Literary

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Part 3

part3Dear Mrs. Maugery,

Yes, you may trust Juliet. I am unequivocal on this point. Her parents were my good friends as well as my parishioners at St. Hilda’s. Indeed, I was a guest at their home on the night she was born.

Juliet was a stubborn but, withal, a sweet, considerate, joyous child—with an unusual bent toward integrity for one so young.

I will tell you of one incident when she was ten years old. Juliet, while singing the fourth stanza of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” slammed her hymnal shut and refused to sing another note. She told our choir director the lyrics cast a slur on God’s character. We should not be singing it. He (the choir director, not God) didn’t know what to do, so he escorted Juliet to my office for me to reason with her.

I did not fare very well. Juliet said, “Well, he shouldn’t have written, ‘His eye is on the sparrow’—what good was that? Did He stop the bird from falling down dead? Did He just say, ‘Oops’? It makes God sound like He’s off bird-watching, when real people need Him.”

I felt compelled to agree with Juliet on this matter—why had I never thought upon it before? The choir did not sing and has not since sung “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Juliet’s parents died when she was twelve and she was sent to live with her great-uncle, Dr. Roderick Ashton, in London. Though not an unkind man, he was so mired in his Greco-Roman studies he had no time to pay the girl any attention. He had no imagination, either—fatal for one engaged in child-rearing.

She ran away twice, the first time making it only as far as King’s Cross Station. The police found her waiting, with a packed canvas carry-all and her father’s fishing rod, to catch the train to Bury St. Edmunds. She was returned to Dr. Ashton—and she ran away again. This time, Dr. Ashton telephoned me to ask for my help in finding her.

I knew exactly where to go—to her parents’ former farm. I found her opposite the farm’s entrance, sitting on a little wooded knoll, impervious to the rain—just sitting there, soaked—looking at her old (now sold) home.

I wired her uncle and went back with her on the train to London the following day. I had intended to return to my parish on the next train, but when I discovered her fool of an uncle had sent his cook to fetch her home, I insisted on accompanying them. I invaded his study and we had a vigorous talk. He agreed a boarding school might be best for Juliet—her parents had left ample funds for such an eventuality.

Fortunately, I knew of a very good school—St. Swithin’s. Academically a fine school, and with a headmistress not carved from granite. I am happy to tell you Juliet thrived there—she found her studies stimulating, but I believe the true reason for Juliet’s regained spirits was her friendship with Sophie Stark and the Stark family. She often went to Sophie’s home for half-term vacation, and Juliet and Sophie came twice to stay with me and my sister at the Rectory. What jolly times we shared: picnics, bicycle rides, fishing. Sophie’s brother, Sidney Stark, joined us once—though ten years older than the girls, and despite an inclination to boss them around, he was a welcome fifth to our happy party.

It was rewarding to watch Juliet grow up—as it is now, to know her fully grown. I am very happy she asked me to write to you of her character.

I have included our small history together so you will realize I know whereof I speak. If Juliet says she will, she will. If she says she won’t, she won’t.

Very truly Yours,
Simon Simpless

Susan Scott to Juliet

17th February, 1946

Dear Juliet,

Was that possibly you I glimpsed in this week’s Tatler, doing the rumba with Mark Reynolds? You looked gorgeous—almost as gorgeous as he did—but might I suggest that you move to an air-raid shelter before Sidney sees a copy?

You can purchase my silence with torrid details, you know.

Yours,
Susan

Juliet to Susan Scott

18th February, 1946

Dear Susan,

I deny everything.

Love,
Juliet

From Amelia to Juliet

18th February, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Thank you for taking my caveat so seriously. At the Society meeting last night, I told the members about your article for the Times and suggested that those who wished to do so should correspond with you about the books they read and the joy they found in reading.

The response was so vociferous Isola Pribby, our Sergeant-at-Arms, was forced to bang her hammer for order (I admit that Isola needs little encouragement to bang her hammer). I think you will receive a good many letters from us, and I hope they will be of some help in your article.

