Sleeping one’s way to survival
Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
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