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on 11 March 2014
This book had me hooked from start to finish .. and helped me appreciate the difficulties faced by people such as Priscilla (and French women in particular) during the German occupation of France. There were some two million French POWs kept in German prison camps during the occupation (something I was unaware of), with their womenfolk largely left to fend for themselves. If survival and finding enough food to live on meant collaboration or sleeping with the enemy, so be it ... and shame on those (notably the so-called and singularly inept French Resistance) who treated such women so brutally and unthinkingly after the war had ended. I often wonder what level of collaboration would have occurred in Great Britain had Germany occupied Britain during the war. It's very easy to criticise in hindsight behaviour that would rightly be considered inappropriate in peacetime I recommend this book very highly. It's beautifully researched and elegantly written.
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on 17 January 2014
I enjoyed most of this book as it didn't sugar coat or romanticise the occupation of wartime France. It provokes the reader to ask themselves how they would have behaved under similar circumstances.

What I did find a little uncomfortable was reading about unsavoury or less that heroic behaviour by individuals who are no longer around to either defend themselves or put the record straight.

That said, it certainly appears to be an honest description of the lives and 'loves' of people who were less than perfect and led quite extraordinary lives before, during and after World War II.
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on 4 January 2016
I wondered whether the glowing reviews could all be true (as they so often aren't), but Nicholas Shakespeare deserves his plaudits. His aunt was ultimately a sad character, damaged by a class-bound dysfunctional family, a variety of unsuitable and unsavoury lovers and the need to survive in occupied France. The reader-reviewers who were offended by her choices and behaviour miss the point: we can learn as much from the weak as from the heroic, and Priscilla's story tells us a lot about the peculiar times she lived through - and the heavy price she paid. As someone who has just written the biography of a wartime heroine (not without her own flaws) I wanted to find fault with this book, but I found it involving and profoundly moving. It does go up some slightly irritating side-alleys and is a bit too long but it is beautifully written, with insight and empathy. It's hard to like Priscilla, but we can't help but be intrigued by her.
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on 2 December 2013
It has been commented that Priscilla Mais was a determined, adventurous woman. That says as much as stating that so were D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley, and the courtesans Lady Emma Hamilton and Kitty Fisher (of children's nursery rhyme Lucy Locket fame). Love in war, however, as Hemingway or Mata Hari discovered takes on a different perspective and acceptability.

Nicholas Shakespeare wanted to fill in the gaps in the life of his aunt, daughter of pre-war author, journalist and radio commentator, Stuart (SPB) Mais, first Vicomtesse Doynel de la Sausserie, and finally wife of Raymond Thompson, a former intelligence officer in wartime. As in all research it involved moving around mazes, running up against walls of omertà - her name being erased from the French aristocratic family history, and rumour, hearsay and gossip of the inevitable Chlochemerle Justine Putet sortsClochemerle, feeling the author was wandering in circles, chasing half leads and shadows, and causing one to imagine the worst. As English, a foreigner, and a strange outsider in the old local noble family and in the surrounding villages, though a stunning twenty-something Grace Kelly look alike, she could not be compared to the officious, distant more mature Baronesse Courtebiche of Chevallier; so did become the example of half truths, with the author experiencing the so-called "ils non dits" phenomena.

As the author succeeded in getting blood from his stone it is suitable to be read in racy modern soap plot-lines making Downton Abbey more akin to Eastenders. Born from dysfunctional middle class parents, with their own separate families, Priscilla experiences a dirty back street abortion in Paris, but she is saved, and married to the older romantic Catholic, a sexually incompetent Robert in 1938, leaving her most dicontented. After escaping internment at Besançon, in the Alps, in war torn, occupied France, she exhibits her natural abilities, wares (her good looks) and independence, satisfying her sexual and other expensive urges and needs everywhere, even cheating on her best girl friend Gillian, through black marketeers, hoods, and worst of all collaborators and Nazi officers, constantly evading arrest and transportation to Drancy or to the camps in Germany with a little (or a great) help from useful important persons.

Liberation, and the end of the War instead become her instant self incarceration; fearing humiliation and head shaving from inflamed screaming hate-driven French resistors of the last hour, better known as Resistants of the Month of August (RMA), or from-highly opinionated Frenchmen wearing uniforms after four years (the "mothball men or Napthalinards), and being obliged to revert to a helpless, faithful young dame to a boring man now much reduced in status after the bombing and destruction of the chateau in Normandy at Boisgrimot. With the right word (daughter of a BBC celebrity voice) and a pass from the right person she got a quick push and flight home to London free from the clipping hairdressers.

