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Paperback review: Priscilla, By Nicholas Shakespeare


Ever since his aunt Priscilla died in March 1982, Nicholas Shakespeare had been curious about her past. In the summer of 2009, he had a stroke of luck: he decided to act, just as the one person who might know something about her was wondering what to do with a trunk full of her papers. The contents proved to be more rewarding than a novelist and biographer such as Shakespeare could hope for.

By piecing together Priscilla’s correspondence, diaries and attempts at fiction, Shakespeare tells the remarkable story of his aunt’s life before and during the Second World War, spent in Occupied France. 

Priscilla was a mysterious figure as Shakespeare was growing up: reserved and dominated by a tyrannical husband. She was the older half-sister of his mother, who only learned of her existence when she was 13. Their father had been a distinguished journalist, S P B Mais, whose disastrous first marriage had produced Priscilla, whom he pretty much abandoned when she was nine.

She went to live with her mother in Paris, and grew up bilingual, marrying a much-older vicomte before hostilities broke out. Priscilla’s loyalty to her husband, who wasn’t remotely interested in sex, got her trapped on the wrong side of the German invasion. In December 1940, she was interned at the Besançon detention centre near the Swiss border, during one of the coldest winters of the war.

Priscilla was unlucky in love, and sex, and had undergone a grisly back-street abortion when she met the Vicomte. She never had children, though ironically a phantom pregnancy secured her release from Besançon. Asked by a guard if she had children, she replied “not yet”, meaning she would like to one day. But her answer was interpreted as an admission she was pregnant, and after being examined by two extremely lenient doctors, she was out and back in Paris by the spring. By now, Priscilla was “hungry for pleasure”, and determined to enjoy herself, which she did, at one point with a Gestapo officer.

As Shakespeare acknowledges, his aunt’s is one of millions of wartime stories. But thanks to the extensive paperwork, and to his energetic digging, he creates a detailed and vivid narrative. This is a moving, and constantly surprising story. Apart from being a rewarding resolution of one man’s quest to solve a family mystery, it’s a reminder not to chuck out old papers. Or at least to read them before you do.