Englishwoman’s Hidden Life in Wartime France
The French among many other wartime nations, have launched a national effort to collect, digitalise and preserve, images, papers and personal memorabilia from the two World Wars that ravaged Europe last century.
Aptly illustrating the vital importance of such primary sources, prize-winning British novelist, biographer and journalist Nicholas Shakespeare — writing here exclusively for French News Online readers — describes how, poking around just such a collection helped him piece together a compelling wartime story about his mysterious aunt Priscilla.
His book, released this month, can be obtained from Amazon.
She had her secrets Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France.
By Nicholas Shakespeare
My aunt Priscilla, my mother’s sister, was a figure of unusual glamour in my childhood. I knew her as Priscilla Thompson. She was married to Raymond, a mushroom farmer in East Wittering on the Sussex coast.
As a child, my parents often took me to stay with Priscilla at the mushroom farm – where, incidentally, though Raymond was a terrific cook, we were not once treated to a single mushroom. From an early age, I was fascinated by Priscilla, who seemed to me very beautiful and mysterious, but also rather sad.
She spent most of the time upstairs in her bedroom, where she and Raymond owned the first television set I laid eyes on – it stood on a striped black-and-white padded chest at the foot of her double-bed.
Some of the first films I ever saw were on that television, and it was a treat to be able to sit beside Priscilla and watch them with her. Right from the start, I was aware of just how private a person Priscilla was. Because she never talked about herself, I pestered my parents for details, but all I was able to glean was that she had grown up in France and been married to a French Vicomte and had spent the Second World War in a concentration camp somewhere in France after the Germans invaded in June 1940.
At some stage, she had escaped the camp and spent the rest of the Occupation living on false papers provided by the Resistance. As soon as Paris was liberated, she had come home to England, got a divorce and married Raymond.
That was all. There were stories, which she did not strain herself to deny, that she had worked in the Resistance, but like most former agents she remained tight-lipped on the subject of her past.
Priscilla died in 1982. Now and then I kept thinking about her. Then five years ago, for no good reason, I picked up the telephone and rang her step-daughter Tracey and asked if Priscilla might have left any documents or papers behind. Tracey said that it was odd I should ring up now since she had in her possession a box of letters, photographs and manuscripts which she had found in the padded chest at the foot of the double-bed “on which the telly used to sit”.
I’d spent enough time in archives to know that old papers are usually a chronic disappointment, and so I was electrified when I visited Tracey and the first thing I pulled out of the box was a photo of Priscilla lying back on a loose bed of hay, naked.
The photo was dated 1944 just after D-Day. But who had taken it, and where? There were other photos, no less sensational, of Priscilla in a fur coat; at the wheel of a car; and photographs of her with various men.
There were also bundles of passionate love letters from correspondents who signed themselves Daniel, Emile, Pierre and Otto. The letters were written all during the Occupation, but there were no surnames or addresses.
As well in the box were 20 short stories that Priscilla had written, plus a half-completed manuscript of a novel featuring two young Englishwomen growing up in France: Chantal and Crystal. It was obvious that Crystal was based on Priscilla. But who was Chantal?
With great excitement I took the box away and began transcribing. But it swiftly became clear that without knowing who Chantal was, or for that matter Daniel, Emile, Pierre and Otto, who sounded suspiciously German, I would not be able to tell Priscilla’s story.
I had half of the combination to a lock that refused to open. Then, in the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I made an elating discovery. I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued, and stored in the same building.
Sutro is an unusual name and I wondered if it could have anything to do with the film producer John Sutro, who had founded Cherwell magazine and who at Oxford had been the best friend of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton.
In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had indeed been bequeathed to Trinity College by Gillian; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt. I ordered them up. The first box contained letters from Priscilla to Gillian. There were photographs of the two of them in France before the war, on holiday soon after it in Sainte-Maxime, of Priscilla’s second wedding to Raymond, and of the Sutros at Church Farm during the period when we also used to stay there.
I realised that Gillian was none other than the Chantal of Priscilla’s unfinished novel. I opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks.
Then I read my name. This was the line: “She was never in a concentration camp like Nicholas Shakespeare writes in his piece in the Telegraph magazine 14 November 1992.”
Priscilla, Gillian wrote angrily, was in an internment camp in Besançon, near the Swiss border; but the mistake – which was my mistake, since Priscilla had never spoken to me about it – had a combustive effect, uncorking a lifetime of deliberately suppressed information and of secrets and suspicions about my aunt which Gillian had bottled up until now.
“Since reading the brazen lies she told her journalist-writer nephew, I have no scruples over telling the truth about her life and war record in Occupied France. Had she not lied I had intended to keep to myself what I knew.”
A phrase can be a clap of thunder. Brazen lies? The truth about her life? War record in Occupied France? In a minor but vital way I was suddenly now part of this story, the reason why Gillian was motivated to fill notebook after notebook with explicit memories of my aunt Priscilla.
Their childhood together in Paris, attending the same lycée in St Germain-en-Laye, the cafés and cinemas they frequented, the lavish wedding to the Vicomte at which Gillian had acted as “witness”, up to the moment when German tanks rolled into France, and Gillian fled to England on the last train from Gare Saint-Lazare, distraught at having to leave Priscilla behind.
But Gillian’s recollections of Priscilla in pre-war Paris were the least of it. It turned out that all the time I was pestering my family about Priscilla, Gillian had been approaching other witnesses – asking the same things.
“Where did she live when she left Besançon?” “Did she ever see the Vicomte after Besançon.” “‘Otto’ was a code name. How did she meet him?” “What was his profession supposed to be?” And Gillian, apparently, had discovered the answers. “I think her experiences are worth recounting,” she wrote.
For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth-century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: “Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it.
Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.
You will have to read the book to discover who Otto really was. The only appetiser I shall give you, in the light of news earlier this month of the discovery of a hoard of looted-Nazi-art in Munich, is that Priscilla’s Otto was responsible, in August 1944, for smuggling into Spain 200 priceless canvases belonging to Herman Goering, Hitler’s No 2, including masterpieces by Goya, Rembrandt and David. These paintings have never been seen again.
Story: Nicholas Shakespeare
- Visit his website for more details
- Read more about Priscilla’s wartime escapades in this reportage by the author in London’s Daily Telegraph
- Priscilla: the Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare – review (theguardian.com)
- On the trail of an enigmatic English aunt in occupied France (standard.co.uk)
- When war turns moral codes upside down (telegraph.co.uk)
- ‘It’s never mentioned': Nicholas Shakespeare on the British women who became prisoners of war (telegraph.co.uk)
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