22nd May, 1946
There’s so much to tell you. I’ve been in Guernsey only twenty hours, but each one has been so full of new faces and ideas that I’ve reams to write. You see how conducive to working island life is? Look at Victor Hugo—I may grow prolific if I stay here for any length of time.
The voyage from Weymouth was ghastly, with the mail boat groaning and creaking and threatening to break to pieces in the waves. I almost wished it would, to put me out of my misery, except I wanted to see Guernsey before I died. And as soon as we came in sight of the island, I gave up the notion altogether because the sun broke beneath the clouds and set the cliffs shimmering into silver.
As the mail boat lurched into the harbor, I saw St. Peter Port rising up from the sea on terraces, with a church on the top like a cake decoration, and I realized that my heart was galloping. As much as I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I’ve come to know and even love a little, waiting to see—me. And I, without any paper to hide behind. Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living—and think what you do to my writing. On the page, I’m perfectly charming, but that’s just a trick I learned. It has nothing to do with me. At least, that’s what I was thinking as the mail boat came toward the pier. I had a cowardly impulse to throw my red cape overboard and pretend I was someone else.
When we drew right alongside the pier, I could see the faces of the people waiting—and then there was no going back. I knew them by their letters. There was Isola in a mad hat and a purple shawl pinned with a glittering brooch. She was smiling fixedly in the wrong direction and I loved her instantly. Next to her stood a man with a lined face, and at his side, a boy, all height and angles. Eben and his grandson, Eli. I waved to Eli and he smiled like a beam of light and nudged his grandfather—and then I got shy and lost myself in the crowd that was pushing down the gangplank.
Isola reached me first by leaping over a crate of lobsters and grabbed me up in a fierce hug that swung me off my feet. “Ah, lovey!” she cried while I dangled.
Wasn’t that dear? All my nervousness was squeezed right out of me along with my breath. The others came toward me more quietly, but with no less warmth. Eben shook my hand and smiled. You can tell he was broad and hardy once, but he is too thin now. He somehow looks both grave and friendly at the same time. How does he manage to do that? I found myself wanting to impress him.
Eli swung Kit up on his shoulders, and they came forward together. Kit has chubby little legs and a stern face—dark curls, big grey eyes—and she did not take to me one bit. Eli’s jersey was speckled in wood shavings, and he had a present for me in his pocket—an adorable little mouse with crooked whiskers, carved from walnut. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and survived Kit’s malevolent glare. She has a very forbidding way about her for a four-year-old.
Then Dawsey held out his hands. I had been expecting him to look like Charles Lamb, and he does, a little—he has the same even gaze. He presented me with a bouquet of carnations from Booker, who couldn’t be present; he had concussed himself during a rehearsal and was in hospital overnight for observation. Dawsey is dark and wiry, and his face has a quiet, watchful look about it—until he smiles. Saving a certain sister of yours, he has the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen, and I remembered Amelia writing that he has a rare gift for persuasion—I can believe it. Like Eben—like everyone here—he is too thin, though you can tell he was more substantial once. His hair is going grey, and he has deep-set brown eyes, so dark they look black. The lines around his eyes make him seem to be starting a smile even when he’s not, but I don’t think he’s over forty. He is only a little taller than I am and limps slightly, but he’s strong—he hefted all my luggage, me, Amelia, and Kit into his wagon with no trouble.
I shook hands with him (I can’t remember if he said anything) and then he stepped aside for Amelia. She’s one of those ladies who is more beautiful at sixty than she could possibly have been at twenty (oh, how I hope someone says that about me someday!). Small, thin-faced, lovely smile, with grey hair in coronet braids, she gripped my hand tightly and said, “Juliet, I am glad you are here at last. Let’s get your things and go home.” It sounded wonderful, as though it really were my home.
As we stood there on the pier, some glint of light kept flashing in my eyes, and then around the dock. Isola snorted and said it was Adelaide Addison, at her window with opera glasses, tracking every move we made. Isola waved vigorously at the gleam and it stopped.
