The Guernsey Literary and Potato Part 2

part2Dear Juliet,

Don’t worry about Gilly—you did not embarrass S&S; I’m only sorry that the tea wasn’t hotter and you didn’t aim lower. The Press is hounding me for a statement regarding Gilly’s latest muckraking, and I am going to give them one. Don’t worry; it’s going to be about Journalism in these degenerate times—not about you or Rob Dartry.

I just spoke to Susan about going on to Scotland and—though I know Sophie will never forgive me—decided against it. Izzy’s sales figures are going up—way up—and I think you should come home.

The Times wants you to write a long piece for the supplement—one part of a three-part series they plan to publish in successive issues. I’ll let them surprise you with the subject, but I can promise you three things right now: they want it written by Juliet Ashton, not by Izzy Bickerstaff; the subject is a serious one; and the sum mentioned means you can fill your flat with fresh flowers every day for a year, buy a satin quilt (Lord Woolton says you no longer need to have been bombed out to buy new bedcovers), and purchase a pair of real leather shoes—if you can find them. You can have my coupons.

The Times doesn’t want the article until late spring, so we will have more time to think up a new book possibility for you. All good reasons to hurry back, but the biggest one is that I miss you.

Now, about Markham V. Reynolds, Junior. I do know who he is, and the Domesday Book won’t help—he’s an American. He is the son and heir of Markham V. Reynolds, Senior, who used to have a monopoly on paper mills in the States and now just owns most of them. Reynolds, Junior, being of an artistic turn of mind, does not dirty his hands in making paper—he prints on it instead. He’s a publisher. The New York Journal, the Word, View—those are all his, and there are several smaller magazines as well. I knew he was in London. Officially, he’s here to open the London office of View, but rumor has it that he’s decided to begin publishing books, and he’s here to beguile England’s finest authors with visions of plenty and prosperity in America. I didn’t know his technique included roses and camellias, but I’m not surprised. He’s always had more than his fair share of what we call cheek and Americans call can-do spirit. Just wait till you see him—he’s been the undoing of stronger women than you, including my secretary. I’m sorry to say she’s the one who gave him your itinerary and your address. The silly woman thought he was so romantic-looking, with “such a lovely suit and handmade shoes.” Dear God! She couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of breach of confidentiality, so I had to sack her.

He’s after you, Juliet, no doubt about it. Shall I challenge him to a duel? He would undoubtedly kill me, so I’d rather not. My dear, I can’t promise you plenty or prosperity or even butter, but you do know that you’re Stephens & Stark’s—especially Stark’s—most beloved author, don’t you?

Dinner the first evening you are home?


From Juliet to Sidney

28th January, 1946

Dear Sidney,

Yes, dinner with pleasure. I’ll wear my new dress and eat like a pig.

I am so glad I didn’t embarrass S&S about Gilly and the teapot—I was worried. Susan suggested I make a “dignified statement” to the press too, about Rob Dartry and why we did not marry. I couldn’t possibly do that. I honestly don’t think I’d mind looking like a fool, if it didn’t make Rob look a worse one. But it would—and of course, he wasn’t a fool at all. But he’d sound that way. I’d much prefer to say nothing and look like a feckless, flighty, cold-hearted bitch.

But I’d like you to know why—I’d have told you before, but you were off with the Navy in 1942, and you never met Rob. Even Sophie never met him—she was up at Bedford that fall—and I swore her to secrecy afterwards. The longer I put off saying anything, the less important it became for you to know, especially in light of how it made me look—witless and foolish for getting engaged in the first place.

I thought I was in love (that’s the pathetic part—my idea of being in love). In preparation for sharing my home with a husband, I made room for him so he wouldn’t feel like a visiting aunt. I cleared out half my dresser drawers, half my closet, half my medicine chest, half my desk. I gave away my padded hangers and brought in those heavy wooden ones. I took my golliwog off the bed and put her in the attic. Now my flat was meant for two, instead of one.