Dawsey has told you that the Society was invented as a ruse to keep the Germans from arresting my dinner guests: Dawsey, Isola, Eben Ramsey, John Booker, Will Thisbee, and our dear Elizabeth McKenna, who manufactured the story on the spot, bless her quick wits and silver tongue.

I, of course, knew nothing of their predicament at the time. As soon as they left, I made haste down to my cellar to bury the evidence of our meal. The first I heard about our literary society was the next morning at seven, when Elizabeth appeared in my kitchen and asked, “How many books have you got?”

I had quite a few, but Elizabeth looked at my shelves and shook her head. “We need more. There’s too much gardening here.” She was right, of course—I do like a good garden book. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” she said. “After I’m done at the Commandant’s Office, we’ll go to Fox’s Bookshop and buy them out. If we’re going to be the Guernsey Literary Society, we have to look literary.”

I was frantic all forenoon, worrying over what was happening at the Commandant’s Office. What if they all ended up in the Guernsey jail? Or, worst of all, in a prison camp on the continent? The Germans were erratic in dispensing their justice, so one never knew which sentence would be imposed. But nothing of the sort occurred.

Odd as it may sound, the Germans allowed—and even encouraged—artistic and cultural pursuits among the Channel Islanders. Their object was to prove to the British that the German Occupation was a Model Occupation. How this message was to be conveyed to the outside world was never explained, as the telephone and telegraph cable between Guernsey and London had been cut the day the Germans landed in June 1940. Whatever their skewed reasoning, the Channel Islands were treated much more leniently than the rest of conquered Europe—at first.

At the Commandant’s Office, my friends were ordered to pay a small fine and submit the name and membership list of their society. The Commandant announced that he, too, was a lover of literature—might he, with a few like-minded officers, sometimes attend meetings?

Elizabeth told them they would be most welcome. And then she, Eben, and I flew to Fox’s, chose armloads of books for our newfound Society, and rushed back to the Manor to put them on my shelves. Then we strolled from house to house—looking as carefree and casual as we could—in order to alert the others to come that evening and choose a book to read. It was agonizing to walk slowly, stopping to chat here and there, when we wanted to scurry! Timing was vital, since Elizabeth feared the Commandant would appear at the next meeting, a bare two weeks away. (He did not. A few German officers did attend over the years but, thankfully, left in some confusion and did not return.)

And so it was that we began. I knew all our members, but I did not know them all well. Dawsey had been my neighbor for over thirty years, and yet I don’t believe I had ever spoken to him of anything more than weather and farming. Isola was a dear friend, and Eben, too, but Will Thisbee was only an acquaintance and John Booker was nearly a stranger, for he had only just arrived when the Germans came. It was Elizabeth we had in common. Without her urging, I would never have thought to invite them to share my pig, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would never have drawn breath.

That evening when they came to my house to make their selections, those who had rarely read anything other than Scripture, seed catalogues, and The Pigman’s Gazette discovered a different kind of reading. It was here Dawsey found his Charles Lamb and Isola fell upon Wuthering Heights. For myself, I chose The Pickwick Papers, thinking it would lift my spirits—it did.

Then each went home and read. We began to meet—for the sake of the Commandant at first, and then for our own pleasure. None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules: we took turns speaking about the books we’d read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times—we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside. We still meet every fortnight.

Will Thisbee was responsible for the inclusion of Potato Peel Pie in our society’s name. Germans or no, he wasn’t going to go to any meetings unless there were eats! So refreshments became part of our program. Since there was scant butter, less flour, and no sugar to spare on Guernsey then, Will concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness, and potato peelings for crust. Will’s recipes are usually dubious, but this one became a favorite.

I would enjoy hearing from you again and learning how your article progresses.

Yours most sincerely,
Amelia Maugery

From Isola Pribby to Juliet

19th February, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Oh my, oh my. You have written a book about Anne Brontë, sister to Charlotte and Emily. Amelia Maugery says she will lend it to me, for she knows I have a fondness for the Brontë girls—poor lambs. To think all five of them had weak chests and died so young! What a sadness.

