Isn't it strange that when a novelist writes history, the story somehow becomes more real than the concrete facts? To me that is why "Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France" fascinates. And, while the story of Priscilla is very compelling, what is truly compelling to me is Nicholas Shakespeare's relentless search to ferret out what even the tiniest scrap of evidence from his aunt's past and then sort it out against the grand scope of World War II and life in Nazi-occupied France. It would be easy for him to have reinvented the past to make her a romantic and heroic figure by today's standard, but he did not. Instead he honestly told her story from her sad, sad childhood through her fight to survive by whatever means worked in a world split open by strife to her life's end on a mushroom farm in Sussex. Priscilla was just one of hundreds of women who lived through that period by their wits and then slipped into normal life, holding their secrets close even to the grave. It has taken this many years for much of the reality of that time to come to light, and I am grateful to Nicholas Shakespeare and others like him who take the time to figure out these twisted lives for us. It is only through efforts like those of this writer that generation after generation can look back and say, "Never again.'
This wasn't a comfortable book to read. I found myself backing off from Priscilla as much as I found myself identifying with her.The wasted lives, the creativity used up simply to stay alive by so many people makes me sad. Where would our world be if these talents had been freely used rather than needed simply to stay alive? When I began to meander off into contemplating these things abstractly, the search would bring me back to the story once more. When I finished the book, I found myself looking at my relatives from that period differently. What was it like for them in those years, even those safely sheltered in the United States? Every human being has a story; some are more interesting than others and Priscilla's is amazing.
Priscilla is the kind of book that makes me wonder why I ever read fiction at all. Here is the true story of a woman who spent World War II in Nazi-occupied France, as a British passport holder and the young wife of a minor French nobleman. How she survived is the subject of the book. Author Nicholas Shakespeare never gave much thought to his aunt's past, and she never said anything about it. But after she died, he found some information about those war years that made him want to investigate further. His research took him to the archives of French, British, and American government records, police departments, friends, surviving family members of friends, libraries, and more.
The story is as much about the hunt for the story as it is about Priscilla's story itself. There's drama and love and death and murder and torture and daring escapes. I found myself alternately sympathizing with and despising Priscilla. When times are tough, and living as an enemy national in Vichy France was undeniably tough for Priscilla, you hope you will rise to the occasion and be heroic, or at least be quietly brave. You hope you don't betray your friends or lose your moral compass. But until it happens to you, you can't know. During war time, many were heroic. And those same people might have been less than heroic the very next day. Lots of people refused to talk about the war after it was over and they returned home. Maybe what they saw was too horrific to talk about. Maybe what they did was too difficult to face.
Priscilla is a heck of a story. It does drag a bit at times, and there were a few detours into subjects that I didn't find as gripping as Nicholas Shakespeare did. But overall, this was better than a novel, with all the relationships and drama, and big questions that you'd find in a novel, but as far as we can know, it really happened.
I wanted to love this book. I really did. Shakespeare's aunt Priscilla Mais lived an interesting, and in many ways, incredible life. She was an English woman in France during the Nazi occupation of World War Two. Because she was considered an enemy alien, Mais was briefly held in an internment camp in Besançon. The rest of her war years are murky and hidden behind a false name and the equally false memories of France, which has yet to truly come to its own role in the deportation and extermination of French Jews. I chose this book *because* of Priscilla's life during World War Two. I ended up reading about a woman whose war-time choices were right down there with Arletty's and Coco Chanel's. (Her life-long friend, Gillian Sutro, came to believe this, as well.)
It all began with the discovery of a box of diaries and correspondence Priscilla Mais kept hidden all of her adult life... And those papers told the story that Priscilla didn't want revealed in her lifetime.
Priscilla Mais was a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde whose pre-war dancing career was cut short by a severe attack of osteomyelitis. Her father was the famous SBP Mais famous for his work on the BBC and author of 200 books. He and her mother split, but did not divorce. Priscilla went to Paris with her mother and "step-father." (The parents didn't divorce for many reasons -- one of which being that the BBC would have fired SPB.) The adults in Priscilla's life made unethical choices every day; and Priscilla followed in their footsteps. Her best friend Gillian had been having an affair with the artist Vertes since she was sixteen; but there were lines she would not cross.
By the time Priscilla was twenty-one, she'd had an illegal French abortion and married an older, impotent Vicoomte. And then, the Nazis came...
