Novelist Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of his aunt is a compelling look at everyday life in occupied France
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.
There are lots of sub-plots to the story. Before the war Priscilla had a botched abortion in Paris; at about the same time she had her portrait painted by (and possibly slept with) the Hungarian painter Marcel Vertès, once famous for the Oscar he won in 1952 for designing the costumes in a film about Toulouse Lautrec. Vertès was the lover of Priscilla’s best girlhood friend Gillian, and another layer is added to Shakespeare’s narrative by the fact that while Priscilla is leading her complicated (to use a morally neutral word) life in occupied Paris, Gillian is in London working for the Free French — and seemingly sleeping her way through many of them as well. One of these lovers was the celebrated writer Joseph Kessel, author of the novel Belle de Jour (later a famous film starring Catherine Deneuve) about a woman whose husband cannot give her physical satisfaction. This leads her to throw herself into a life of promiscuous sexual pleasure. This was partly Gillian’s story with her vicomte who turned out to be impotent, and although she seemingly remained fond of him as a kind of father figure, sexual satisfaction had to be found elsewhere. There is a lot of sex in this book. After the war Gillian had an affair with Clouzot, and Priscilla with the British cinema heartthrob of the day Robert Donat, whom she had met through Gillian’s filmmaker husband. To characterise Priscilla’s turbulent life in occupied France, Shakespeare quotes André Gide’s comment that during the Occupation he had felt “like a cork floating on the filthiest water”. To the extent that Shakespeare sketches any explanation of Priscilla’s personality, it lies perhaps in his careful reconstruction of her dysfunctional childhood. Her indescribably selfish father and mother make the parents in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew seem like model parents. Her father, S.P.B. Mais, was first a schoolteacher, who became a prolific writer and then a BBC broadcaster as famous in his day as J.B. Priestly. His frivolous and empty-headed wife soon left him for a series of drunken cads but he would not grant her a divorce because the scandal would have tarnished his career. He set up with a younger woman barely older than his daughter Priscilla who found herself buffeted between these various households and who may have suffered an attempted rape by one of her mother’s lovers. Her marriage to the vicomte, kindly but ineffectual, seems partly to have been a search for an anchor in her life.
Piecing together this strange story has involved Shakespeare in considerable detective work. Ever since the classic The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons where the biographer becomes himself a protagonist in the search to uncover hidden lives — this device was used more recently in The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — one of the pleasures of reading this kind of book is following the author on a journey which can involve false trails but also sudden breakthroughs. Shakespeare starts with a trunk of letters, papers, photographs and scrapbooks that, unknown to anyone, Priscilla had kept hidden under the television set in her bedroom all the years that she lived with her second, English husband. He was also helped by the fact that many of the protagonists in his story had set out to write down fragments of their own lives sometimes thinly disguised in fictional form. This was the case with S.P.B. Mais, of Priscilla herself, who produced numerous drafts of stories and memoirs, and finally Gillian, who seems at the end of her life to have turned against her friend and decided to discover for herself the truth of what had really happened to her. (Perhaps she discovered or suspected that she had been betrayed over Vertès. Perhaps she was angry to realise that while many of the people she had known in London were risking their lives to liberate France, Priscilla was living a very different kind of life.)
Shakespeare, who also does a lot of digging in archives, is pretty sure that Gillian’s unpublished account did not get all the details right but her manuscripts, upon which he stumbled quite by chance while researching another book, were of inestimable value in his quest. Along the way he uncovers bits of the history of occupied France that are hardly known even to expert historians. While reading this book, I found myself in conversation with the leading French historian of this period (and indeed the historical consultant to that successful TV soap opera) and he had never even heard of the internment camp for British women in Besançon — just as Shakespeare visiting Besançon could find no one who knew about it.
Nowhere in his absorbing book does Shakespeare judge the behaviour of his aunt. He tells us her story and lets us draw our conclusions though he suggests she is buffeted by events rather like Modiano’s Lucien Lacombe. Indeed since he is writing as historian not novelist — even if at times he allows himself to imagine his protagonists’ thoughts and emotions —by the end we are left with Priscilla as rather an enigma, a passive figure never really in control of her destiny, a victim of sorts. We have no sense of how she herself viewed her past or judged it, or what she thought of the epic historical backdrop to her own personal dramas. Secretly she tried to write about her life in fictional form but accumulated only publishers’ rejection slips (Shakespeare says that she was just not a very good writer).
Her second marriage was possibly a way of burying her past; her attempts to write possibly a way of trying to exorcise or come to terms with it. She had converted to Catholicism to marry her vicomte, and although her second husband would not allow her to practise her faith, she seems to have been tormented by guilt about her divorce — and perhaps other matters too? Graham Greene even makes an appearance in the book. As a friend of Gillian he is asked to recommend a priest to help her troubled friend. Priscilla takes to drink and one’s final impressions on reading this book are of an inexpressible but also mysterious unhappiness. Did she ever ask herself Clouzot’s question, “Where is the light and where is the shadow, where is the line between them?” We simply do not know.