In his latest book, Nicholas Shakespeare has chosen as his subject Priscilla Thompson of East Wittering, Sussex. This enigmatic, beautiful and tragic woman was his aunt. She was his mother’s sister, she lived in Sussex and was married to Raymond Thompson and was step-mother to two of his children by a previous, unmentionable, marriage. His parents only gave him the barest indication of her history, though such information as he gleaned from them and from snatches of conversation led him to believe that his aunt was someone who had to be more interesting than the bare facts seemed to suggest.
The daughter of one of the more famous BBC broadcasters and brought up by his ex-wife Doris, Priscilla Mais had a difficult and unhappy childhood, she went on to have an extraordinary life, often difficult and unhappy.
Always more fascinated than knowledgeable, Nicholas was given Priscilla’s own scrapbook from which he gleaned more about his aunt’s background. He found a picture of himself as a small baby, and as he turned the pages more interesting items, from an article in the Chichester Observer stating that she had been in court for smuggling an undeclared item (a crocodile-skin handbag) into the country without paying the required duty on it. She pleaded guilty but in a statement to the court cited her experience in wartime France at the hands of officials as the reason for her unprecedented lapse of truthfulness.
Priscilla died in 1982, but it was not until 2004 that her step-daughter Tracey gave Nicholas a box of Priscilla’s personal effects that started him on the trail of this extraordinary woman. The box, which had lived in full view for all to see, under the television contained photographs, letters, notebooks and journals of a secret life that had absolutely nothing to do with her life as Mrs Thompson. The letters were a passionate assortment of love letters from a number of different men, the photographs were mostly of these same lovers, husband, friends and the journals were a mixture of facts, aspirations and blatant lies.
But from one thread followed to its end, picking up another seemingly insignificant thread and following that, Nicholas Shakespeare managed to reconstruct Priscilla’s life as Vicomtesse Priscilla Doynel de la Sausserie, her whole life made up from interviews with people who actually knew her, from the strange box of letters and from extensive research in libraries and archives in England and France.
Not only does Nicholas Shakespeare bring his aunt very much back to life on the page, but through his research he also presents the reader with a very complete and disturbing picture of what exactly it took to survive Occupied France. He went looking for a Resistance heroine, which he did not find. What he found instead might fill some people with revulsion, but only because it is almost impossible to judge from this historical distance what it must have been like, there is a huge national amnesia in France about the War. There are lots of notable examples of collaborators, and equally rank upon rank of people who were supposedly in the Resistance and between those two extremes there were a great many people who got along with the task of survival as best as they could.
Maybe Priscilla was free with her morals, she certainly mixed in a very strange set but she was undeniably often in danger, sometimes without the correct papers, sometimes with dubious papers to which she was not entitled, but abandoned by her husband’s family for being British at the beginning of the Occupation, and eventually by her husband, Robert, in order to protect his mother and the family estate, she was friendless in a city full of men who desired her and were prepared to keep her, indeed wanted to protect her. So she passed from Daniel, to Pierre to Otto.
Nicholas Shakespeare has written a superb book. We should not judge her life by our comfortable and unchallenged standards but marvel at it.