Sleep­ing one’s way to sur­vival

Priscilla: The Hid­den Life of an English­woman in War­time France

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louise Adler

By Ni­cholas Shakespeare Harvill Secker, 448pp, $24.95

NI­CHOLAS Shakespeare’s Priscilla is a riv­et­ing ac­count of an English ‘‘ good time’’ girl and her adventures in war­time France. It is the re­sult of ex­ten­sive re­search, in­ter­views with friends and fam­ily, love let­ters, diaries, pho­tos and snip­pets of fic­tion left be­hind by Shakespeare’s aunt.

The quest to un­der­stand his enig­matic and reclu­sive aunt be­gins in the 1950s and 60s dur­ing fam­ily vis­its to a Sus­sex mush­room farm. Fam­ily mythol­ogy per­sists that the silent and sad Priscilla suf­fered greatly dur­ing World War II, hav­ing been a hero­ine of the French Re­sis­tance.

There was no cause to doubt this un­til Shakespeare dis­cov­ered a trea­sure trove of doc­u­ments in a long dis­carded wooden chest, of­fer­ing an ir­re­sistible op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the story of Priscilla Mais’s re-in­ven­tion of her­self, first as the Vi­comtesse Doynel de la Sausserie, then as the sec­ond Madame Si­mone Vernier and fi­nally Priscilla Thomp­son.

Doubts about Priscilla’s ‘‘ war’’ be­come ev­i­dent early in the nar­ra­tive. The first chap­ter sets the scene. In­ter­ro­gated by the Gestapo in Paris in 1943, she is re­leased be­cause of the in­ter­ven­tion of a prom­i­nent Nazi. A paint­ing of Priscilla in a Schi­a­par­elli gown, by Mar­cel Vertes, hang­ing in the Sus­sex farm­house, is richly sug­ges­tive. News­pa­per clip­pings re­port Priscilla’s fail­ure to pay cus­toms tax on a fine al­li­ga­tor hand­bag. Th­ese de­tails com­bine to pique Shakespeare’s in­ter­est.

This saga will not lift the spir­its of the con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nist. It is a chron­i­cle of sleep­ing one’s way to sur­vival. Priscilla’s moral com­pass must have snapped early in life. In­deed, her be­nignly tol­er­ant bi­og­ra­pher the­o­rises about a pri­mal and ri­val­rous re­la­tion­ship with her mother’s re­place­ment as the pos­si­ble cause. Ac­cord­ing to her best friend, Gil­lian Sutro, she cer­tainly had been ‘‘ se­verely un­der-par­ented’’.

Fran­cophile English­women were not an un­usual species in the 1920s and 30s. Priscilla lived in France first for sev­eral years dur­ing the early 30s, re­turn­ing in 1937 and stay­ing un­til 1944. One of al­most 4000 English women de­tained and in­terned in 1940, she was re­leased af­ter three months as­sisted by a benev­o­lent Jewish doc­tor who had rec­om­mended she feign preg­nancy.

It would not be over­stat­ing the case to de­scribe Priscilla as a bad judge of men. Her first hus­band was im­po­tent and the mar­riage never con­sum­mated. A suc­ces­sion of lovers were of­ten mar­ried, rou­tinely un­re­li­able — dilet­tantes, col­lab­o­ra­tors and black mar­ke­teers. Her French hus­band saw her as ‘‘ a cork in a rough sea be­ing tossed hither and thither’’; she saw her­self sim­ply as for plea­sure’’.

By 1941 she was liv­ing un­der the pro­tec­tion of shady prof­i­teers on the fringes of the Nazi ad­min­is­tra­tion in Paris — art dealer-thieves, mo­tor rac­ing en­thu­si­asts, mi­nor spies, fi­nanciers and fix­ers. Her­mann Gor­ing de­scribed France with rel­ish as part kitchen gar­den and part brothel for Ger­many. Priscilla sur­vived be­cause of her skills in the boudoir and the murky so­cial mi­lieu of the pe­riod.

Shakespeare’s at­ti­tude to his aunt is nu­anced. He views her as an or­di­nary woman in ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. The coun­ter­ar­gu­ment might be posed: that while Priscilla con­sorted with the enemy, other equally or­di­nary women were com­pelled to ex­tra­or­di­nary acts of re­sis­tance. Shakespeare writes cor­rectly that: ‘‘ The im­pulse to cast peo­ple as he­roes or traitors ig­nores the mud­dled and shift­ing re­al­ity of the over­whelm­ing part of the pop­u­la­tion who drifted ner­vously with the stream; pru­dent, un­af­fil­i­ated, not com­mit­ting them­selves to re­sis­tance or col­lab­o­ra­tion . . .’’

True enough, but fair enough? Iron­i­cally while Priscilla was ‘‘ sur­viv­ing’’ in Nazi Paris, her fa­ther SPB Mais would be the BBC’s ‘‘ voice of Bri­tain’’ through­out the war.

Gil­lian Sutro, af­ter a 57-year friend­ship, ques­tions Priscilla’s rush to leave France af­ter Lib­er­a­tion. She of­fers Shakespeare an al­ter­na­tive view of her friend’s choices — ‘‘ seedy, sor­did and dodgy’’, con­clud­ing that Priscilla was ‘‘ une pute de luxe. If nec­es­sary she would

‘‘ hun­gry

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