raised in Australia and New Zealand, was a reporter in New York and London before she married a Frenchman just in time for the German invasion of France. Wake soon became a leading figure in the guerrilla warfare movement of the Resistance in France, to the point that by 1943 she was at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list. She escaped to England and became a Special Operations Executive before returning to France and literally leading secret troops against the Nazis. She has since been honored with many awards, including the George Medal from Britain, the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre from France, and the Medal of Freedom from the U.S.
There was a British TV show that was loosely based on her exploits (the first two seasons of Wish Me Luck, if you want to know), and several books, including an autobiography by Wake herself. Needless to say, I’m extremely interested in watching the show and reading the books.
There’s a lot more that I could say about her, but that would just get confusing and convoluted. Let’s just leave it at this: Nancy Wake was a strong, powerful woman who I am fascinated by, and one of many people who hold my fascination.