On the afternoon before our wedding, Rob was moving in the last of his clothes and belongings while I delivered my Izzy article to the Spectator. When I was through, I tore home, flew up the stairs, and threw open the door to find Rob sitting on a low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cartons. He was sealing the last one up with gummed tape and string. There were eight boxes—eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!

He looked up and said, “Hello, darling. Don’t mind the mess, the porter said he’d help me carry these down to the basement.” He nodded toward my bookshelves and said, “Don’t they look wonderful?”

Well, there were no words! I was too appalled to speak. Sidney, every single shelf—where my books had stood—was filled with athletic trophies: silver cups, gold cups, blue rosettes, red ribbons. There were awards for every game that could possibly be played with a wooden object: cricket bats, squash racquets, tennis racquets, oars, golf clubs, Ping-Pong paddles, bows and arrows, snooker cues, lacrosse sticks, hockey sticks, and polo mallets. There were statues for everything a man could jump over, either by himself or on a horse. Next came the framed certificates—for shooting the most birds on such and such a date, for First Place in footraces, for Last Man Standing in some filthy tug-of-war against Scotland.

All I could do was scream, “How dare you! What have you DONE?! Put my books back!”

Well, that’s how matters started. Eventually, I said something to the effect that I could never marry a man whose idea of bliss was to strike out at little balls and little birds. Rob countered with remarks about damned bluestockings and shrews. And it all degenerated from there—the only thought we probably had in common was, What the hell have we talked about for the last four months? What, indeed? He huffed and puffed and snorted—and left. And I unpacked my books.

Remember the night last year when you met my train to tell me my home had been bombed flat? You thought I was laughing in hysteria? I wasn’t—it was in irony—if I’d let Rob store all my books in the basement, I’d still have them, every one.

Sidney, as a token of our long friendship, you do not need to comment on this story—not ever. In fact, I’d far prefer it if you didn’t.

Thank you for tracing Markham V. Reynolds, Junior, to his source. So far, his blandishments are entirely floral, and I remain true to you and the Empire. However, I do have a pang of sympathy for your secretary—I hope he sent her some roses for her trouble—as I’m not certain that my scruples could withstand the sight of handmade shoes. If I ever do meet him, I’ll take care not to look at his feet—or I’ll lash myself to a flagpole first and then peek, like Odysseus.

Bless you for telling me to come home. Am looking forward to the Times proposal for a series. Do you promise on Sophie’s head it will not be a frivolous subject? They aren’t going to ask me to write about the Duchess of Windsor, are they?


From Juliet to Sophie Strachan

31st January, 1946

Dear Sophie,

Thank you for your flying visit to Leeds—there are no words to express how much I needed to see a friendly face just then. I honestly was on the verge of stealing away to the Shetlands to take up the life of a hermit. It was beautiful of you to come.

The London Hue and Cry’s sketch of me taken away in chains was overdrawn—I wasn’t even arrested. I know Dominic would much prefer a godmother in prison, but he will have to settle for something less dramatic this time.

I told Sidney the only thing I could do about Gilly’s callous, lying accusations was to maintain a dignified silence. He said I could do that if I wanted to, but Stephens & Stark could not!

He called a press conference to defend the honor of Izzy Bickerstaff, Juliet Ashton, and Journalism itself against such trash as Gilly Gilbert. Did it make the papers in Scotland? If not—here are the highlights. He called Gilly Gilbert a twisted weasel (well, perhaps not in exactly those words, but his meaning was clear) who lied because he was too lazy to learn the facts and too stupid to understand the damage his lies inflicted upon the noble traditions of Journalism. It was lovely.

Sophie, could two girls (now women) ever have had a better champion than your brother? I don’t think so. He gave a wonderful speech, though I must admit to a few qualms. Gilly Gilbert is such a snake-in-the-grass, I can’t believe he’ll just slither away without a hiss. Susan said that, on the other hand, Gilly is also such a frightful little coward, he would not dare to retaliate. I hope she’s right.

Love to you all,

P.S. That man has sent me another bale of orchids. I’m getting a nervous twitch, waiting for him to come out of hiding and make himself known. Do you suppose this is his strategy?

