Hello, friends. I’ve been reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It’s a hard thing to categorize: a book encompassing fragments of a memoir, many elements of biography, and a tightly focused history of France during the Nazi Occupation. It’s completely gripping and extremely well told.
The aspect that I want to focus on this week, however, is how so much of Shakespeare’s insight into his aunt’s life is the result of a series of happy coincidences. He begins the book with his childhood memories of Priscilla, his glamorous aunt with a mysterious past. She’d been married to a minor French aristocrat, lived in France under the Vichy government, and spent time in an internment camp. She was clearly scarred by those years, and nobody in the family spoke of them or questioned her directly.
After she died in 1982, Shakespeare continued asking questions but received few answers. There was a box of intriguing but inconclusive photographs and letters. It revealed that Priscilla had been adored by many men, but not who these men were or what kind of role they’d played in her life – and the larger history through which they’d all lived.
Years, and then decades, passed. One day at the Bodleian Library, writes Shakespeare, “I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, a project which had occupied me intermittently since 1991, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued and stored in the same building. In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had been bequeathed by Gillian [Sutro, Priscilla's lifelong best friend]; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt.”
Do you see the extraordinary string of coincidence and happenstance at play, here? Nicholas Shakespeare happened to be working on the Chatwin letters. He happened to notice (how?) a reference to a Sutro Collection (a distinctive name, especially in England). The Sutro Collection happened to have been recently catalogued. It happened to be stored in the same building (the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library) in which Shakespeare was presently at work.
But the gifts of fortune continue! Shakespeare ordered up the boxes and found more harmless letters and photographs from before and after the war. “Interesting, I thought, but nothing more, and opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks. Then I read my name.”
Did your hair just stand on end? Mine did! Shakespeare explains that he’d mentioned his aunt’s wartime history in a magazine article in 1992. Gillian Sutro had read the article. In it, a factual error on Shakespeare’s part acted like a detonator on Sutro’s memory and emotions. It forced her to rethink her entire relationship with her lifelong best friend; made her re-sift the evidence of their conversations after 1941; and impelled her to interview others in their circle, to uncover what had really happened.
Shakespeare says, “For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: ‘Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it. Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.”
I love this analogy of “being taken by the wrist and led down… into the cellars”. It inspires the precise blend of excitement, helplessness, and foreboding that I recognize from my own (considerably less deus ex machina) research work. It’s one of the best things I know.
How about you, readers? Have you had comparable – or wildly different – moments in your own research?