January 2014

Diane Simmons

nonfiction

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare

Nicholas Shakespeare's aunt Priscilla, subject of Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, was a sad figure in later life, bored and depressed on the mushroom farm of her British second husband. Though she had once been a looker in the Grace Kelly mode, by the time the author met her the looks were gone. Now she was known mostly for her ability to sleep into the afternoon, and her inability to cut down on booze.

Priscilla had not always lived a life of staid boredom, however; she spent her twenties in occupied France where, according to family legend, she had been held in a concentration camp and tortured by the Nazis. Perhaps because of her good looks and the snippets of her story that were known, it was vaguely assumed that she must have been a spy like one of the many lovely, steadfast young heroines in World War II propaganda movies.

But her story -- which her nephew has uncovered using private papers, public documents and accounts of those who remember Priscilla and wartime France -- is not one of heroism. It is not even one of ordinary courage and decency. Instead it is the rather sad story of a pretty, passive girl, a "weak character" who "floats along like a leaf," her main attribute a certain caressing, "catlike" behavior with men.

To be sure, Priscilla, as the author shows quite convincingly, did not have an upbringing that would inculcate courage, integrity or even a normal portion of self-respect. Neither of her horribly mismatched parents -- an Oxford student and the pretty, "pampered daughter of a retired major" -- appear to have had a shred of parenting instinct; they divorced early and Priscilla was emotionally and to some extent financially on her own. Though her father became a well-known broadcaster, he had little connection with the daughter who yearned for his love and attention.

After knocking around a bit in Britain, getting pregnant and having an abortion, Priscilla borrowed five pounds from a friend and went to Paris in the years before World War II. Here she was fairly quickly scooped up by Robert Doynel, a nobleman many years her senior and heir to a family estate in Normandy. He was kind, loving, and an obvious substitute for the father she never had. In her wedding photo, Priscilla looks very young and very happy as she stands beside her thin, slightly wizened husband.

Perhaps if there had been children, Priscilla, despite her suspect Englishness, might have made a life in the family chateau of the Doynels. In one of the many pictures that help tell the story, she poses in a field with a cow, looking girlish and carefree. Unfortunately, however, Robert, though unfailingly affectionate and gracious, is impotent and neurotic, perhaps a result of his experiences in World War I; not only is there no pregnancy, there is no sex life at all.

Still when war comes again, Priscilla does not accept a chance to escape back to England; in a letter she explains that she could not leave France while the fate of her husband, who has joined French forces, is unknown. A friend who knew Priscilla at the time offers a less attractive explanation: if Priscilla had returned to England she would have been called up for national service and made to work, something she did not want to do.

With her husband gone, Priscilla spends a dull period at the Doynel chateau. Her in-laws are not thrilled to be housing an enemy alien, and when she is required to go to Paris to register, they do not object. There she finds a city full of German soldiers, who, by their very appearance, convince everyone of the inevitability of German success: "How strong and handsome and young they looked. It had needed only half a million to rout a French army ten times the size." Britain too, most agreed, was doomed.

Though Priscilla was never held in a "concentration camp," as we have come to understand the term, she was briefly put into an internment camp for British women; and while she was not tortured she did suffer cold, tedium and poor food. Her husband's family did nothing to secure her release, and when another man helped to free her she "resolved to become his mistress... I was fed up with Robert and the whole of his family."

Freed, she finds that Robert, a devout Catholic, will not grant a divorce, a position he maintains for many years. All the same, Priscilla finds in herself a "strange starved determination to start living." After her period of privation, the author writes, she was "hungry for pleasure."

Paris, even before the Occupation, comes across as tailor-made for the needs of a pretty young woman who is no longer holding out for respectability. The city is full, for example, of establishments called maisons de passe, "discreet places of assignation for couples without suitcases, the addresses passed around by word of mouth." These came in handy for "the Occupation had its own morality." With the future uncertain, many lived in the moment, grabbing pleasure and excitement where they could. "Whatever their outlook," writes French journalist Robert Brasillach, "during these years the French have all more or less been to bed with Germany."

If anyone was going to hold out against this wartime "morality," it was not likely to be a girl such as Priscilla who, in addition to native passivity, had lost any sense of roots; she had broken her ties with England but was not really French. Furthermore, living without papers or money and unable to get a job until her husband granted a divorce, she was in no position to take a stand.

There were, then, lovers, many lovers, some of whom the author traces. Some were married; some were shady black market operatives. One appears to have been a fairly influential Nazi who, the author speculates, made it possible for her to live in her undocumented state. This man, Otto, took Priscilla to places like Maxims, a favorite of the German elite.  Shakespeare wonders how his aunt must feel as her lover is greeted by other prominent Nazis: she is "feeling what? Shame, fear, sickness? Or does part of her enjoy the frisson of being saluted?"

We never know; Priscilla remains a rather vague figure throughout. Perhaps that's all she ever was, an abandoned child who floated through life, assuaging her emotional hungers and physical needs in whatever way she could. Perhaps she was, in a sense, lucky to live in a time of such  passionate turmoil so that even she had her moments of intensity. She is not, finally, a very interesting figure, or one the reader cares about very much.

However, in a period that is so often viewed through the lens of immense heroism and sacrifice, horror and tragedy, her story provides a thought-provoking case study on what these years of upheaval could mean for the weak and rudderless.

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare
Harper
ISBN: 978-0062297037
448 pages