Nicholas Shakespeare’s aunt was a glamorous, mysterious character who might have stepped out of a movie. She reminded many of Grace Kelly and carried on with actor Robert Donat (he sent her naughty letters), the George Clooney of his day.
Then there was her mysterious past in Occupied France from 1940 to 1944. A resident of the country, married to a much older French aristocrat, she was imprisoned for a time by the Germans. But what else had happened during those years was enshrouded in mystery. The young Shakespeare fancied her a Resistance fighter, but his aunt, who after the war remarried an Englishman, would remain tight-lipped about her life right up to the end in 1982.
In his fascinating new book, “Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France,” Shakespeare, a novelist and author of a biography of Bruce Chatwin, probes his aunt’s wartime years with finesse and pathos. He employs his novelist’s touch — there are twists and surprises galore in the 39 densely packed chapters of his narrative — but backs up his story with some pretty nifty archival research, a pursuit with its own share of nicely rendered eureka moments.
Shakespeare had pondered her wartime experiences for years; in 2009, when he started to delve closely into her French past, he lucked into a trove of his aunt’s papers — love letters, diaries, and photographs — courtesy of her stepdaughter. It was a shock: Keeping letters in Occupied France would’ve been dangerous business. A later trawl through an Oxford archive serendipitously yielded the papers of Priscilla’s friend Gillian, who has her own role in the story. A whole world opened up.
His reconstruction of Priscilla’s life is meticulous and tantalizing. In the mid-1920, young Priscilla moved to Paris with her mother, who had left her broadcaster father — he worked for the BBC — for another journalist. She was as mean as any Disney baddy. (“You think you are pretty,” she taunted Pris. “[Y]our sister and I with our dark hair and grey eyes are far more interesting.”)
She studied ballet until a leg affliction stopped her. In Paris, Gillian would become a lifelong friend. At 20, she endured a grueling (and illegal) abortion, which nearly ruined her health. But she had met Vicomte Robert Doynel de la Sausserie, whom she would marry in 1938.
There would be hardly any settling into the life of a viscountess before the war came. Here, Shakespeare’s story really takes off as he delves into Priscilla’s war years. The plot thickens considerably as Shakespeare investigates her time at a squalid internment camp near Besançon, where she was detained for several months and released after she claimed to be pregnant. (She was not — a sympathetic doctor winked her through.) Priscilla remained in France until autumn of 1944, “one of the remarkably few English women to have lived in Paris through the Occupation.”
What did she do? “She remained a passive enigma,” Shakespeare writes, “drifting in and out of view; a cork on a troubled sea.” Her sundry lovers — she had left her husband — threw her lifelines, and, in one case, a false identity that probably saved her. Her letters gave Shakespeare their names — Daniel, Emile, Pierre, Otto, but not much more.
To survive, she used her sex appeal. Men swooned over her and protected her. Gillian’s notebooks filled in important clues — she looked probingly into her friend’s life — as did visits to various French archives and interviews with surviving acquaintances. One trail seems to suggest that “Otto” was a notorious German spy and black marketer named Hermann Brandl. I won’t say for sure if he was: Suffice to say that Priscilla had several close calls with the Gestapo, but somehow skated free — more than one influential man apparently had her back.
Shakespeare’s dogged research takes him into the moral and ethical murk of daily life during the Occupation. It remains one of the most controversial episodes in French history. Shakespeare shows us, with a mixture fine-grained detail and reasonable conjecture (some details cannot be confirmed), how provisional day-to-day life was under the Germans. Priscilla chose hedonism and high living; but she was no worse than many others. In Priscilla, we see neither hero nor villain. “She learned what it was to be faced with decisions that her family and friends in England never had to confront, and yet which they judged others for having made.”Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.