In Divided Loyalties, The Experiences of a Scotswoman in Occupied France, Janet Tessier du Cros resuscitates civilian life during World War II with an immediacy and a tension that make it surprising to remember, in reading her, that the rasping humiliations and unforgivable tragedies and physical wretchedness of those hard times belabored Europe twenty years ago. Stormtroopers and the Gestapo, trimmers and maquisards emerge, fully fleshed, from the fog of apparition in which history has swaddled them, and Jews’ hearts leap to their throats at the sound of a knock on the door; the innards are clawed by hunger and the bones are stony with cold, feet in unaccustomed wooden-soled shoes are unsure on slippery bridges and through the snarls of winter as people ceaselessly prowl the countryside in search of food and fuel and sympathetic company. France bleeds from schism, divided between those who accept the armistice as an inevitability to which there had been no alternative but ruin, and those to whom the national dishonor is intolerable and the Vichy swindle nearly as atrocious as any Nazi crime. Tribal, familial, personal allegiances struggle to survive in a tempest of conflict and a web of casuistry. One chooses one’s butcher according to whether he supports De Gaulle or Pétain.
Mme. Tessier du Cros, the daughter of the Scotch scholar, Sir Herbert Grierson, and the wife of a French scientist, lived out the war years with her two small children in the mountains of the Cevennes where her husband’s Protestant family had for generations had their country houses. Her book is a thoughtful and winning account of ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances, of how women and children and the aged put in their time between the Occupation and the landing of the Allies. When the fighting was finished and France had fallen, there began a period of marking time in a heavy atmosphere of “demoralizing ambiguity. The race we ran had now no goal but had become the Red Queen’s race whose object is not to lose ground. We had strained our strength to break in a door which suddenly had burst open of its own accord, displaying an abyss beyond, and the energy that had lashed us forward must now be jerked into reverse.” Although she did not know where her husband was or whether, indeed, he was alive (he was taken prisoner by the Germans and after his release joined the Resistance), and the staple diet of her family was boiled chestnuts; although her children sickened with fever and grew pot-bellied from malnutrition, and a bath was an enterprise, and her in-laws were Pétainists when she herself pinned all her hopes on De Gaulle, nevertheless, she contrived to find solace and even, occasionally, delight in her hampered existence; the deprived palate, she observes, is refined. She was pleased to be preoccupied with building and rebuilding the many nests she moved into, hunting warmth in winter and water in summer, drinking wine (though food was scarce, wine was mercifully plentiful) in the gardens of her friends and with them surreptitiously listening to heartening broadcasts from the BBC, and reading Dickens and Jane Austen—“We could be martyrs, torturers’ accomplices or cowards. But at Jane Austen’s touch the walls sprang back, the pits vanished and the world beyond appeared. You had only to establish a link at any point between Jane Austen’s England and the world Hitler was forging to know that Hitler’s world was a nightmare which could never last.” With nature-loving British eyes, she sees and conveys the bewitching lights and the remarkable wonder of the change of seasons and, during famine, the luxurious surfeit of roses and lilies. Imitating the Frenchwomen, she kept up appearances so far as she was able, applauding the “fortitude French women learn in the seemingly frivolous school of elegance. The qualities of mind required always to look one’s best whatever the circumstances will, I was more and more to discover, take charge when occasion arises and see one through most of what life can do to one.” She bore a child and with great and honest style throws away the terror and pain of the experience; she hitchhiked to Paris after the Liberation, making her way by lorry and train and shank’s mare
Without a suggestion of sentimentality or proselytizing, Mme. Tessier du Cros states the feeling she has now about France that was long in evolving and perhaps required the exigencies of war to bring it fully to life. She says, “I came to identify France with a climate, a scale of spiritual values rather than a country whose boundaries may be traced on a map. I believe now that in a sense, and quite independently of the myth of patriotism, France is worth dying for.”
September 10, 1964