Books of The Times: In ‘Priscilla,’ Nicholas Shakespeare Looks at Family Mystery

But to the author and his parents, she was all mystery and romance. They knew she’d been in a concentration camp, and they strongly suspected she’d played a role in the Resistance. Mr. Shakespeare, a prizewinning novelist and biographer, began to pursue Priscilla’s story after her death, when a pile of letters and photographs she’d saved, among them portions of a fictionalized autobiography, more or less fell into his lap. He also drew on works by his grandfather, Priscilla’s father, S. P. B. Mais, a BBC broadcaster and writer, who had, among his 200 books, written about his daughter. And, stumbling on a familiar name in a library archive, Mr. Shakespeare found a further trove of such documents by Priscilla’s lifelong friend Gillian, quite a character in her own right. The women, in fact, wrote novels featuring each other.

This referential incestuousness is one of the slightly wicked pleasures of Mr. Shakespeare’s book “Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France.”  Graham Greene, to whom Priscilla’s father had been kind, returns the favor by naming a fictional character for him. As a famous older man, Greene features in Gillian’s life in France. Priscilla’s beau Donat plays the dashing lead in the Hitchcock film of the book that had long been S. P. B. Mais’s lodestar, “The 39 Steps.” Priscilla’s mother sleeps with Gillian’s father.

As Mr. Shakespeare does his research, the mystery of Priscilla begins to recede, and so does her glamour. She is revealed as possibly less worthy — but maybe more intriguing. She was not, he found, in the Resistance. And Gillian, who survived her friend, said that Besançon, the camp where Priscilla was interned for four months with other British passport holders, was not a concentration camp, though the Germans called it that. For them, it was Frontstalag 142 — and it had much in common with the notorious camps: the wooden bunks, meager food and frozen latrines into which elderly inmates sometimes slid, to be found dead in the morning. Of the 4,000 women interned in Besançon, 700 died.

Which is to say, it wasn’t a death camp, or even a forced-labor camp, but it was bad enough. What is most shocking about what Mr. Shakespeare discovers, however, is that none of this ever happened, at least so far as the Besançon townspeople are concerned. When it comes to the Occupation, most of what even French officialdom offers is still blankness and denial. What he also found was that survival for the French — or for the British in occupied territory — often meant collaboration. In Priscilla’s case, after her starved internment, it was sexual collaboration, with men powerful enough to keep her not only safe but also comfortable.

This section of the book is the most sensational, largely because of the detail it reveals about high-level black-market characters rather than about Priscilla, who seems less to connect with people than to ricochet between them, hoping to score security. She sticks with her viscount, who is impotent, but feels betrayed when she is incarcerated at Besançon, and he shows no interest in getting her out.

Others were more potent in every way: Daniel Vernier, a married businessman, who had himself smuggled into the camp and protected her pretty much from 1941 to the liberation of Paris in ’44; a Belgian racecar driver who jealously beat her; a German named Otto, “one step away from Hermann Göring,” who kept her in caviar and couture; and, weirdly, Madame Vernier’s brother, the one man she ever fell in love with.

The sensational aspect, though, mainly has to do with the flamboyant characters that Priscilla may or may not have known directly: Nazis and other goods traffickers living the high life in Paris. One, said to have inspired the title character in Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien,” is a high-voiced epicene youth who sells out Jews but, like Ferdinand the bull, just wants to smell the pretty flowers, though only if they’re white.

There is, finally, almost too much here. The sheer richness of sources can induce a kind of double vision. Passages come from Mais’s books, and we get paragraphs by Gillian, who, in later years, viewed Priscilla through a lens of bitchery. Mr. Shakespeare is also telling the story of how he got Priscilla’s story; both chronology and perspective can be tricky to parse. And while he offers some overview, you may wish the whole had been framed less as a series of mysteries and been allowed more analysis — not to mention a timeline of the principal’s life and a cast list or, at least, an index, deficiencies probably to be laid at the publisher’s door. A map of France would be handy, too.

Scattered across the book are what we can only guess, from endnotes giving sources but no page numbers, are quotations and subjective details from Priscilla’s manuscripts, yet there’s a hole where her viewpoint should be. She stayed faithful to her second, British marriage, wrote unsuccessfully, drank, and died at 65. Mr. Shakespeare compares her, sympathetically, to Anna Karenina, and she is indeed the inadvertent protagonist of a morality tale about the dire consequences of a louche upbringing. But we never know what she told herself about her life, really. That, no doubt, was what her nephew most wanted to fill in. 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.

Anna Shapiro is the author of a collection of essays and three novels. She has written about books for publications including The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 28, 2013

The Books of The Times review on Friday, about “Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France” by Nicholas Shakespeare, misstated the year Paris was liberated in World War II. It was 1944, not 1945.

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