Review: ‘Priscilla’ by Nicholas Shakespeare

by Kim on January 7, 2014 · 13 comments

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Title: Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
Author: Nicholas Shakespeare
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Harper
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★½☆

Review: As a kid, novelist Nicholas Shakespeare was fascinated by his glamorous but mysterious aunt, Priscilla. Family rumors hinted that Priscilla, who struggled with a drinking problem and a temperamental husband late in life, had been captured and tortured by Germans during World War II while serving as a member of the resistance in occupied France.

After Priscilla’s death, Shakespeare discovers a trunk of her belongings and her personal scrapbook. From these few details, Shakespeare begins a hunt to uncover what really happened during the war that impacted Priscilla for the rest of her life. Although Priscilla is ultimately more speculative than a historian might be comfortable with, Shakespeare’s search for the truth of Priscilla’s life is an illuminating look at how women fared in Nazi-occupied France.

Priscilla is an interesting book about an equally interesting woman, set during a time and place that I don’t know much about. After the Nazi’s invaded France, British citizens caught there had few options. Female British citizens had even fewer. Priscilla, hiding in Paris from her French in-laws and disconnected from her British family, made a lot of questionable and complex choices that Shakespeare discovers, explores and contextualizes. I won’t say more than that for fear of spoilers, but if you know anything of World War II history I’m sure you have some ideas.

As a story, Priscilla was quite good. Although some sections could be disjointed, particularly as Shakespeare revisits old assumptions with new information, in general the plot moved along and kept me engaged with the book. One of the things that troubled me about the book (and what probably pulled the rating down just a bit) is that the review copy I was reading is very light on citations. There are some scattered throughout the text, but the notes in the back, though long, are not especially detailed when it comes to specific assertions in the text. This doesn’t always bug me, but I feel like accurate, detailed notes are important in a book that is so focused on digging through “stuff” to uncover a true story.

(After I finished writing this and was digging for other reviews to share, I came across this passage in a piece about the book in the New York Times, which I heartily agree with:

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.)

Despite that caveat, I think Priscilla is a book that many people, especially those with an interest in WWII or the role of women during the war years, will want to read. Priscilla’s story is uniquely her own, yet dovetails with the experiences of many other women during that time period. Their stories are worth reading and deserve to be told. 

Other Reviews: The New York Times | The Observer |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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