From Dawsey to Juliet

31st January, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Your book came yesterday! You are a nice lady and I thank you with all my heart.

I have a job at St. Peter Port harbor—unloading ships, so I can read during tea breaks. It is a blessing to have real tea and bread with butter, and now—your book. I like it too because the cover is soft and I can put it in my pocket everywhere I go, though I am careful not to use it up too quickly. And I value having a picture of Charles Lamb—he had a fine head, didn’t he?

I would like to correspond with you. I will answer your questions as well as I can. Though there are many who can tell a story better than I can, I will tell you about our roast pig dinner.

I have a cottage and a farm, left to me by my father. Before the war, I kept pigs, and grew vegetables for St. Peter Port markets and flowers for Covent Garden. I often worked also as a carpenter and roofer.

The pigs are gone now. The Germans took them away to feed their soldiers on the continent, and ordered me to grow potatoes. We were to grow what they told us and nothing else. At first, before I knew the Germans as I came to later, I thought I could keep a few pigs hidden—for my own self. But the Agricultural Officer nosed them out and carried them off. Well, that was a blow, but I thought I’d manage all right, for potatoes and turnips were plentiful, and there was still flour then. But it is strange how the mind turns on food. After six months of turnips and a lump of gristle now and then, I was hard put to think about anything but a fine, full meal.

One afternoon, my neighbor, Mrs. Maugery, sent me a note. Come quick, it said. And bring a butcher knife. I tried not to get my hopes high—but I set out for the manor house at a great clip. And it was true! She had a pig, a hidden pig, and she invited me to join in the feast with her and her friends!

I never talked much while I was growing up—I stuttered badly—and I was not used to dinner parties. To tell the truth, Mrs. Maugery’s was the first one I was ever invited to. I said yes, because I was thinking of the roast pig, but I wished I could take my piece home and eat it there.

It was my good luck that my wish didn’t come true, because that was the first meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, even though we didn’t know it then. The dinner was a rare treat, but the company was better. With talking and eating, we forgot about clocks and curfews until Amelia (that’s Mrs. Maugery) heard the chimes ring nine o’clock—we were an hour late. Well, the good food had strengthened our hearts, and when Elizabeth McKenna said we should strike out for our rightful homes instead of skulking in Amelia’s house all night, we agreed. But breaking curfew was a crime—I’d heard of folks being sent to prison camp for it—and keeping a pig was a worse one, so we whispered and picked our way through the fields as quiet as could be.

We would have come out all right if not for John Booker. He’d drunk more than he’d eaten at dinner, and when we got to the road, he forgot himself and broke into song! I grabbed hold of him, but it was too late: six German patrol officers suddenly rose out of the trees with their Lugers drawn and began to shout—Why were we out after curfew? Where had we been? Where were we going?

I couldn’t think what to do. If I ran, they’d shoot me. I knew that much. My mouth was dry as chalk and my mind was blank, so I just held on to Booker and hoped.

Then Elizabeth drew in her breath and stepped forward. Elizabeth isn’t tall, so those pistols were lined up at her eyes, but she didn’t blink. She acted like she didn’t see any pistols at all. She walked up to the officer in charge and started talking. You never heard such lies. How sorry she was that we had broken curfew. How we had been attending a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society, and the evening’s discussion of Elizabeth and Her German Garden had been so delightful that we had all lost track of time. Such a wonderful book—had he read it?

None of us had the presence of mind to back her up, but the patrol officer couldn’t help himself—he had to smile back at her. Elizabeth is like that. He took our names and ordered us very politely to report to the Commandant the next morning. Then he bowed and wished us a good evening. Elizabeth nodded, gracious as could be, while the rest of us edged away, trying not to run like rabbits. Even lugging Booker, I got home quick.

That is the story of our roast pig dinner.

I’d like to ask you a question of my own. Ships are coming in to St. Peter Port harbor every day to bring us things Guernsey still needs: food, clothes, seed, plows, feed for animals, tools, medicine—and most important, now that we have food to eat, shoes. I don’t believe that there was a fit pair left on the island by the end of the war.

