foreign writers

A few months ago, a request from Japan arrived on Twitter.井上 篤 夫.Could Atsuo Inoue come and interview me in the Netherlands. Eh... Japan? Mata Hari? Atsuo who? We meet in Leeuwarden four weeks later, in the foyer of the Museum of Friesland: ‘You’ll recognize me. I’ll be the only Japanese person in the museum.’ As I walk across the square, I spot a man wearing a white cap running in my direction. Atsuo Inoue. We go to the room with the Mata Hari exhibits and I tell him all sorts of things about her and about Sam Waagenaar's book, which he is translating into Japanese 50 years after it was published.

Atsuo is a writer and journalist. His preoccupation with Mata Hari is completely normal, he thinks. After all, she’s one of the most famous women in the world, even now, and in his country too. Everywhere books about her are still being published. A look at our list of books about Mata Hari reveals how many writers around the world who have penned a book about her.

Atsuo writes, records, takes photos and has an endless list of questions. How did he know that I'm busy with Mata Hari? ‘I read your blog,’ he says. Yes, okay, I think. ‘Really, I do.’ At the end of the interview he hands me three books about Mata Hari, translated into Japanese. ‘Especially Julie Wheelwright's book provoked a lot of discussion in Japan,’ he says.

‘I didn’t know that,’ Julie responds when I tell her what Atsuo said. Yes, she’s aware her book has sold well internationally, but discussions about it? In Japan?

Julie and I got to know each other through Mata Hari. I read her book The Fatal Lover, Mata Hari and the Myth of Woman in Espionage (1993) and became intrigued by the way she viewed Mata Hari, not only as a historian and writer, but also as a woman. She didn’t write just another biography, but portrayed her in a completely different context.

We talked to each other through Skype and I went to see her at the City, University of London, where she is senior lecturer and director of the master’s in narrative non-fiction. During lunch, a Mata Hari Seminar in London with several speakers was suggested. A year later everything had been arranged and she sent me the programme for 28 October. In between, we saw each other regularly: both of us participated in a BBC Radio discussion programme, I had a chat with her at her university, and she became a consultant at the Museum of Friesland.

Her fascination with Mata Hari was triggered by a friend who ‘asked if I had read the file in the National Archives about Mata Hari. I dived in straight away and was completely intrigued by her character. Her interrogation by the British secret service in November 1916 seems to me to have been nothing more than theatrics. The fact that she travelled with ten suitcases through Europe while the First World War was going on made me incredibly curious. I read several biographies, recognised the myth, and wanted to figure out what her story really meant, also in relation to this type of international women, who clearly were perceived as a threat to the status quo because they were so independent.’

‘I went to see Sam Waagenaar in Rome. He had already arranged to sell all his documents and scrapbooks to the Museum of Friesland. He was very funny. On the one hand, he enjoyed talking about Mata Hari and his book, but on the other he was a grumpy old man who sued other people because he thought they were plagiarising him.

I was the first to see the documents he used for his book, in the 1960s. Then I went to Vincennes, to the archive there, and I was also allowed to access the Metropolitan Police Service files here in London. That's how all the pieces of the puzzle came together.’

‘I also looked at other women who were convicted during the First World War and it turned out that the notion of the seductive spy was nothing new. The myth does not start with Mata Hari, it already existed before she entered the stage, but she has come to embody it. It was the French secret service, in the person of Captain Georges Ladoux, who suggested she use her skills as a seductress to extract information from other secret services. I had already written a book about women who served as a soldier or marine in the military service (Amazons and Military Maids, 1989). I compared these two aspects and viewed them from the feminist perspective.’

Well, then suddenly she wrote that book, almost 25 years ago. She’s proud of it; other writers picked up her arguments. Her own view on Mata Hari changed again with the publication, last year at Tresoar in Leeuwarden, of the letters she wrote before she travelled to Paris. ‘I already admired her for her courage. Now, because of those letters, I find her much more sympathetic. And just imagine declaring: “I'm going to Paris, I want to be someone.” My God, isn’t that something we all want?’

One question she would like to ask her: ‘Where did the idea of becoming a spy come from? I think the story about a German consul knocking on her door in The Hague and giving her money for information is too simple. I don’t think she ever answered that question, and I think much more was afoot.’

She still broods sometimes. Maybe she should republish her book, like so many writers do? Not a re-publication but perhaps another book inspired by all of the new information now available that can offer a fresh perspective on the story, even after all this time? Julie mentions Marthe Richard regularly during our chats. She was hired by Ladoux as an (double) agent. After the war she wrote her memoirs, entered politics and was awarded the Legion of Honour. All Mata Hari got was a bullet.