I enjoyed this book until it became clear that Priscilla preferred couture and food over being ethical. She slept with and was kept and helped by numerous married men -- taking the identity of one of her lover's wives for the duration! She lived with a Nazi black marketeer. She stayed in the same building that the actress Arletty did. Priscilla moved in the same circles with well-connected Nazi sympathizers. At the very least, Priscilla was a *tondue* -- a woman who consorted with the Nazis -- and at worst, she just didn't *care.* The extent of Priscilla's collaboration is unknown, but what has come to light ultimately turned her friend Gillian against her memory. Mais was lucky that she was able to return to England and disappear into the anonymous life of a mushroom farmer's wife.
In the end, I didn't like the *woman* who is the subject of this social biography. I believe that Shakespeare means for this story of his enigmatic aunt to be one of redemption lost and found. He came to accept the life she chose to live on her terms. I cannot accept those terms. There are lines that, once crossed, cannot be uncrossed. Some choices we make are so defining that they show the world who we really are.
PS: There are French phrases throughout the book that Shakespeare doesn't translate -- or translates to suit his picture of his aunt. I speak and read French, so this isn't a problem for me. Others might be bothered.
For writer Nicholas Shakespeare, author of "The Vision of the Elena Silver", "The High Flyer", "The Dancer Upstairs" and "Inheritance" comes his latest book, "Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France".
A personal book as Priscilla is the sister of Nicholas' mother, an aunt that had captivated the family. Married to a mushroom farmer named Raymond in the Church Farm located in the Sussex coast. Priscilla was known for her beauty but also her sadness.
A painting of Priscilla by artist Marcel Vertes in pre-war Paris hung at the farm, a painting from 1939. But all he knew of his mysterious aunt was that she grew up in Paris, was a ballerina, worked as a model in pre-war Paris and lived in France during the occupation and spent time in a concentration camp.
Also, from his mother, all she knew was that she was captured and tortured by the Germans, couldn't have children because she was raped and caught an infection.
It's also important to mention that Priscilla was the daughter of Stuart Petre Brodie (S.P.B.) Mais, an author but better known for his work with the Oxford Times and BBC broadcaster.
Her past was never disclosed to her current husband nor her children, very little was known by her family. A lot was kept secret about Priscilla's past.
Writer Nicholas Shakespeare one day asked Priscilla's step-daughter Tracey about the mother and hidden away for many years were collected scrapbooks and letters owned by Priscilla that would reveal intimate stories and the shocking life of his Aunt Priscilla.
Nicholas Shakespeare's latest book uncovers his aunt's past, perhaps skeletons that his aunt may have wanted to keep in the closet but also letters and information regarding a dysfunctional family, affairs, sexual trysts and even a personal side that others did not know about.
But what he was able to extract from surviving family members at the time, his research from Priscilla's scrapbook and letters would offer a lot of information.
From Stuart Petre Brodie (S.P.B.) Mais and his relationship with his daughter and how badly he was in debt after his career did not make the transition from radio to television, nor any of his many books raking in a profit.
Actor Robert Donat ("The 39 Steps", "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", The Citadel") and his affair and letters to Priscilla are now unveiled.
It also revealed how Priscilla's mother Doris, who had a relationship with screenwriter D.B.Wyndham-Lewis, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and what he tried to do to Priscilla which would make him one of the most hated men in her life.
But perhaps the person that would offer a lot of clues and information to the life of Priscilla was her best friend and confidant, the late Gillian Sutro (wife of British film producer John Sutro, "Cheer the Brave", "49th Parallel", "Carnival"), both who met at a young age and for decades would remain close friends.
But it's Gillian's letters that would offer the most damning information of what happened to Priscilla during the occupation. And it's possibly one of the most hurtful things about Priscilla's past that she did not want her husband to know about and it was the one thing that hurt the late Gillian Sutro later in life.
The life of Priscilla, as others have wrote, would make a fascinating film. But for the book itself, I wonder how Nicholas Shakespeare felt about uncovering these skeletons in Priscilla's closet.
When Shakespeare began his research, beforehand, he thought of Priscilla like Grace Kelly. Beautiful but quite a few things that concerned him about her life, a sadness but also living like a prisoner.
But what he learned about her was a life that was troubled. A life damaged at a young age by parents who seem to not care enough and similar to her mother, had sexual trysts with other men. Many men... married men and also men should not have had anything to do with, as of loyalty to her friends.
The fact that Nicholas Shakespeare was able to uncover so much information and how far he went to attain all the information he can, especially regarding Priscilla and the men she was well-researched.
Priscilla was a woman that had her own personal demons. Behind the photos of a beautiful woman, lies a tormented soul.
"Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France" was a captivating book. The life of Priscilla, especially her association with some well-known people in the entertainment industry and artists are noted in the book. But as Nicholas Shakespeare unpeels layers of Priscilla's childhood, her life during the occupation and then looking into her life later in life and until her death, there is no doubt that despite the darkness or troubles she had faced in life, she also made an impact on people's lives.