Some of the things being sent to us are wrapped up in old newspaper and magazine pages. My friend Clovis and I smooth them out and take them home to read—then we give them to neighbors who, like us, are eager for any news of the outside world in the past five years. Not just any news or pictures: Mrs. Saussey wants to see recipes; Mme. LePell wants fashion papers (she is a dressmaker); Mr. Brouard reads Obituaries (he has his hopes, but won’t say who); Claudia Rainey is looking for pictures of Ronald Colman; Mr. Tourtelle wants to see Beauty Queens in bathing dress; and my friend Isola likes to read about weddings.

There is so much we wanted to know during the war, but we were not allowed letters or papers from England—or anywhere. In 1942, the Germans called in all the wireless sets—of course, there were hidden ones, listened to in secret, but if you were caught listening, you could be sent to the camps. That is why we don’t understand so many things we can read about now.

I enjoy the war-time cartoons, but there is one that bewilders me. It was in a 1944 Punch and shows ten or so people walking down a London street. The chief figures are two men in bowler hats, holding briefcases and umbrellas, and one man is saying to the other man, “It is ridiculous to say these Doodlebugs have affected people in any way.” It took me several seconds to realize that every person in the cartoon had one normal-sized ear and one very large ear on the other side of his head. Perhaps you could explain it to me.

Yours sincerely,
Dawsey Adams

Juliet to Dawsey

3rd February, 1946

Dear Mr. Adams,

I am so glad you are enjoying Lamb’s letters and the copy of his portrait. He did fit the face I had imagined for him, so I’m glad you felt that way, too.

Thank you very much for telling me about the roast pig, but don’t think I didn’t notice that you only answered one of my questions. I’m hankering to know more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and not merely to satisfy my idle curiosity—I now have a professional duty to pry.

Did I tell you I am a writer? I wrote a weekly column for the Spectator during the war, and Stephens & Stark publishers collected them together into a single volume and published them under the title Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. Izzy was the nom-de-plume the Spectator chose for me, and now, thank heavens, the poor thing has been laid to rest, and I can write under my own name again. I would like to write a book, but I am having trouble thinking of a subject I could live happily with for several years.

In the meantime, the Times has asked me to write an article for the literary supplement. They want to address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading—spread out over three issues and by three different authors. I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate and so far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga. You can see I need help.

Do you think your literary society would mind being included in such an article? I know that the story of the society’s founding would fascinate the Times’s readers, and I’d love to learn more about your meetings. But if you’d rather not, please don’t worry—I will understand either way, and either way, would like to hear from you again.

I remember the Punch cartoon you described very well and think it was the word Doodlebug that threw you off. That was the name coined by the Ministry of Information; it was meant to sound less terrifying than “Hitler’s V-1 rockets” or “pilotless bombs.”

We were all used to bombing raids at night and the sights that followed, but these were unlike any bombs we had seen before.

They came in the daytime, and they came so fast there was no time for an air-raid siren or to take cover. You could see them; they looked like slim, black, slanted pencils and made a dull, spastic sound above you—like a motor-car running out of petrol. As long as you could hear them coughing and putt-putting, you were safe. You could think “Thank God, it’s going past me.”

But when their noise stopped, it meant there was only thirty seconds before it plummeted. So, you listened for them. Listened hard for the sound of their motors cutting out. I did see a Doodlebug fall once. I was quite some distance away when it hit, so I threw myself down in the gutter and cuddled up against the curb. Some women, in the top story of a tall office building down the street, had gone to an open window to watch. They were sucked out by the force of the blast.

It seems impossible now that someone could have drawn a cartoon about Doodlebugs, and that everyone, including me, could have laughed at it. But we did. The old adage—humor is the best way to make the unbearable bearable—may be true.

Has Mr. Hastings found the Lucas biography for you yet?

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Juliet to Markham Reynolds

4th February, 1946

Mr. Markham Reynolds
63 Halkin Street
London S.W.1

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

I captured your delivery boy in the act of depositing a clutch of pink carnations upon my doorstep. I seized him and threatened him until he confessed your address—you see, Mr. Reynolds, you are not the only one who can inveigle innocent employees. I hope you don’t sack him; he seems a nice boy, and he really had no alternative—I menaced him with Remembrance of Things Past.