Their Pa was a selfish thing, wasn’t he? He paid his girls no mind at all—always sitting in his study, yelling for his shawl. He never rose up to wait on hisself, did he? Just sat alone in his room while his daughters died like flies.

And their brother, Branwell, he wasn’t much either. Always drinking and sicking up on the carpets. They were forever having to clean up after him. Fine work for lady Authoresses!

It is my belief that with two such men in the household and no way to meet others, Emily had to make Heathcliff up out of thin air! And what a fine job she did. Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life.

Amelia told us you would like to know about our book society and what we talk about at our meetings. I gave a talk on the Brontë girls once when it was my turn to speak. I’m sorry I can’t send you my notes on Charlotte and Emily—I used them to kindle a fire in my cookstove, there being no other paper in the house. I’d already burnt up my tide tables, the Book of Revelation, and the story about Job.

You will want to know why I admired those girls. I like stories of passionate encounters. I myself have never had one, but now I can picture one. I didn’t like Wuthering Heights at first, but the minute that specter, Cathy, scrabbled her bony fingers on the window glass—I was grasped by the throat and not let go. With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff’s pitiful cries upon the moors. I don’t believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower’s Ill-Used by Candlelight. Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.

I will tell you now about myself. I have a cottage and small holding next to Amelia Maugery’s manor house and farm. We are both situated by the sea. I tend my chickens and my goat, Ariel, and grow things. I have a parrot in my keeping too—her name is Zenobia and she does not like men.

I have a stall at Market every week, where I sell my preserves, vegetables, and elixirs I make to restore manly ardor. Kit McKenna—daughter to my dear friend Elizabeth McKenna—helps me make my potions. She is only four and has to stand on a stool to stir my pot, but she is able to whip up big froths.

I do not have a pleasing appearance. My nose is big and was broken when I fell off the hen-house roof. One eyeball skitters up to the top, and my hair is wild and will not stay tamped down. I am tall and built of big bones.

I could write to you again, if you want me to. I could tell you more about reading and how it perked up our spirits while the Germans were here. The only time reading didn’t help was after Elizabeth was arrested by the Germans. They caught her hiding one of those poor slave workers from Poland, and they sent her to prison in France. There was no book that could lift my heart then, nor for a long time after. It was all I could do not to slap every German I saw. For Kit’s sake, I held myself in. She was only a little sprout then, and she needed us. Elizabeth hasn’t come home yet. We are afraid for her, but mind you, I say it’s early days yet and she might still come home. I pray so, for I miss her sorely.

Your friend,
Isola Pribby

From Juliet to Dawsey

20th February, 1946

Dear Mr. Adams,

How did you know that I like white lilacs above all flowers? I always have, and now here they are, pluming out over my desk. They are beautiful, and I love having them—the look, the delicious scent and the surprise of them. At first I thought, How on earth did he find these in February, and then I remembered that the Channel Islands are blessed by a warm Gulf Stream.

Mr. Dilwyn appeared at my door with your present early this morning. He said he was in London on business for his bank. He assured me it was no trouble at all to deliver the flowers—there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for you because of some soap you gave Mrs. Dilwyn during the war. She still cries every time she thinks of it. What a nice man he is—I am sorry he didn’t have time to stop for coffee.

Due to your kind offices, I have received lovely, long letters from Mrs. Maugery and Isola Pribby. I hadn’t realized that the Germans permitted no outside news at all, not even letters, to reach Guernsey. It surprised me so much. It shouldn’t have—I knew the Channel Islands had been occupied, but I never, not once, thought what that might have entailed. Willful ignorance is all I can call it. So, I am off to the London Library to educate myself. The library suffered terrible bomb damage, but the floors are safe to walk on again, all the books that could be saved are back on the shelf, and I know they have collected all the Times from 1900 to—yesterday. I shall study up on the Occupation.

