Priscilla, 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare
Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare, which some of you may have been enjoying in abridged form on BBC Radio 4, is the astonishing true story of a young woman’s adventures, and misadventures, in the dangerous world of Nazi-occupied France.
Priscilla’s adventures involve our very own Robert Donat. Readers of both J C Trewin and Kenneth Barrow’s biographies of Robert will find no mention of Priscilla, but amongst his late aunt’s papers, Nicholas Shakespeare found a number of passionate letters to her from Robert, written between January and May 1945.
Robert had been introduced to Priscilla by her closest friend, Gillian Sutro.
On that evening, Priscilla had never been so alluring or so alone. She stood by the Sutros’ fireplace in her Schiaperelli ivory silk dress that left her neck bare. Donat looked into her ‘mild wild eyes, like a pregnant faun’, and was, he afterwards confessed, ‘enchanted’. They talked and the other guests receded.
The Germans banned English films in Paris, but Priscilla knew who Donat was. His hold on the public imagination is hard to exaggerate, even if his name does not register today …
… An unaccompanied young woman in a humdrum job, reclining in her velvet seat, might with Donat’s assistance shrug off the anxiety of the V bombs and for ninety minutes imagine herself playing opposite a man who, in the opinion of one critic, ‘can make you feel like he is in love with somebody, which few actors can’.
The problem was that the thirty-nine-year-old Donat could not spark in himself the same emotion. In 1940, concerned for their safety, his wife Ella had taken their children to Los Angeles. On his own for four years, Donat had rarely been so unhappy as on the evening he encountered Priscilla. He telephoned her the following morning at the Sutros, shaken by what she had unloosed.
Priscilla in 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare
During the war and Ella’s absence, Robert had been pondering the future of their marriage, returning to his youthful notion of The Ideal Woman. Relationships with Rosamund John and Deborah Kerr had not tempted him to divorce Ella. Priscilla might have been ‘the one’.
‘I swore I would never again take any woman seriously – and here you are beginning to nestle down snugly under my skin, bother and confound you’.
But all did not go well, despite Robert’s many adoring letters. Priscilla deserted him to write a book, and Ella returned to England.
‘Darling,’ Donat wrote to Priscilla. ‘We have come to the end of our tether and don’t like to admit it to one another. Isn’t that the truth? It is only sensible to end it now before it becomes too hurtful.’
As we know, Robert would go on to divorce Ella and later, marry Renée Asherson. It is fascinating to catch a glimpse of a part of Robert’s life previously hidden, and the excerpts from his letters to Priscilla are a delight.
The story of his aunt Priscilla’s remarkable life is beautifully and tenderly recounted by Nicholas Shakespeare. Please read the book to find out more about Priscilla and Robert, and to discover what made Priscilla and her life so extraordinary. My father served in WW2, and for him the war was a matter of good versus evil, duty and serving your country. Priscilla lived in the shades of grey where one did what one could to survive. What would I have done? And you?
Priscilla on her wedding day, 1938 © Nicholas Shakespeare
A pin-sharp biography which unfurls like gripping fiction… wonderful, haunting, thought-provoking
– The Times
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
– Daily Telegraph
A tantalisingly original perspective of the Second World War…Shakespeare shines a moving, intriguing light on the moral quandaries faced by ordinary civilians
– Sunday Times
Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is published by Harvill Secker, part of Vintage Publishing.
Nicholas Shakespeare was born in Worcester in 1957 and grew up in the Far East and Latin America. He is a prize-winning novelist and biographer and Priscilla draws on his talents in both genres.
My thanks to Nicholas Shakespeare for his co-operation and for providing images of his aunt.
As always, my thanks to Brian Donat for his help and support.
All images and text excerpts copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare 2013
Gill Fraser Lee