Now I can thank you for the dozens of flowers you’ve sent me—it’s been years since I’ve seen such roses, such camellias, such orchids, and you can have no idea how they lift my heart in this shivering winter. Why I deserve to live in a bower, when everyone else has to be satisfied with bedraggled leafless trees and slush, I don’t know, but I’m perfectly delighted to do so.

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Markham Reynolds to Juliet

February 5, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

I didn’t fire the delivery boy—I promoted him. He got me what I couldn’t manage to get for myself: an introduction to you. The way I see it, your note is a figurative hand-shake and the preliminaries are now over. I hope you’re of the same opinion, as it will save me the trouble of wangling an invitation to Lady Bascomb’s next dinner party on the off-chance you might be there. Your friends are a suspicious lot, especially that fellow Stark, who said it wasn’t his job to reverse the direction of the Lend-Lease and refused to bring you to the cocktail party I threw at the View office.

God knows, my intentions are pure, or at least, non-mercenary. The simple truth of it is that you’re the only female writer who makes me laugh. Your Izzy Bickerstaff columns were the wittiest work to come out of the war, and I want to meet the woman who wrote them.

If I swear that I won’t kidnap you, will you do me the honor of dining with me next week? You pick the evening—I’m entirely at your disposal.

Markham Reynolds

From Juliet to Markham Reynolds

6th February, 1946

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

I am no proof against compliments, especially compliments about my writing. I’ll be delighted to dine with you. Thursday next?

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Markham Reynolds to Juliet

February 7, 1946

Dear Juliet,

Thursday’s too far away. Monday? Claridge’s? 7:00?


P.S. I don’t suppose you have a telephone, do you?

From Juliet to Markham

7th February, 1946

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

All right—Monday, Claridge’s, seven.

I do have a telephone. It’s in Oakley Street under a pile of rubble that used to be my flat. I’m only sub-letting here, and my landlady, Mrs. Olive Burns, possesses the sole telephone on the premises. If you would like to chat with her, I can give you her number.

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Dawsey to Juliet

7th February, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

I’m certain the Guernsey Literary Society would like to be included in your article for the Times. I have asked Mrs. Maugery to write to you about our meetings, as she is an educated lady and her words will sound more at home in an article than mine could. I don’t think we are much like literary societies in London.

Mr. Hastings hasn’t found a copy of the Lucas biography yet, but I had a postcard from him saying, “Hard on the trail. Don’t give up.” He is a kind man, isn’t he?

I’m hauling slates for the Crown Hotel’s new roof. The owners are hoping that tourists may want to come back this summer. I am glad of the work but will be happy to be working on my land soon.

It is nice to come home in the evening and find a letter from you.

I wish you good fortune in finding a subject you would care to write a book about.

Yours sincerely,
Dawsey Adams

From Amelia Maugery to Juliet

8th February, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Dawsey Adams has just been to call on me. I have never seen him as pleased with anything as he is with your gift and letter. He was so busy convincing me to write to you by the next post that he forgot to be shy. I don’t believe he is aware of it, but Dawsey has a rare gift for persuasion—he never asks for anything for himself, so everyone is eager to do what he asks for others.

He told me of your proposed article and asked if I would write to you about the literary society we formed during—and because of—the German Occupation. I will be happy to do so, but with a caveat.

A friend from England sent me a copy of Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. We had no news from the outside world for five years, so you can imagine how satisfying it was to learn how England endured those years herself. Your book was as informative as it was entertaining and amusing—but it is the amusing tone I must quibble with.

I realize that our name, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is an unusual one and could easily be subjected to ridicule. Would you assure me you will not be tempted to do so? The Society members are very dear to me, and I do not wish them to be perceived as objects of fun by your readers.

Would you be willing to tell me of your intentions for the article and also something of yourself? If you can appreciate the import of my questions, I should be glad to tell you about the Society. I hope I shall hear from you soon.

