Last spring I was captivated by a three-part series from the UK called Bletchley Circle. I assumed it would be about the brilliant men and women who worked secretly at Bletchley Park during WWII to decipher intercepted German radio broadcasts and turn the deciphered messages into intelligence reports. Winston Churchill referred to these individuals, led by brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, as "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled." In 1941, when the top Codebreakers wrote to him that they were starved of resources to do their essential work, Churchill ordered, "Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done."
However, Bletchley Circle was different from the “women in war” theme I was expecting and enjoy. It did start out showing four women working at Bletchley – Susan, an inspired puzzle solver; Lucy, who has a photographic memory; Millie, gifted at languages and strategy; and Jean, who appeared to be their boss during the war and seemed to know where to go to get information at all times – then jumped to seven years after the war. The women have lost touch and Susan has married (Tim, who does not know of his wife’s past as a code breaker because she and many others had signed the Official Secrets Act and can’t tell anyone – it is amazing how these people respected their pledge) and is raising two children, dealing with post-war rations. Slightly acquainted with a woman who was murdered, Susan starts following newspaper reports of her death which turns into coverage of a serial killer. Susan notices a pattern which she thinks the police have missed and insists on bringing her concerns to Scotland Yard. The detective is polite at first but can’t find anything to back up her theories so sends her home. Frustrated but convinced she is right, Susan hunts up her old friends and convinces them to help her investigate the killer. They are reluctant, and in Millie’s case, a bit hurt that Susan gave up their plan to travel the world to marry and settle down, but soon they also believe it is their duty to catch the killer to prevent additional deaths. However, while the police scoff at them, the killer becomes aware of their efforts and recognizes in Susan an intricate mind worthy of his respect. In one chilling scene, after Susan’s husband, Tim, has suggested she do crossword puzzles rather than worry about silly old murders, Tim picks up the newspaper and said, “Look, you managed to get all of this one done quickly!” Susan looks at the nearly completed crossword on her breakfast table and realizes the killer was in her home and that she has put her family into grave danger.
As with Homefront, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, this series shows the displacement certain women who had made significant contributions to WWII experienced afterwards, here relegated to housework and childrearing (Susan – which would be fine if she weren’t so bored by it), waitressing (Millie, despite all her language skills), ironing (Lucy, who also gets beaten by her husband). Only Jean seems to have established a career, working as a librarian. Perhaps it is implausible that the women could have obtained the information that enables them to solve the mystery (as I said to my sister, a modern version would include a hacker to get the needed data), but it was very enjoyable despite that. The only flaw was that Susan, the most interesting and most important character, was hard to understand. I think the rapid-fire way words came out of her mouth was supposed to show how urgent she considered the issue and to contrast with her somber demeanor. However, I wished she had enunciated more clearly! I was pleased to read that more episodes have been commissioned. You can still watch the series on PBS.com and Bletchley Park is now a museum, which I hope to visit on my next trip to England.
If you are interested in this topic, here are a couple books you would enjoy:
I feel as if I have read other fiction in which young women were sent to Bletchley Park (and had exciting adventures once there) but I can’t remember specific titles. Survivors of Bletchley were legally prohibited from discussing their work for many years and have criticized Enigma and other novels as inaccurate. Agatha Christie, having named a character Major Bletchley, in a 1941 mystery, caused some concern to British Intelligence as it wondered if she had heard about their secret operation.