I want to find some travel or history books about the Channel Islands too. Is it really true that on a clear day, you can see the cars on the French coast roads? So it says in my Encyclopedia, but I bought it secondhand for 4 shillings and I don’t trust it. There I also learned that Guernsey is “roughly seven miles long and five miles wide, with a population of 42,000 inhabitants.” Strictly speaking, very informative, but I want to know more than that.

Miss Pribby told me that your friend Elizabeth McKenna had been sent to a prison camp on the continent and has not yet returned. It knocked the wind out of me. Ever since your letter about the roast pig dinner, I had been imagining her there among you. Without even knowing I was doing so, I depended upon one day receiving a letter from her too. I am sorry. I will hope for her early return.

Thank you again for my flowers. It was a lovely thing for you to do.

Yours ever,
Juliet Ashton

P.S. You may consider this a rhetorical question if you want to, but why did Mrs. Dilwyn weep over a cake of soap?

From Juliet to Sidney

21st February, 1946

Dearest Sidney,

I haven’t heard from you in ages. Does your icy silence have anything to do with Mark Reynolds?

I have an idea for a new book. It’s a novel about a beautiful yet sensitive author whose spirit is crushed by her domineering editor. Do you like it?

Love always,
Juliet

From Juliet to Sidney

23rd February, 1946

Dear Sidney,

I was only joking.

Love,
Juliet

From Juliet to Sidney

25th February, 1946

Sidney?

Love,
Juliet

From Juliet to Sidney

26th February, 1946

Dear Sidney,

Did you think I wouldn’t notice you were gone? I did. After three notes went unanswered, I made a personal visit to St. James’s Place, where I encountered the cast-iron Miss Tilley, who said you were out of town. Very enlightening. Upon pressing, I learned you had gone to Australia! Miss Tilley listened coolly to my exclamations. She would not disclose your exact whereabouts—only that you were scouring the Outback, seeking new authors for Stephens & Stark’s list. She would forward any letters to you, at her discretion.

Your Miss Tilley does not fool me. Nor do you—I know exactly where you are and what you are doing. You flew to Australia to find Piers Langley and are holding his hand while he sobers up. At least, I hope that’s what you are doing. He is such a dear friend—and such a brilliant writer. I want him to be well again and writing poetry. I’d add forgetting all about Burma and the Japanese, but I know that’s not possible.

You could have told me, you know. I can be discreet when I really try (you’ve never forgiven me for that slip about Mrs. Atwater in the pergola, have you? I apologized handsomely at the time).

I liked your other secretary better. And you sacked her for naught, you know: Markham Reynolds and I have met. All right, we’ve done more than meet. We’ve danced the rumba. But don’t fuss. He has not mentioned View, except in passing, and he hasn’t once tried to lure me to New York. We talk of higher matters, such as Victorian literature. He’s not the shallow dilettante you would have me believe, Sidney. He’s an expert on Wilkie Collins, of all things. Did you know that Wilkie Collins maintained two separate households with two separate mistresses and two separate sets of children? The scheduling difficulties must have been shocking. No wonder he took laudanum.

I do think you would like Mark if you knew him better, and you may have to. But my heart and my writing hand belong to Stephens & Stark.

The article for the Times has turned into a lovely treat for me—now and ongoing. I have made a group of new friends from the Channel Islands—the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Don’t you adore their name? If Piers needs distracting, I’ll write you a nice fat letter about how they came by their name. If not, I’ll tell you when you come home (when are you coming home?).

My neighbor Evangeline Smythe is going to have twins in June. She is none too happy about it, so I am going to ask her to give one of them to me.

Love to you and Piers,
Juliet

From Juliet to Sophie

28th February, 1946

Dearest Sophie—

I am as surprised as you are. He didn’t breathe a word to me. On Tuesday, I realized I hadn’t heard from Sidney in days, so I went to Stephens & Stark to demand attention and found he’d flown the coop. That new secretary of his is a fiend. To every one of my questions, she said, “I really can’t divulge information of a personal nature, Miss Ashton.” How I wanted to smack her.

