The best books about formidable females in Nazi-occupied France

Sarah Steele Author Of The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel
By Sarah Steele

Who am I?

Having spent much time in France, I’ve been party to some incredible stories of the war years. The beautiful home owned by friends was once gifted by General De Gaulle to the village baker for his work hiding Resistance messages in loaves of bread; 90-year-old Jeanne remembers her father hiding Jewish families and helping them cross into free France; woodlands are punctuated by wooden crosses marking execution sites. For a writer, this is irresistible material, and it has been an honour to write The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel and The Lost Song of Paris in tribute to the many acts of bravery and resistance over four long years of German occupation.

I wrote...

The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel

By Sarah Steele,

Book cover of The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel

What is my book about?

The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel tells the story of Lucie Laval, teacher in a Dordogne village split in two by the German demarcation line in 1942. Lucie is at the heart of a perilous operation to rescue Jewish children picked from the streets of Paris and pass them across to Free France, from where they will be taken to safety. Decades later, Hannah Stone honours her late grandmother’s request for her to visit Saint-Michel and find Lucie at Les Cerisiers, the Laval family home with its beautiful cherry orchard. The associated recipes Hannah finds in an old cookery book lead her to discover family secrets that have lain dormant for over half a century.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

Why did I love this book?

If ever another film should be made about an SOE agent in occupied France, it should tell the story of Nancy Wake, a brash, fearless Australian who caused havoc for the Nazis as ‘White Mouse’, the nominal leader of a huge Maquis network. I came upon Nancy’s file at the National Archives, and her SOE training report sums up this extraordinary woman: "She is tough, stubborn and plucky, with plenty of initiative. She has a strong personality, is jolly and sociable, but capable of being rather difficult." Those who came up against her would certainly have agreed, including her handlers. This book is a fantastic description of Nancy’s sometimes reckless bravery and incredible achievements inside enemy territory.

By Russell Braddon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Nancy Wake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Of all the variously talented women SOE sent to France, Nancy Wake was perhaps the most formidable' -Sebastian Faulks

This is the incredible true story of the greatest spy you've never heard of-as told to the author by the woman herself.

At the outbreak of World War Two, Nancy Wake's glamorous life in the South of France seemed far removed from the fighting. But when her husband was called up for military service, Nancy felt she had just as much of a duty to fight for freedom. By 1943, her fearless undercover work even in the face of personal tragedy…

Charlotte Gray

By Sebastian Faulks,

Book cover of Charlotte Gray

Why did I love this book?

There are few who have written about occupied France as transportingly and with the same level of carefully dripped research as has Sebastian Faulks. Charlotte Gray is arguably the textbook from which all other authors might learn. It is impossible to sit inside a French farmhouse kitchen alongside one of his characters and not believe you are there, nor to be drawn into the world of Charlotte as she completes her SOE training and is dropped in France to fight for her country and to discover the fate of her lover, missing RAF pilot Peter Gregory. Spies, collaborators, constant jeopardy and a cracking love story too—unmissable.

By Sebastian Faulks,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Charlotte Gray as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A remarkable story of a Scottish woman in Occupied France pursuing a perilous mission of her own


In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission - officially, to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action. She travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. As the people in the small town prepare to meet their terrible destiny, Charlotte…

Never Forget You

By Jamila Gavin,

Book cover of Never Forget You

Why did I love this book?

Jamila Gavin is best known for Coram Boy, which enjoyed huge success and went on to become a stage production. Her latest book is an incredibly moving story of four schoolfriends who go on to take very different and equally demanding roles during World War Two. The character of Noor is based on the real-life SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess who served as a wireless operator in Nazi-occupied Paris. This is a beautifully written, emotionally engaging story of women barely in their twenties, and a harrowing insight into life in Paris for Jewish families and those working to help them. 

By Jamila Gavin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never Forget You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A stunning and heartbreaking new novel from Jamila Gavin, the bestselling and award-winning author of Coram Boy and The Wheel of Surya.

England, 1937.

Gwen, Noor, Dodo and Vera are four very different teenage girls, with something in common. Their parents are all abroad, leaving them in their English boarding school, where they soon form an intense friendship. The four friends think that no matter what, they will always have each other. Then the war comes.

The girls find themselves flung to different corners of the war, from the flying planes in the Air Transport Auxiliary to going undercover in…

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why did I love this book?

On finishing my book, I wanted to write a companion novel, based this time in Paris. My inspiration for the lead character in that book was Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, an extraordinary woman who led the Alliance network in France, operating on behalf of SIS, as MI6 was then known. Her handler Sir Kenneth Cohen described her as the ‘textbook beautiful spy,’ but her intelligence and courage marked her out even more. Marie-Madeleine lived a life on the run, operating under the radar via a string of false identities, and even escaping imprisonment. Lynne Olsen’s riveting account tells the story of Marie-Madeleine’s terrifying existence in Nazi-occupied France, and of a heartbreaking love affair. 

By Lynne Olson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Madame Fourcade's Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The little-known true story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the woman who headed the largest spy network in occupied France during World War II, from the bestselling author of Citizens of London and Last Hope Island

“Brava to Lynne Olson for a biography that should challenge any outdated assumptions about who deserves to be called a hero.”—The Washington Post


In 1941 a thirty-one-year-old Frenchwoman, a young mother born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamour, became the leader of a…

Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Book cover of Suite Française

Why did I love this book?

I’ve chosen this book not just for the incredible picture it paints of German occupation, but for the story of its survival. Irène Némirovsky was a Ukrainian-Jewish author living in Paris with her young family until she was denied French citizenship and forced to flee to the French countryside. In July 1942 she was arrested during a period of vicious roundups by the Germans and transported to Auschwitz, where she died a month later from typhus. Irène’s two daughters were amongst the crowd that gathered daily outside the Hotel Lutetia in Paris, where returnees from concentration camps were processed after the liberation of France. Her daughter Denise kept the notebook containing Suite Française for fifty years before realising what it contained, and Irène’s masterpiece was finally published in 2004.

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Suite Française as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through, not in terms of battles and politicians, but by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. She did not live to see her ambition fulfilled, or to know that sixty-five years later, "Suite Francaise" would be published for the first time, and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during a year that begins with France's fall to the Nazis in June 1940 and ends with Germany turning its attention to Russia, "Suite Francaise" falls…

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