Blonde, beautiful — and desperate to survive in Nazi France

Nicholas Shakespeare recounts his aunt's eventful story in Priscilla: The Hidden Life of the Englishwoman in Occupied France

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Occupied France Nicholas Shakespeare

Harvill Secker, pp.425, £18.99, ISBN: 9781846554834

Around 200 Englishwomen lived through the German Occupation of Paris. Nicholas Shakespeare’s aunt Priscilla was one. Men in the street stopped to gaze at this blonde with the careless allure and raw beauty of Grace Kelly. Some fell instantly in love.

Her second mother-in-law thought her face showed truth and sincerity, and the reader shares this impression of integrity under duress. She was a reckless driver, yet was also shy, gentle and biddable. She had a beguiling habit of stroking your arm to show affection. She was not vain.

Born in 1916, hers was a rackety childhood. Her self-engrossed parents, imprisoned within a failed marriage, then in new partnerships, rejected her. Her stepfather imposed a tariff that licensed — in return for each Latin lesson — his shoving his hand up her skirt. She often woke screaming from nightmares. She escaped to study dance in Paris until osteomyelitis forced her to stop; and six years later she returned there with only a borrowed £5 note, pregnant by a feckless South African.

In Paris she suffered a dirty abortion, vividly and horribly evoked, risking her life. But Vicomte Robert Doynel, 17 years her senior, had seen her and undergone a coup-de-foudre. Robert rescued, wooed, and smuggled her into his family château in Normandy full of largely unsympathetic relatives. Starved of parental love, she was ignorant about desire too. Marriage seemed finally to offer an escape from this sad, cruel childhood. But Robert continued to treat her as a child, never soliciting her views or advice. Moreover, she very much wanted children, and he was impotent.

The book springs into intenser life as the war approaches. There is much of interest about the state of divorce laws in the 1930s; there are arresting Parisian brothel scenes; and above all else there is Occupied France.

In October 1940 the Germans declared that anyone sheltering a Briton in France and failing to declare his or her name and whereabouts could be sentenced to death. The Vicomte’s creepy and unpleasant family helped eject Priscilla: they omit her name from their 1,200-page family genealogy and lie that she died at the start of the war. In fact she was interned near Besançon for three awful months, and secured her release by claiming (falsely) to be pregnant. Meanwhile, Robert was a PoW, his spirit broken.

Priscilla abandoned her marriage in 1942 to embark on two affairs. The first was with Daniel Vernier, married into a wealthy textile family in northern France; the second was with Emile Cornet, a violently possessive Belgian racketeer. The Germans, with Vichy collaboration, were looting France for everything from works of art to foodstuffs. Cornet was implicated; and it may have been Vernier who got him deported.

It was a nightmarish time. Incriminating one another was the main national pastime in Occupied France: no fewer than 30 million anonymous denunciations were lodged between 1940 and 1944. Abortion soon carried the death penalty, and two women were guillotined for this offence. In July 1942 a law made a woman found guilty of ‘abandoning the hearth’ liable to a year in prison and a 20,000-franc fine.

Priscilla found herself in the position of a childless and unemployed adulteress who had deserted an adoring husband and former PoW to live with a highly suspect lover. By falsely claiming to be expecting a baby she had enjoyed rations to which she was not entitled. Moreover, she was living on an English passport with out-of-date French papers. She could now have been shot even for listening on the wireless to S.P.B. Mais, her famous broadcaster father in the UK.

So how did she survive? By spring 1943 she went underground with a changed name, not to join the Resistance but to disappear. She probably consorted thereafter with very unsavoury rich French and German gangsters who protected her in return for sexual favours. That is Shakespeare’s best guess. The book abounds in sentences like ‘It is not possible from the sources to get hold of a detailed idea of Priscilla’s involvement.’

In a similar vein he writes: ‘It is inconceivable that Priscilla and Chamberlin did not know one another.’ Chamberlin was the original of Louise Malle’s Lucien Lacombe. He joined the French Gestapo, hunted Jews, tortured those he wished to and profiteered. Shakespeare is convinced that the unnamed ‘arrested woman’ whom Chamberlin is reported to have rescued at pistol-point was his aunt; he apparently had a taste for rescuing classy blondes.

This absorbing book has many of the excitements of a thriller: the discovery of Priscilla’s papers; then, wholly by chance, her best friend Gillian Sutro’s; then more in the Préfecture de Police and in the National Archives in Kew and in Washington. Shakespeare has worked formidably hard in this quest and it must have been frustrating to leave so many loose ends. Of one charming photograph of Priscilla showing her sexily half-naked he asks: ‘Was Diez the photographer? Were they lovers? Or was Otto the one with the camera? Or Emile? Or was it Pierre?’ The  ‘Hidden Life’ of the title sometimes stays hidden.

A few minor quibbles: surely Breton is a language in its own right rather than a ‘dialect’ of French? ‘Incandescent’ used to mean shining brightly rather than angry, and it is a solecism to write ‘as if she was going’ instead of ‘as if she were’. Shakespeare is good on the smugness of the English, un-invaded for centuries. Maybe Priscilla did ‘unheroically’ use her body for survival. But, as his mother wisely says to him, ‘I’m sure you would have collaborated if you had wanted to live.’

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