Just as I was concluding that Sidney had been tapped by MI6 and was on a mission in Siberia, horrible Miss Tilley admitted that he’d gone to Australia. Well, it all came clear then, didn’t it? He’s gone to get Piers. Teddy Lucas seemed quite certain that Piers was going to drink himself steadily to death in that rest home unless someone came and stopped him. I can hardly blame him, after what he’s been through—but Sidney won’t allow it, thank God.

You know I adore Sidney with all my heart, but there’s something terrifically liberating about Sidney in Australia. Mark Reynolds has been what your Aunt Lydia would have called persistent in his attentions for the last three weeks, but, even as I’ve gobbled lobster and guzzled champagne, I’ve been looking furtively over my shoulder for Sidney. He’s convinced that Mark is trying to steal me away from London in general and Stephens & Stark in particular, and nothing I said could persuade him otherwise. I know he doesn’t like Mark—I believe aggressive and unscrupulous were the words he used last time I saw him—but really, he was a bit too King Lear about the whole thing. I am a grown woman—mostly—and I can guzzle champagne with whomever I choose.

When not checking under tablecloths for Sidney, I’ve been having the most wonderful time. I feel as though I’ve emerged from a black tunnel and found myself in the middle of a carnival. I don’t particularly care for carnivals, but after the tunnel, it’s delicious. Mark gads about every night—if we’re not going to a party (and we usually are), we’re off to the cinema, or the theater, or a night club, or a gin house of ill-repute (he says he’s trying to introduce me to democratic ideals). It’s very exciting.

Have you noticed there are some people—Americans especially—who seem untouched by the war, or at least, un-mangled by it? I don’t mean to imply that Mark was a shirker—he was in their Air Corps—but he’s simply not sunk under it. And when I’m with him, I feel untouched by the war, too. It’s an illusion, I know it is, and truthfully, I’d be ashamed of myself if the war hadn’t touched me. But it’s forgivable to enjoy myself a little—isn’t it?

Is Dominic too old for a jack-in-the-box? I saw a diabolical one in a shop yesterday. It pops out, leering and weaving, its oily black mustache curling above pointed white teeth, the very picture of a villain. Dominic would adore it, after he had got over his first shock.

Love,
Juliet

From Juliet to Isola

28th February, 1946

Miss Isola Pribby
Pribby Homestead
La Bouvée
St. Martin’s, Guernsey

Dear Miss Pribby,

Thank you so much for your letter about yourself and Emily Brontë. I laughed when I read that Emily had caught you by the throat the second poor Cathy’s ghost knocked at the window. She got me at the exact same moment.

Our teacher had assigned Wuthering Heights to be read over the Easter holiday. I went home with my friend Sophie Stark, and we whined for two days over the injustice of it all. Finally her brother, Sidney, told us to shut up and get on with it. I did, still fuming, until I got to Cathy’s ghost at the window. I have never felt such dread as I did then. Monsters or vampires have never scared me in books—but ghosts are a different matter.

Sophie and I did nothing the rest of our holiday but move from bed to hammock to armchair, reading Jane EyreAgnes GreyShirley, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

What a family they were—but I chose to write about Anne Brontë because she was the least known of the sisters, and, I think, just as fine a writer as Charlotte. Lord knows how Anne managed to write any books at all, influenced by such a strain of religion as her Aunt Branwell possessed. Emily and Charlotte had the good sense to ignore their bleak aunt, but not poor Anne. Imagine preaching that God meant women to be Meek, Mild, and Gently Melancholic. So much less trouble around the house—pernicious old bat!

I hope you will write to me again.

Yours,
Juliet Ashton

From Eben Ramsey to Juliet

28th February, 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

I am a Guernsey man and my name is Eben Ramsey. My fathers before me were tombstone-cutters and carvers—lambs a specialty. These are the things I like to do of an evening, but for my livelihood, I fish.

