Sunday, January 26, 2014

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Many of the stories that come out of Wartime France are about those who risked everything to fight the Germans. Brave men and women fought in the Resistance or hid Jews or did whatever small act of civil disobedience they could to take a stand against the Nazis.

This is not one of those stories.

Instead, this is a story of survival, of guilt, of shame, and of collaboration.

When author Nicholas Shakespeare was young, he used to go with his parents to his aunt and uncle's house in rural England. His Aunt Priscilla always mystified and fascinated him at the same time. Who was this woman, really? He didn't find out until after she'd passed on and he was gifted with a treasure trove of her wartime letters, journals, and photographs.

Priscilla had been a British citizen living in France during the Occupation. But her documents revealed a very different person than what he'd previously thought.

In what must have been an exhausting search, he went to archives, followed leads, tried (and sometimes found) people who knew her. More and more of the puzzle began to fill in, but it was creating an astonishing picture. In short, if Priscilla had not returned back to England in 1944, after the liberation of France, she would have had her head shaved and been paraded around the town as a German collaborator.

It may be easy to immediately dismiss Priscilla after reading such a damning conviction. But that is one thing you simply cannot do when reading Shakespeare's remarkable book. For Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman Living in Wartime France shows just how blurred the lines of survival and collaboration were during this time of upheaval, especially for women.

Priscilla's unconventional upbringing brought her to France at a young age to live with her mother, leaving her father, a noted BBC broadcaster, behind in England. Those formative years in France, especially exposed to the loose morality of her mother, left a mark on Priscilla. When Priscilla got pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion, she chose marriage to a French aristocrat old enough to be her father to save her. It didn't. Priscilla wanted to be loved in all the ways a woman can be loved - but her husband couldn't provide it for her.

When the Germans came to France, Priscilla became part of a world where the line between friend and enemy was frazzled. At first, she tried to keep her head down, stay out of sight. But then she was put into Besancon, a concentration camp for British subjects where she suffered unspeakable conditions. After her release (who pulled the strings to release her?), she had affairs with numerous men, and some of them turned out to be connected to the highest members of the Nazi party. Was it a matter of survival that she became involved with these men, poor judgment, or a need to be loved? Was she blind to their activities? The record suggests not. Why, then, did she stay with them? It's a complicated question and one that has a multitude of answers.

What Shakespeare does, and does very well, is to ask a question about France itself. When the war was over, of course everyone was a patriot in France - just as everyone had been against Hitler and against the Nazi party in Germany. But this simply wasn't true. Priscilla symbolizes France in her bid to survive the war, and her own questionable, some would say unforgivable, decisions mirror those made by the French government and other French collaborators.

Written using a novelist's style with intimate details of life in Occupied France (and it is done very well considering Shakespeare is a noted novelist), Priscilla is a gripping read. Yet it challenges our notion of good and evil and more than anything makes us ask ourselves the question, "What would I have done?"

The answer may surprise you.


Jess Zimmerman said...

Great book review Melissa! Another one to add to my "To Read" list! "What would I have done?" is something I think about frequently when researching and writing historical events. It's easy to say that you would take the high road - the honorable road - with the years as a buffer. In reality, life is full of blurred lines and grey areas - both in the 1940s and, to some extent, now. One of the most important tools, I believe, for a historian to have is empathy - not in accepting one's actions but in understanding what compelled them to act as they did. We often find that humans tend to act, well, as humans.

Melissa Marsh said...

Jess, I loved your comment. Empathy is indeed a crucial and necessary tool to have as a historian. As to the "what would I do?" question, I think that's one of the reasons I also write fiction, to try and puzzle it all out.

Davina Blake said...

Nice Review, just discovered your site, and look forward to browsing some more.

Melissa Marsh said...

Hi Davina - thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the review. :)