Elinor De Witt in The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear lives a quiet life, retired after volunteering for the resistance effort in Belgium during World War I and returning to spy for Britain during World War II. Her father leaves the family to join the war effort in the first war, and Elinor makes a silent vow that “she, her mother and sister would do all they could to arm themselves against their obvious weakness; the vulnerability of being female.” After realizing the father has perished at the front, the mother befriends a member of the resistance and allows Elinor and her older sister to observe German train movements and even sabotage the tracks.
Elinor, though younger, is more serious, agreeing to weapon training after the recruiter convinces her that a citizen can either be predator or prey. Elinor soon recognizes that “being a predator filled her with as much fear as being prey,” and the recruiter points out that such fear could keep her safe. Elinor views herself as “a predator who understood what it was to be prey” and armed “with that knowledge, she knew she would survive…”
After World War I, the three women head to Britain where Elinor excels at her studies and wins admission to Cambridge. Her mother rejects that plan and urges her to remain close in London. The young woman’s curiosity and drive to learn are not vanquished so easily. Elinor masters multiple languages and, feeling distant from her less academically oriented mother and sister, moves to France to work as a teacher.
Hitler’s rise spurs fears in France, and Elinor returns to Britain, teaching at the boarding school where she often struggled with teachers, including the woman who went on to become headmistress. The older woman viewed Elinor’s behavior as demonstrating resolve and resilience rather than disrespect: “our women in the making will need such qualities to see them through.”
The headmistress points out the tumultuous years of war have been hard on the young, “giving rise to an element of doubt, of unknowing that can in turn lead to undesirable words, thoughts and actions.” She warns, foreshadowing, that “Some of our pupils are the daughters of bankrupt men – and women – and I don’t’ mean bankrupt only in a financial sense…. The years after the war changed our society, and that is reflected in the attitudes and behaviors…”
Elinor is expected to set an example and support high standards that will “become the backbone of everything they do in life. Every. Single. Decision.” The headmistress concludes, “I have found that when one remains true to one’s established values, life’s squalls, storms and doldrums become easier to navigate.”
Elinor leaves her teaching post to work as an intelligence officer in Belgium, hoping that such values will protect her and villagers who have joined the resistance. Some colleagues, though, are in league with men in the pursuit of power. They betray their country not by cooperating with Nazis, but by prioritizing their careers, adjusting war plans to support a competing group of spies without alerting the full team.
The team barely escapes after a partner orders Elinor to shoot a small child threatening to reveal the position. Elinor refuses, and subsequently endures a month in a mental hospital. She is intelligent enough to cooperate, later awarded with a comfortable cottage in a quiet village.
Elinor learns the full story about her last day as a spy after mob family attacks a brother, her neighbor. Jim yearns to escape his criminal past, but the family has friends in high places, the same men who betrayed the Belgium villagers. Elinor befriends the mobster’s widowed sister to gather evidence that might end the harassment.
Protagonists or antagonists – police, spies or mobsters – err by underestimating the capabilities of women.