Yours sincerely,
Amelia Maugery

From Juliet to Amelia

10th February, 1946

Mrs. Amelia Maugery
Windcross Manor
La Bouvée
St. Martin’s, Guernsey

Dear Mrs. Maugery,

Thank you for your letter. I am very glad to answer your questions.

I did make fun of many war-time situations; the Spectator felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote and that humor would help to raise London’s low morale. I am very glad Izzy served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is—thank goodness—over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved to read. Nor of Mr. Adams—I was glad to learn one of my books fell into such hands as his.

Since you should know something about me, I have asked the Reverend Simon Simpless, of St. Hilda’s Church near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, to write to you. He has known me since I was a child and is fond of me. I have asked Lady Bella Taunton to provide a reference for me too. We were fire wardens together during the Blitz and she wholeheartedly dislikes me. Between the two of them, you may get a fair picture of my character.

I am enclosing a copy of a biography I wrote about Anne Brontë, so you can see that I am capable of a different kind of work. It didn’t sell very well—in fact, not at all, but I am much prouder of it than I am of Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.

If there is anything else I can do to assure you of my good will, I will be glad to do so.

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Juliet to Sophie

12th February, 1946

Dearest Sophie,

Markham V. Reynolds, he of the camellias, has finally materialized. Introduced himself, paid me compliments, and invited me out to dinner—Claridge’s, no less. I accepted regally—Claridge’s, oh yes, I have heard of Claridge’s—and then spent the next three days fretting about my hair. It’s lucky I have my lovely new dress, so I didn’t have to waste precious fretting time on my clothes.

As Madame Helena said, “The hairs, they are a disaster.” I tried a roll; it fell down. A French twist; it fell down. I was on the verge of tying an enormous red velvet bow on the top of my head when my neighbor Evangeline Smythe came to the rescue, bless her. She’s a genius with my hair. In two minutes, I was a picture of elegance—she caught up all the curls and swirled them around in the back—and I could even move my head. Off I went, feeling perfectly adorable. Not even Claridge’s marble lobby could intimidate me.

Then Markham V. Reynolds stepped forward, and the bubble popped. He’s dazzling. Honestly, Sophie, I’ve never seen anything like him. Not even the furnace-man can compare. Tan, with blazing blue eyes. Ravishing leather shoes, elegant wool suit, blinding white handkerchief in breast pocket. Of course, being American, he’s tall, and he has one of those alarming American smiles, all gleaming teeth and good humor, but he’s not a genial American. He’s quite impressive, and he’s used to ordering people about—though he does it so easily, they don’t notice. He’s got that way of believing his opinion is the truth, but he’s not disagreeable about it. He’s too sure he’s right to bother being disagreeable.

Once we were seated—in our own velvet-draped alcove—and all the waiters and stewards and maîtres d’hôtel were finished fluttering about us, I asked him point-blank why he had sent me those scads of flowers without including any note.

He laughed. “To make you interested. If I had written you directly, asking you to meet me, how would you have replied?” I admitted I would have declined. He raised one pointed eyebrow at me. Was it his fault if he could outwit me so easily?

I was awfully insulted to be so transparent, but he just laughed at me again. And then he began to talk about the war and Victorian literature—he knows I wrote a biography of Anne Brontë—and New York and rationing, and before I knew it, I was basking in his attention, utterly charmed.

Do you remember that afternoon in Leeds when we speculated on the possible reasons why Markham V. Reynolds, Junior, was obliged to remain a man of mystery? It’s very disappointing, but we were completely wrong. He’s not married. He’s certainly not bashful. He doesn’t have a disfiguring scar that causes him to shun daylight. He doesn’t seem to be a werewolf (no fur on his knuckles, anyway). And he’s not a Nazi on the lam (he’d have an accent).

Now that I think about it, maybe he is a werewolf. I can picture him lunging over the moors in hot pursuit of his prey, and I’m certain that he wouldn’t think twice about eating an innocent bystander. I’ll watch him closely at the next full moon. He’s asked me to go dancing tomorrow—perhaps I should wear a high collar. Oh, that’s vampires, isn’t it?

