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Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France Hardcover – January 7, 2014

3.7 out of 5 stars 165 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Once I started it I was hooked. And when I realised that she hadn’t been a brave and beautiful spy, I was double-hooked. Its truth is necessary and essential, and makes the last chapters terrifyingly poignant and moving.” (Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of an Ending)

“A fascinating, complicated story.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“Gripping.” (New York Times Book Review)

“A most strange and compelling book driven by the writer’s unsparing search for truth: now an optimistic hunt for a family heroine, now a study in female wiles of survival, now a portrait of one very ordinary person’s frailty in the face of terrible odds.” (John le Carré)

“A gripping excavation of a woman’s secret past, Priscilla is also a fascinating portrait of France during the second world war, and of the many shadowy and corrupt deals made by the French with their Nazi occupiers.” (Caroline Moorehead)

“As Shakespeare does his research, the mystery of Priscilla begins to recede....She is revealed as possibly less worthy-but maybe more intriguing…Our hunger to know what she thought and felt is a tribute to just how much of her he has been able to put on the page.” (New York Times)

“The story that unfolded is remarkable, and his account of it is riveting….Priscilla is, like almost all biographies, necessarily incomplete, but as a picture of France during the dark years of the occupation it is wonderfully full of light and shade, sympathetic and highly intelligent.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Fascinating….Shakespeare probes his aunt’s wartime years with finesse and pathos….His reconstruction of Priscilla’s life is meticulous and tantalizing.” (Boston Globe)

“This mysterious story of the Occupation in France has all the qualities of a fascinating novel, with exquisite social, sexual and moral nuance.” (Antony Beevor)

“In Priscilla, Nicholas Shakespeare captures the soul of a young Englishwoman who, to survive in Nazi-occupied France, is forced to make choices which few in England ever had to face. She remained her own unflinching judge and jury to the end.” (Charlotte Rampling)

“Shakespeare has employed all his superb gifts to tell the picaresque tale of his aunt in occupied France. Priscilla is a femme fatale worthy of fiction, and the author traces her tangled, troubled, romantic and often tragically unromantic experiences through one of the most dreadful periods of 20th century history.” (Max Hastings)

“Extraordinary true story of the author’s aunt. A life of dark secrets, glamour, adventure and adversity during wartime.” (Woman & Home)

“Thrilling.….An intimate family memoir, a story of survival and a quest for biographical truth.” (Tatler)

“Remarkable….A detailed and vivid narrative. This is a moving, and constantly surprising story.” (The Independent)

“A fine book, full of hurried journeys and secret liaisons, by one of Britain’s best writers.” (Conde Nast Traveller)

“A wonderful book….I have not read a better portrait of the moral impossibility of that time and place for people, like Priscilla, who found themselves trapped in it.” (Daily Telegraph)

“A gripping narrative….Shakespeare offers a nuanced and detailed psychological study of the effect of the Second World War on an ordinary woman. The result is just as absorbing as any biography of a war hero.” (London Sunday Times)

“Letters, journals and memories of family and friends are woven seamlessly with accounts of life in occupied Paris to reveal the precarious existence of a British woman in France during World War II….Intriguing.” (Daily Express)

“Gripping….[An] extraordinary voyage into the truth….Priscilla brilliantly exposes the tangled complexities behind that question so easily asked from the comfort of a peacetime armchair: ‘What would I have done?’” (The Observer)

“[A] wonderfully readable quest for answers….[Shakespeare] builds a nuanced, sensitive portrait of this sad and glamorous member of his family….As the life of Priscilla shows, surviving the occupation was too complicated an affair for any black-and-white verdict.” (The Economist)

“A tantalizingly original perspective of the Second World War….In his engaging detective story, as he pieces Priscilla’s war years together, Shakespeare shines a moving, intriguing light on the moral quandaries faces by ordinary citizens.” (London Sunday Times, Best Book of the Year Citation)

“Impossible to put down.” (Mail on Sunday, a Book of the Year Pick)

“An excellently researched, beautifully written and unflinching memoir.” (Evening News, (UK))

“Mesmerising….A tremendous portrait of a world of war that is only ever glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. It is a haunting, powerful book about the gaps in the record and about the terrible abysses that are revealed when they are filled in.” (Sydney Morning Herald)

From the Back Cover

When Nicholas Shakespeare stumbled across a box of documents belonging to his late aunt, Priscilla, he was completely unaware of where this discovery would take him and what he would learn about her hidden past. The glamorous, mysterious figure he remembered from his childhood was very different from the morally ambiguous young woman who emerged from the trove of love letters, photographs, and journals, surrounded by suitors and living the dangerous existence of a British woman in a country controlled by the enemy. He had heard rumors that Priscilla had fought in the Resistance, but the truth turned out to be far more complicated.

As he investigated his aunt's life, dark secrets emerged, and Nicholas discovered the answers to the questions over which he'd been puzzling: What caused the breakdown of Priscilla's marriage to a French aristocrat? Why had she been interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, and how had she escaped? And who was the "Otto" with whom she was having a relationship as Paris was liberated?

Piecing together fragments of one woman's remarkable and tragic life, Priscilla is at once a stunning story of detection, a loving portrait of a flawed woman trying to survive in terrible times, and a spellbinding slice of history.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062297031
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062297037
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (165 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #481,520 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Rita Mayberry VINE VOICE on October 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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