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A Woman's War Story

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Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. By Nicholas Shakespeare. NY: HarperCollins, 2013. 423 pages.

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Priscilla Thompson was born in England in 1916. Her mother ran off with a lover when she was young, and her father, a well-known writer and radio personality, took up with another woman. Priscilla was shipped off to France where she grew to be a great beauty and learned to speak French fluently. When as a young woman, she returned to England, she got pregnant by a man who refused to do the right thing. So, she went, friendless and nearly broke, back to France for an abortion. On her way, she met a French aristocrat who was enchanted by her beauty and sensed her vulnerability. They married. Only after their marriage did she discover that he was impotent.

Then came the war and the Nazi occupation of France. Priscilla’s best friend was Gillian, a highly sexed English woman who, like her, was fluent in French. Gillian opted to escape to Britain, but Priscilla stayed in France. In a little known chapter of history, the Nazis rounded up some 4,000 or so British women living in France and imprisoned them at Besanҫon, where up to 600 died of disease, exposure, and starvation before the Nazis slowly began to release them. Priscilla was released when she feigned pregnancy, her condition being the more believable because starvation had caused her to stop menstruating.

She returned to Paris and lived as best she could, depending upon a series of lovers for her survival. After the war, she refused to talk of her war-time experiences, but her family believed she may have been in the Resistance. Long after her death, her nephew, Nicholas Shakespeare, an accomplished writer, decided to discover what he could about his aunt. What he could discover was a great deal and explained why Priscilla never talked about those dark years of the occupation.

When in 1944 Paris was liberated, the Epuration, the purgation or purification, began. The Nazi occupation had been a nightmare. The Germans had stolen nearly everything of value, not only the thousands of works of art we have heard about, but also grain, potatoes, butter, cheese, wine. Many French men and women went hungry. The French were mad as hell, so they went after collaborators, especially women who had slept with German soldiers. Never mind that many French men had slept with German women. These men were not humiliated, but the women were. They were hauled into the streets, their heads were shaved, they were slapped and spit on, their breasts were exposed, and swastikas were drawn on their faces and bodies. We’ve all seen the pictures. It is an ugly chapter in French history.

Nothing like this happened to Priscilla, but that may have been, as she remarked to Gillian upon returning to England, that she got out “just in time.” Among Priscilla’s many lovers had been thieves who helped the Nazis loot France as well as a German.

It is an amazing story, well told, but one of moral ambiguity in a time of uncertainty and hardship. Who knows how he or she might have behaved under similar circumstance. As the author concludes, we have no right to judge Priscilla, having never been subjected to such fear and deprivation.

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