Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

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by Nicholas Shakespeare

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Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is a transcendent work of narrative nonfiction in the vein of The Hare with Amber Eyes.

When Nicholas Shakespeare stumbled across a trunk full of his late aunt’s personal belongings, he was unaware of where this discovery would take him and what he

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Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is a transcendent work of narrative nonfiction in the vein of The Hare with Amber Eyes.

When Nicholas Shakespeare stumbled across a trunk full of his late aunt’s personal belongings, he was 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, journals and photographs, surrounded by suitors and living the precarious existence of a British citizen in a country controlled by the enemy during World War II.

As a young boy, Shakespeare had always believed that his aunt was a member of the Resistance and had been tortured by the Germans. The truth turned out to be far more complicated. 

Piecing together fragments of his aunt’s remarkable and tragic story, 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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Editorial Reviews

Max Hastings
“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.”
John le Carré
“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.”
Caroline Moorehead
“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.”
Antony Beevor
“This mysterious story of the Occupation in France has all the qualities of a fascinating novel, with exquisite social, sexual and moral nuance.”
Charlotte Rampling
“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.”
Daily Telegraph
“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.”
London Sunday Times
“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.”
Daily Express
“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.”
The Observer
“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 Economist
“[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.”
Mail on Sunday
“Impossible to put down.”
Evening News
“An excellently researched, beautifully written and unflinching memoir.”
New York Times
“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.”
Woman & Home
“Extraordinary true story of the author’s aunt. A life of dark secrets, glamour, adventure and adversity during wartime.”
“Thrilling.….An intimate family memoir, a story of survival and a quest for biographical truth.”
The Independent
“Remarkable….A detailed and vivid narrative. This is a moving, and constantly surprising story.”
Conde Nast Traveller
“A fine book, full of hurried journeys and secret liaisons, by one of Britain’s best writers.”
Wall Street Journal
“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.”
New York Times Book Review
Boston Globe
“Fascinating….Shakespeare probes his aunt’s wartime years with finesse and pathos….His reconstruction of Priscilla’s life is meticulous and tantalizing.”
Julian Barnes
“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.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A fascinating, complicated story.”
Sydney Morning Herald
“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.”
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Shakespeare (In Tasmania, 2004, etc.) searches for the realities of his aunt's life before, during and after World War II. The first portion of the book explains Priscilla's childhood: Her mother ran off with one of a series of lovers; her father's lover demanded Priscilla be sent off to Paris to live with her mother in 1926; her mother abused her. It was at school in St.-Germain-en-Laye that she met promiscuous Gillian, who became her lifelong friend and confidante. After a case of venereal disease and a badly performed abortion in Paris (her mother gave her the abortionist's name), she met and married Robert, nearly 20 years her senior. In spite of her husband's impotence, Priscilla enjoyed the luxuries of being a vicomtesse. When Robert was taken prisoner in the German invasion, her in-laws, fearful of losing their estates, turned her out. She was interned a short time as a British national but was released when she claimed pregnancy. This is when her history gets cloudy. When Priscilla returned to England after the war, she was a healthy woman with a suitcase full of designer clothes and little evidence of the ravages of wartime Paris. Was she a collaborator? Who were her protectors? A trove of papers, letters and photographs discovered by Shakespeare after Priscilla's death paint the portrait of a woman who lived well. In occupied Paris, ordinary women were cast into extraordinary circumstances--their main goals were to procure enough clothing and food and not get shot. Priscilla's letters and Gillian's notebooks finally put names to Priscilla's important Paris wartime lovers, and the author moves back and forth in time to narrate her life. A somewhat disjointed story that nonetheless successfully recounts how one woman dealt with her dysfunctional life.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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