It is there in the last months of the War amid the cast of the film studies she partly regains her past stability and sanity in a brief passionate entendre with Robert Donat of The 39 Steps and Goodbye Mr Chips' fame, before entering into a longer strange marriage in 1948 to the protective Raymond. The success was due to her new husband being kept in the dark of her darker past, and her failed attempts to publish her story as a baby substitute and as a means to present her story freely. The end comes after a further period of depression, breakdown, fuelled by constant binge drinking, best kept quiet and forgotten in families in sweet peace-loving Britain of the 1950s before the onset of the real scandals of Keeler and Profumo, the trial to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the arrival of David Frost and TW3 in the swinging London. Her pre-war conversion to Catholicism proves to be her final nail in her coffin which drives her over the edge

In historical terms the book portrays the expatriate Parisian life in the 1930s, and the difficulties of survival in the occupied and unoccupied zones. It highlights life in an internment camp, a military barracks built in Napoleonic days. Such imprisonment is surprisingly still unknown to many Frenchmen and women (preferring to shrug their shoulders), since it was the exclusive of non-French people. Together with Pris, lived pleasant sorts: nuns, governesses, nurses, students, prostitutes, the whole dance troupe, the Bluebell Girls who performed at the Folie Bergère, and, for name dropping, the 68 year old theatre designer, Edward Gordon Craig, son the Victorian actress Ellen Terry. She made her get away because she had the resource and prompt imagination. Others did not and suffered; around 700 women and children were reported to have died.

Priscilla survived the occupation opting for Système D, or becoming a débrouillarde, and blossomed, associating herself with the underworld who in War had no illusions that to live well they needed to work hand in glove with the German authorities, something which her British sisters either in uniform or working in factories or on the land would never understand or totally empathise with. The author justifies the conduct of his aunt, and other eminent French women, such as the film star Arletty, and "semi-aristocrats" or "countesses of the Gestapo" like Comtesse Marie Tchernycheff-Bezobrazoff or Princess Evanne Mourousi, who became German mistresses, and revealed how far their influence reached - whether in intimate terms with Vichy's vile Pierre Laval, or even with Hermann Göring's despised hirelings. There was obviously a down side. In 1983 the year the last collaborator was official released from prison, a former tondue (shaved woman) was discovered in the Auvergne still living as a scared recluse four decades on. Did anyone learn from this? Not for a very long time because the men refused to accept that many poor women were simply begging for food.

Worse many official French histories, the author stresses, chose to overlook that of the 1.8 million French POWs living in Germany and happily liasing with German girls since 1940, no one had his head shaved for sleeping with the enemy or was condemned for this. It seems there were double Gallic standards, or more exactly a single cardinal one: the French male was, as in Clochemerle in 1923, trying to reclaim a moral authority they had lost on the field of battle, and publicly humiliating some of their own women was sufficient to make them feel respectable again.

What may be less palatable for French contemporary readers is some, such as Pris, were prepared to fraternise with Henri Chamberlin and the French Gestapo (Gestapistes français) or Lauristondienst. Amongst Pris' contacts was the Swiss Max Stocklin, and the unknown "Otto" (which at the end Shakespeare succeeds in unearthing) involved in the looting, the sale, and disappearance of Jewish owned French antiques, furniture, and old masters which only now occasionally see the light of day.

Readers will experience D-2 to D Day from the French side in Normandy and understand how close it might have been a case of what if?: what might have happened had either FM von Runstedt listened to the latest information provided by radio intelligence or had FM Rommel been present and not in Germany, and the invasion had been held and pushed back as in Owen Sheers' fictional Resistance.

It may allow some British readers, and veterans to understand the reason why until they crossed into Belgium in September 1944 the Allies did not encounter total joy from all the locals in Normandy. Most locals now experienced the destruction of their homes whereas throughout the four years of German occupation their fields, animals, and buildings had remained untouched as for summers past unless it was known they had been harbouring Allied airmen or Maquis.

Finally, Priscilla own testimony is in the form of an unsent letter as a concluding note, explaining to other young girls and women many truths: a reflection of herself, her time, and advice to others for the future; a proper moralist. Made public the author lets readers judge if she might still receive praises today, or understood and sympathized with for her errors, or just criticized.

The real problem for the historian, or for the reader wishing to read this over 400 page work as a piece of history, rather than a ripping yarn is it lacks an index.

