Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Image of Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
Release Date: 
January 7, 2013
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

The topic is intriguing: a young woman is trapped in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The publicity blurbs promise everything: youth, war, sex, and intrigue. Unfortunately, the author fails to carry through. There is no continuity in the story of Nicholas Shakespeare’s aunt, Priscilla Mais. It reads like a first draft.

It is not clear if the writer intended this to be a biography of his aunt, a historical view of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a review of SPB Mais’s contributions as a journalist during World War II, or a personal account of the author’s interviews with people who knew Priscilla. The book includes it all but without the tie-ins necessary to make sense.

The author interjects his own opinion about why she married her first husband (looking for an absent father figure). That seems predictable and does not follow Priscilla’s behavior pattern. Perhaps she married Robert because he would make her respectable and would not interfere with her other activities.

Priscilla’s serial affairs with prominent Nazis during the occupation would not have endeared her to the French. Men and women who collaborated were treated harshly after the Germans left town. Priscilla got out of town just in time. But why did she stay when she had the chance to leave? That question is not answered. The author provides his opinion but little in the way of documentation.

Priscilla comes across as someone who would do anything for excitement. Reading between the lines it seems she had no desire to return to the boredom and tedium of wartime Britain. Paris was where the action was, the excitement, and Priscilla wanted to be in the middle of it. She did not care what others thought of her. She used sex to buy her way into comfort and security.

Aside from the fact the storytelling is abysmal, the author also fails to provide basic information. For example, the book is filled with photographs, yet not one carries a caption. The author neglects dates and jumps from one period to another without adequate transition. This makes reading the book frustrating because one is never sure where or when the activities are taking place.

Perhaps the most annoying part of this book is the author’s practice of inserting his personal beliefs, reactions, and responses to some of the interviews. These first-person narratives were distracting and unnecessary.

The problem is that Priscilla is not a likeable person. Even her best friend, Gillian, finally realized that Priscilla was a liar and had betrayed her trust. The segment about Priscilla being an unfulfilled writer was almost comical. She was unpublished because she could not write. In the end, Priscilla was an unhappy woman who hated her life and all its shortcomings. She had a lousy childhood and selfish, self-absorbed parents. She was a woman who made many poor choices and blamed everyone else when things did not work out.

This story seems incomplete. Pieces and parts of the story are missing. Perhaps the author is too close to the work. Maybe he is reluctant to put his family in a bad light.

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France could have been an interesting story and, perhaps in the hands of another writer, the result would have been more satisfying. As written, the book is a tedious read.