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The Fabulous Agent Fifi - a Featured Spotlight of "The Paris Spy's Girl"

The Fabulous Agent Fifi by Amanda Lees

I spend a large chunk of my time ferreting around in the National Archives, delving through World War Two records so that I can uncover stories directly from the people who lived them, often in their own words. This led me to a woman who was known as Agent Fifi and whose records were only declassified in September 2014. In real life, her name was Marie Christine Chilver, and she was an agent provocateur for SOE. In other words, she tested spies to make sure they wouldn't give in to temptation or start spilling their secrets while under the influence or mesmerised by her beauty.

Marie Christine was half-Latvian, born there to an English father, a correspondent for the London Times, and a Latvian mother. When Russia annexed Latvia in 1940, her family lost their home and lands and her mother and sister fled to Sweden. At the time, Marie Christine was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and, when the Germans occupied the city, she was sent to Besançon internment barracks where she nursed British prisoners of war and helped them escape into unoccupied territory. Sadly, Marie Christine received little thanks for her kindness, with one young prisoner she helped to escape France describing her afterwards as “one of the expert liars of the world.” 

The hostility she provoked in some might be explained by the fact she had been brought up in a foreign country and had an intensely private nature which no doubt aroused suspicion. She was also a stunningly beautiful blonde who was both witty and intelligent. Stanley Woolrych, commandant at Beaulieu SOE training centre, commented, “I should hate to be deprived of Fifi's reports, which are as entertaining as they are acute.” An article remains in the National Archives which displays her talent for writing, and which was written to bolster her cover as a French journalist going by the name of Christine Collard.

Her cover story enabled her to travel around the UK testing agents in various scenarios, being sprung on them by surprise before deploying her exceptional skills. In one instance, she said of a promising young Belgian agent, José Tinchant, that, “by the evening I had learned practically all there was to know about him,” which effectively ended his career with SOE. Agent Fifi’s work was invaluable both to SOE and national security.  After all, if an agent was so garrulous in the face of temptation, they would be a danger to themselves and to others in the field. As such, she took it seriously and was evidently fair minded in her judgment, although she could also apparently be stubborn and at times stroppy.

Those qualities stood her in good stead in her work as well as when she began to attend postmortems at Beaulieu, confronting the agents she had hitherto tested. All of this I used in writing my latest book in which the character of Christine is based largely on Agent Fifi. As I always say, I never base a character on one person out of respect for them and their family although she was so exceptional that I couldn’t help but infuse her into everything.  However, I also used aspects of other agents and incidents based on real life, as well as my imagination, to flesh out the character that is Christine in my book.

Marie Christine was not the only agent provocateur who worked for SOE. There was another called Winifred Elizabeth Davidson who unfortunately had to be let go because, although married, she carried on seeing her subjects long after she had tested them. Despite the salacious gossip and supposition that inevitably went with Agent Fifi’s job, there is no evidence that she ever slept with her conquests. Indeed, the most intimate account of her activities is when she sat in a hotel room mending scarves for her target.

In addition to her work as a temptress, Agent Fifi also helped SOE with interrogation training and asked to be sent into the field as an agent in France. Given her capabilities and the fact she was multilingual, she was perfectly suited to the task and towards the end of the war, her request was granted. All the while she was working as an agent, Marie Christine sent money to her mother and sister in Sweden whenever she could. After the war, she won compensation from the Soviet Union for the loss of her family’s property and went to live in the Wye Valley with her friend Jean Felgate, an ex-SOE intelligence officer, after Jean’s husband died. The two remained lifelong friends and Jean helped Marie Christine set up and run an animal charity and sanctuary in Latvia which still exists today.

Marie Christine Chilver was only twenty years old when the Germans occupied Paris. Despite her youth, and the fact she was separated from her family, she displayed the cool courage that was a hallmark of everything she did. There is no doubt that she was under-estimated by many and revered by a few who truly understood the importance of her work and the unique brilliance with which she carried it out. I wanted the character of Christine to reflect this compelling woman who gained not just a place in my mind but in my heart. 

I hope that the book will also form a part of her legacy even though it is fiction. As a nod to that legacy, I included the character of a dog named Betty who is based on my own rescue dog from Eastern Europe and who is named after my mother. One of the great joys of my job is that I can not only pay homage to the incredible people who fought in so many different ways during World War Two but bring them back to life so that readers can understand the impossible sacrifices they made and the bravery with which they made them. Marie Christine Chilver, or Agent Fifi, deserves her place in history along with our utmost respect for everything she achieved. She helped bring us the peace and freedom we enjoy today and is remembered by those who knew her as ‘one of life’s real good people.’ There can be no more fitting epitaph.

The Paris Spy’s Girl:


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