Priscilla - Book Review
In his book Priscilla, The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France the English novelist Nicholas Shakespeare takes up the subject of family history. The title character, Priscilla, was Shakespeare’s aunt. Throughout the first decades of his life, she was to him and other family members a mysterious, glamorous figure, with a hint of romanticism and intrigue. It was rumored she fought with the French resistance when she lived in occupied France (1940-44) after marrying an older French vicomte just before the outbreak of war. But one day Shakespeare comes upon many of her old letters, diaries, and photographs, and finds that his enigmatic aunt was in fact a much more flawed person than everyone had been led to believe.
To say that Priscilla was flawed, however, is ignoring the context in which she was forced to survive: a foreign national living in an enemy-occupied country with no family to support her (her French husband Robert was sent off to the front and captured early in the war). People have no idea how they will respond in trying circumstances, unless they themselves have been so tested. My first novel Above the Water deals with a similar situation of a woman (Viktoria) trying to survive a wartime occupation and put food on the table not only for herself but for children as well. I therefore read Shakespeare’s account with great interest. Parts of the book drag, and the cast of characters is sometimes difficult to follow, but I give Shakespeare high marks for highlighting the issue of moral ambiguity in times of upheaval, when the rhythms of everyday life are replaced by a constant diet of fear and terror.
What follows for Priscilla after her husband has been taken from her is internment in a horrid camp for displaced women of non-French citizenship, life on the lam in Paris (after being released from the camp), a series of lovers (French civilians and Nazi officers), and ultimately an unhappy life in post-war England with an overbearing husband with two daughters from a first marriage that she is forced to raise. She never spoke of her four years in occupied France to her family, which is why it became such a big mystery to them. After Priscilla dies (in 1982), and Shakespeare finds her trove of letters and relates what he found to his mother (Priscilla’s younger half-sister), she answers unperturbedly, “Nothing would surprise me in the war. Absolutely nothing. It’s a question of survival. You never knew who you were going to meet and you lived from day to day. I’m sure that you would have collaborated if you had wanted to live.”
This is the essence of Priscilla’s (and in my novel, Viktoria’s) dilemma. You do what you have to do to survive in wartime. Many of us would like to presume that we would have served in the resistance or sheltered Jews fleeing the Nazis, but the fact is, if it came to a choice of keeping your family safe or risking their lives for a greater cause, many of us would give pause. The only area where we can fault Priscilla is the fact that she could have returned to her husband Robert (after his release) and lived out the war in the French countryside, but she felt constricted by the small village environment and the judgmental character of her French in-laws. She chose to return to Paris and live for a while illegally, which is when she found it advantageous to possess German lovers. As she wrote in one of her journal entries after her release from the terrible conditions of the camp, “I was hungry for pleasure.” One can hardly blame a vivacious young woman (or man) in the prime of their lives wanting the same, wartime or no.