I think I am a little giddy.


From Lady Bella Taunton to Amelia

12th February, 1946

Dear Mrs. Maugery,

Juliet Ashton’s letter is at hand, and I am amazed at its contents. Am I to understand she wishes me to provide a character reference for her? Well, so be it! I cannot impugn her character—only her common sense. She hasn’t any.

War, as you know, makes strange bedfellows, and Juliet and I were thrown together from the very first when we were Fire Wardens during the Blitz. Fire Wardens spent their nights on various London roof-tops, watching out for incendiary bombs that might fall. When they did, we would rush forth with stirrup pump and buckets of sand to stifle any small blaze before it could spread. Juliet and I were paired off to work together. We did not chat, as less conscientious Wardens would have done. I insisted on total vigilance at all times. Even so, I learned a few details of her life prior to the war.

Her father was a respectable farmer in Suffolk. Her mother, I surmise, was a typical farmer’s wife, milking cows and plucking chickens, when not otherwise engaged in owning a bookshop in Bury St. Edmunds. Juliet’s parents were both killed in a motor accident when she was twelve and she went to live with her great-uncle, a renowned Classicist, in St. John’s Wood. There she disrupted his studies and household by running away—twice.

In despair, he sent her to a select boarding school. When she left school, she shunned a higher education, came to London, and shared a studio with her friend Sophie Stark. She worked by day in bookshops. By night, she wrote a book about one of those wretched Brontë girls—I forget which one. I believe the book was published by Sophie’s brother’s firm, Stephens & Stark. Though it’s biologically impossible, I can only assume that some form of nepotism was responsible for the book’s publication.

In any event, she began to publish feature articles for various magazines and newspapers. Her light, frivolous turn of mind gained her a large following among the less intellectually inclined readers—of whom, I fear, there are many. She spent the very last of her inheritance on a flat in Chelsea. Chelsea, home of artists, models, libertines, and Socialists—completely irresponsible people all, just as Juliet proved herself to be as a Fire


I come now to the specifics of our association.

Juliet and I were two of several Wardens assigned to the roof of the Inner Temple Hall of the Inns of Court. Let me say first that, for a Warden, quick action and a clear head were imperative—one had to be aware of everything going on around one. Everything.

One night in May 1941, a high-explosive bomb was dropped through the roof of the Inner Temple Hall Library. The Library roof was some distance away from Juliet’s post, but she was so aghast by the destruction of her precious books that she sprinted toward the flames—as if she could single-handedly deliver the Library from its fate! Of course, her delusions created nothing but further damage, for the firemen had to waste valuable minutes in rescuing her.

I believe Juliet suffered some minor burns in the debacle, but fifty thousand books were blown to Kingdom Come. Juliet’s name was stricken from the lists of the Fire Wardens, and rightly so. I discovered she then volunteered her services to the Auxiliary Fire Services. On the morning after a bombing raid, the AFS would be on hand to offer tea and comfort to the rescue squads. The AFS also provided assistance to the survivors: reuniting families, securing temporary housing, clothing, food, funds. I believe Juliet to have been adequate to that daytime task—causing no catastrophe among the teacups.

She was free to occupy her nights however she chose. Doubtless it included the writing of more light journalism, for the Spectator engaged her to write a weekly column on the state of the nation in war-time—under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff.

I read one of her columns and canceled my subscription. She attacked the good taste of our dear (though dead) Queen, Victoria. Doubtless you know of the huge memorial Victoria had built for her beloved consort, Prince Albert. It is the jewel in the crown of Kensington Gardens—a monument to the Queen’s refined taste as well as to the Departed. Juliet applauded the Ministry of Food for having ordered peas to be planted in the grounds surrounding that memorial—writing that no better scarecrow than Prince Albert existed in all of England.

While I question her taste, her judgment, her misplaced priorities, and her inappropriate sense of humor, she does indeed have one fine quality—she is honest. If she says she will honor the good name of your literary society, she will do so. I can say no more.

Sincerely Yours,
Bella Taunton

From the Reverend Simon Simpless to Amelia

13th February, 1946

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