Mrs. Maugery said you would like to have letters about our reading during the Occupation. I was never going to talk—or think, if I could help it—about those days, but Mrs. Maugery said we could trust to your judgment in writing about the Society during the war. If Mrs. Maugery says you can be trusted, I believe it. Also, you had such kindness to send my friend Dawsey a book—and he all but unknown to you. So I am writing to you and hope it will be a help to your story.

Best to say we weren’t a true literary society at first. Aside from Elizabeth, Mrs. Maugery, and perhaps Booker, most of us hadn’t had much to do with books since our school years. We took them from Mrs. Maugery’s shelves fearful we’d spoil the fine papers. I had no zest for such matters in those days. It was only by fixing my mind on the Commandant and jail that I could make myself to lift up the cover of the book and begin.

It was called Selections from Shakespeare. Later, I came to see that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Wordsworth were thinking of men like me when they wrote their words. But most of all, I believe that William Shakespeare was. Mind you, I cannot always make sense of what he says, but it will come.

It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”

I wish I’d known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them—and come off ships down in the harbor! All I could think of was damn them, damn them, over and over. If I could have thought the words “the bright day is done and we are for the dark,” I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance—instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.

They came here on Sunday, 30th June, 1940, after bombing us two days before. They said they hadn’t meant to bomb us; they mistook our tomato lorries on the pier for army trucks. How they came to think that strains the mind. They bombed us, killing some thirty men, women, and children—one among them was my cousin’s boy. He had sheltered underneath his lorry when he first saw the planes dropping bombs, and it exploded and caught fire. They killed men in their lifeboats at sea. They strafed the Red Cross ambulances carrying our wounded. When no one shot back at them, they saw the British had left us undefended. They just flew in peaceably two days later and occupied us for five years.

At first, they were as nice as could be. They were that full of themselves for conquering a bit of England, and they were thick enough to think it would just be a hop and a skip till they landed in London. When they found out that wasn’t to be, they turned back to their natural meanness.

They had rules for everything—do this, don’t do that, but they kept changing their minds, trying to seem friendly, like they were poking a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose. But we weren’t donkeys. So they’d get harsh again.

For instance, they were always changing curfew—eight at night, or nine, or five in the evening if they felt really mean-minded. You couldn’t visit your friends or even tend your stock.

We started out hopeful, sure they’d be gone in six months. But it stretched on and on. Food grew hard to come by, and soon there was no firewood left. Days were grey with hard work and evenings were black with boredom. Everyone was sickly from so little nourishment and bleak from wondering if it would ever end. We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us. Elizabeth used to say a poem. I don’t remember all of it, but it began “Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done, to have advanced true friends?” It isn’t. I hope, wherever she is, she has that in her mind.

Late in 1944, it didn’t matter what time the Germans set the curfew for. Most people went to bed around five o’clock anyway to keep warm. We were rationed to two candles a week and then only one. It was mighty tedious, lying up in bed with no light to read by.

After D-Day, the Germans couldn’t send any supply ships from France because of the Allied bombers. So they were finally as hungry as we were—and killing dogs and cats to give themselves something to eat. They would raid our gardens, rooting up potatoes—even eating the black, rotten ones. Four soldiers died eating handfuls of hemlock, thinking it was parsley.

The German officers said any soldier caught stealing food from our gardens would be shot. One poor soldier was caught stealing a potato. He was chased by his own people and climbed up a tree to hide. But they found him and shot him down out of the tree. Still, that did not stop them from stealing food. I am not pointing a finger at those practices, because some of us were doing the same. I figure hunger makes you desperate when you wake to it every morning.

My grandson, Eli, was evacuated to England when he was seven. He is home now—twelve years old, and tall—but I will never forgive the Germans for making me miss his growing-up years.

I must go milk my cow now, but I will write to you again if you like.

My wishes for your health,
Eben Ramsey

From Miss Adelaide Addison to Juliet

1st March, 1946

One thought on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Part 3

  1. All I need is coffee and an invigorating piece of literature! The casino wasn’t keen on letting me the chair

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