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Priscilla Maid: A victim of sorts
The German occupation of France has always fascinated novelists and filmmakers. There is a famous scene in Georges-Henri Clouzot's 1943 film, The Raven, where under a hanging bulb which swings like a pendulum between two characters, lighting up first one face and then the other, one of them comments: "You think people are all good or all bad. But watch this light: where is the light and where is the shadow? Where is the line between them?" Partly because he rejected easy answers to such questions, Clouzot got in trouble at the Liberation (and also because that film had been financed by the Germans). This same terrain of moral ambiguity has been explored for many decades by the French novelist Patrick Modiano whose haunting and strange novels are all set in occupied France. Modiano also wrote the screenplay for one of the most famous films about the occupation, Lacombe, Lucien, which is the story of an adolescent boy who starts the day intending to work for the Resistance but, because his bicycle tyre has a puncture, meets some German soldiers and ends up working for them. One of the cult programmes of French television at the moment is Un Village Français, a soap opera now about to enter its fifth season, which recounts the daily life of a French village under occupation. People cancel dinner engagements so as not to miss the latest episode. The moral ambiguities of life in a French village are also the theme of the massively successful, and posthumously published, novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.

Nicholas Shakespeare is also a novelist but his latest book is no novel. It is the true story of an Englishwoman in occupied France — yet a story as haunting and improbable as any of the fictions of Modiano. The woman in question is Shakespeare's aunt Priscilla (his mother's half-sister), a glamorous and enigmatic figure whom he would sometimes visit as a boy with his parents. Living a dull and restricted life on a farm on the Sussex coast, she was married to a possessive and irascible Englishman who grew mushrooms as a business. In the family only a few facts were known about her past: that she was born in 1916; that she had trained in Paris to be a ballet dancer until an illness affecting her legs forced her to give up; that she had once been married to a French vicomte; that she had spent the war in occupied France; that she had at this time been interned in a camp of some kind; that she had even been arrested by the Gestapo. But why? Had she been in the Resistance? Had she been denounced to the Germans for something she had done? She never talked about the period and no one knew any answers. 

This book is Shakespeare's attempt to excavate the true story of his mysterious aunt. Without wanting to give away the details of the gripping story that he tells — there is nothing more annoying than a review that reveals all of the plot's twists and turns — I can reveal at least that there was a French vicomte, that she did spend some weeks in a camp in Besançon where the Germans had interned about 2,000 British women who were considered enemy aliens. This was not a concentration camp in the sense we now give the term but the conditions were grim. After her release in 1941, there were many French lovers, and German ones as well. There is, however, no heroic resistance story to tell. 

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