As everyone has a special tale to tell of life in wartime the time has come to hear about those one wishes to avoid: including collaborators, and even Nazis, or those working in less than respectable occupations. After almost seventy years Nicholas Shakespeare's family history has come to our rescue with an interesting tale of mystery and suspense. In Priscilla's days she would have been considered immoral and loose; today she would have been praised as a goer, living her life to the full, and a successful role model for the interim. In War secrets and lies passed by agents seem patriotic, courageous adventures. She might have explained her bravery because of the War, an occasion when she could live her own life as she really wished. Her many known, and untraced lovers would accept it as a necessity because it was Priscilla: a woman of one season, others would not. Over to you.
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on 27 December 2013
From extensive research Nicholas Shakespeare has reconstructed a fascinating and touching personality in the life of his aunt, Priscilla Mais.

Not a distant relative of Jane Eyre, she is an unlikely heroine. Not by nature an initiator, but beautiful, Priscilla is someone to whom things happened. Her story, after a miserable childhood, is set mostly in France during the German Occupation, and has some dramatic ups and downs.

The destiny of this English vicomtesse, looking for safety, fulfilment and love, is a real-life romantic adventure which because it is true, sticks in the mind.

At the story's centre the author sympathetically describes the fraught choices confronting Priscilla, a woman from an enemy country, in Paris under the control of the Gestapo. At the end of the war Priscilla escaped from France "just in time", and later she tried to keep hidden what had happened.

Priscilla's heartbreaking difficulties adjusting to a completely different life in England after the war (which should have been easier but wasn't), is uncannily like Susan Trahearn's destructive post-war crisis in David Hare's play, "Plenty".

I read this a couple of months ago, and this woman still haunts my imagination.

The kindle version of the book includes photographs.
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on 10 February 2014
I really liked this book but wanted to like it more. There are quite repetitive bits and, as a woman,I find it very difficult to comprehend that men fell for Priscilla in such great numbers and with such enthusiasm over her 'beauty'. However, perhaps I am being naive and not realising the full extent of the affairs. There again, how could anyone know the full extent - not even a family member writing her memoirs.
Still a good read and gets better more towards the end after the "internment".
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on 30 January 2014
A very interesting time in history which has been brought to life in this book. At times it seemed to ramble on a bit as personal stories have a habit of doing and I would lose my train of thought & have to go back & re-read it. All in all well worth a read, I couldn't make up my mind whether Priscilla was a conniving woman using whatever means to secure her own safety or just a very stupid easily led creature.
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on 1 May 2014
Just finished this on the plane. Very interesting context to things that were happening in France and Paris in WWII. Some of the restaurants mentioned are still there under the same name. Of the woman herself I am sure psychologists would have a field day, however to use a phrase that I first heard from my late mother in law "she was no better than she ought to have been"
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on 21 January 2014
Slow to start, slightly muddled in time lines, but became compulsive reading. Made one realise how lucky this generation (and mine ) are not to have had to face what she faced, and how female she was in tackling it. Would have loved to have had more of Priscilla, and more detail of her later life - good read, not quite 5 stars.
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on 29 January 2014
This is the extraordinary life story of Nicholas Shakespeare's aunt Priscilla Mais, born in 1916, a gifted and promising individual of whom - for reason after reason all of which, sadly, pile up on each other as one reads this book - none of us readers, prior to its publication, is likely ever to have heard.
The daughter of an in his time eminent, but now almost forgotten, journalist and broadcaster called S.P.B. Mais, she was disadvantaged from birth by her parents' separation, her father's remarriage and abandonment of her to an extremely unsympathetic mother, and a general neglect of her talents which, for both ballet dancing and literary composition, were considerable.ment of
An unplanned pregnancy - in those days, of course, unforgivable - followed by a botched illegal abortion insisted on by her mother, left Priscilla permanently infertile. This tragedy, only gradually realised, blighted her life as (like so many other people who, neglected in childhood, try to reclaim the happiness they never knew by cherishing offspring of their own) her greatest desire in the world was to give birth to a baby.
Having married a French aristocrat - who sadly, due to difficulties of his own, proved unable to assist her in achieving that ambition - Priscilla found herself trapped in France by the Nazi invasion of May 1940. Released, finally, from a horrible internment camp for enemy aliens, she embarked on a wandering and financially precarious existence with a series of lovers and, in the process, became involved with several French Resistance members and - at least - one prominent Nazi.
Following arrest by the Gestapo, from whose attentions she was rescued - only just - by the prominent Nazi, her subsequent plight and the conflicting emotions, not to mention the practical difficulties, which Priscilla's life subsequently involved can only be imagined by present-day readers but my goodness, does Nicholas Shakespeare help us to imagine them! This book is un-put-downable - GENUINELY un-put-downable, which is not a thing I often find, but I was up all night reading it.
It is well written, and meticulously researched (the references occupy ten per cent of the book's pages) and altogether heart-rending. A triumph!
It has, of course, already been serialised as a BBC morning story.
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