Overall, "Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France" is recommended!
on March 13, 2014
This book got some excellent reviews and i was looking forward to reading it. While Shakespeare writes well, much of the book is boring. While some of Priscilla's escapades were interesting, she herself was not. She used people to her own advantage and didn't do much else but avoid being found out. I wish I had liked her better or that the author had made her more spectacular.
on September 27, 2013
Both the person about whom the biography is written and the style of development are interesting. The book intersperses the biographer's tale of discovery and the tale of Priscilla herself. At first, I was not certain I would like this book. It begins by focusing on how Nicholas Shakespeare decided to study the life of his aunt.
Once he gets going the focus alternates back and forth between her life and how he found the documentation for the next part.
What makes his discovery process interesting is a tale of the leads and dead ends that had to be retraced in order to get a sense of truth revealed. The woman herself would not be quite so interesting without the backstory. Certainly she had a difficult life. Certainly she was attractive and took advantage of her appearance. Certainly she had a string of lovers. She was also resilient and probably somewhat damaged by her experiences but managed to struggle on.
It's also very interesting to read a sort of personal account of what it meant to survive wartime (WW II) France. The Vichy government and collaboration and conflicts with the various forms of German security. The nepotistic and enabling behavior of both these parties at the expense of the French people.
I'd call this a really interesting read for history buffs because of the research aspect but not as exciting a rendition as good historical fiction.
on February 26, 2014
Oh I wanted to like this book and Priscilla but cannot. So many others far more worthy of their life being in print. Basically she was a kept woman who lived off man after man, and kept several of them dangling like fish on a hook. She blamed her Father for her woes but never seemed to take any responsibility for her own actions. Why she stayed in Paris when it was obvious that Hitler was on the march is beyond me. Guess she didn't want to give up the good life although she ended up being interned. A self-absorbed woman who didn't contribute a thing to the well-being of others.
Having grown up in a household with a French father who lived in Holland and was part of the resistance, I am well acquainted with World War II accounts and biographies, as well as novels based on actual events. When I saw the write up on this book, I thought it sounded very interesting and I really was looking forward to reading it. Initially , and again from the write up, my impression was that this book would tell about a woman's life serving her country ( England ) in war torn France.
The book's beginning was good, with the discovery of her diaries and correspondence which she never revealed during her adult life. I enjoyed reading this part until it became clear to me that Priscilla did not seem to have too many values or ethics. Perhaps this was because her parents did not make too many ethical choices in their life and Priscilla followed in their footsteps. You can read about her father, who was the famous SBP Mais, whose work with the BBC and authorship of many books made him well known. He and her mother split, but did not divorce . One of the reasons was the BBC would have fired him.
We may never know the full history of her childhood, as it was sketchy, but I kept waiting for honorable events in her hidden life, but ....it didn't happen.
Under the Nazis, Priscilla lived with a Nazi black marketer. She moved in circles with many Nazi sympathizers. She was what the French considered a " tondue", a woman who slept with and was friends with the Nazis. In other words, a collaborator. The book never tells the reader to what extent she was involved, but the more I read the book, the less I liked it. Yes, the author illustrated what life was like under the Nazi rule and how the French people suffered but perhaps I am not the best person to review a book like this because of my background. My parents taught me that compromise was not line to be crossed and even though Priscilla lived her life the way she wanted, by her choices she did show who she really was as a person.
The sequence in the book was a bit confusing as were the French phrases for which there was not a translation for those who do not speak French. Having grown up with the French language, I understood most of it, but it would be problematic for a person who did not know the language. For the reasons above, I gave the book three stars and that was with much consideration and thought.
on June 16, 2015
This is one of the few books I didn't bother to finish, and it gives me pause for thought as a family history writer. While I'm sure all of the author's discoveries about his aunt were fascinating to him, after reading 60% of the book, I decided that I didn't really care what had happened to Priscilla during the war. There was way too much detail that got in the way of the story, and after spending two weeks trying to get through it, I finally gave up. I have a great admiration for authors who can write nonfiction and make it seem like you are reading a novel. This book didn't do that, and I kept waiting for it to get better and the pace to improve. A good nonfiction writer keeps the reader guessing and wanting to read more. This book did not succeed in doing so.
This is a story about Shakespeare's Aunt who was attempting to simply survive during WWII. He found her possessions and began to put together her story-this biography is the result of his journey through his Aunt's struggle to make it through. It's beautifully written and very real. He does not leave out details that make his aunt look human, even flawed at times. I found myself crying at some points, and utterly speechless in other moments. It is an amazing story told in a masterful way. Overall, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes WWII literature or women's biographies-it's a great version of both!