While we were laughing about that, Dawsey was seeing to my bags and making sure that Kit didn’t fall off the pier and generally making himself useful. I began to see that this is what he does—and that everyone depends upon him to do it.
The four of us—Amelia, Kit, Dawsey, and I—rode to Amelia’s farm in Dawsey’s cart, while everyone else walked. It wasn’t far except in terms of landscape, for we moved from St. Peter Port out into the countryside. There are rolling pasture-lands, but they end suddenly at cliffs, and all around is the moist salt smell of the sea. As we drove, the sun set and the mist rose. You know how sounds become magnified in the fog? Well, it was like that—every bird’s chirp was weighty and symbolic. Clouds boiled up over the cliff-sides, and the fields were swathed in grey by the time we reached the manor house, but I saw ghostly shapes that I think were the cement bunkers built by the Todt workers.
Kit sat beside me in the wagon and sent me many sideways glances. I was not so foolish as to try to talk to her, but I played my severed-thumb trick—you know, the one that makes your thumb look like it has been sliced apart.
I did it over and over, casually, not looking at her, while she watched me like a baby hawk. She was intent and fascinated but not gullible enough to break into giggles. She just said at last, “Show me how you do that.”
She sat across from me at supper and turned down her spinach with a thrust-out arm, hand straight up like a policeman. “Not for me,” she said, and I, for one, would not care to disobey her. She pulled her chair close to Dawsey’s and ate with one elbow planted firmly on his arm, pinning him in his place. He didn’t appear to mind, even if it did make cutting his chicken difficult, and when supper was over, she immediately climbed into his lap. It is obviously her rightful throne, and though Dawsey seemed to be attending to the conversation, I spied him poking out a napkin-rabbit while we talked of food-shortages during the Occupation. Did you know that the Islanders ground bird-seed for flour until they ran out of it?
I must have passed some test I didn’t know I was being given, because Kit asked me to tuck her into bed. She wanted to hear a story about a ferret. She liked vermin, did I? Would I kiss a rat on the lips? I said “Never” and that apparently won her favor—I was plainly a coward, but not a hypocrite. I told her a story and she presented her cheek an infinitesimal quarter of an inch to be kissed.
What a long letter—and it only contains the first four hours of the twenty. You’ll have to wait for the other sixteen.
From Juliet to Sophie
24th May, 1946
Yes, I’m here. Mark did his best to stop me, but I resisted him mulishly, right to the bitter end. I’ve always considered doggedness one of my least appealing characteristics, but it was valuable last week.
It was only as the boat pulled away, and I saw him standing on the pier, tall and scowling—and somehow wanting to marry me—that I began to think maybe he was right. Maybe I am a complete idiot. I know of three women who are mad for him—he’ll be snapped up in a trice, and I’ll spend my declining years in a grimy bed-sit, with my teeth falling out one by one. Oh, I can see it all now: No one will buy my books, and I’ll ply Sidney with tattered, illegible manuscripts, which he’ll pretend to publish out of pity. Doddering and muttering, I’ll wander the streets carrying my pathetic turnips in a string bag, with newspaper tucked into my shoes. You’ll send me affectionate cards at Christmas (won’t you?) and I’ll brag to strangers that I was once nearly engaged to Markham Reynolds, the publishing tycoon. They’ll shake their heads—The poor old thing’s crazy as a bedbug, of course, but harmless.
Oh God. This way lies insanity.
Guernsey is beautiful and my new friends have welcomed me so generously, so warmly, that I haven’t doubted I’ve done right to come here—until just a moment ago, when I started thinking about my teeth. I’m going to stop thinking about them. I’m going to step into the meadow of wildflowers right outside my door and run to the cliff as fast as I can. Then I’m going to fall down and look at the sky, which is shimmering like a pearl this afternoon, and breathe in the warm scent of grass and pretend that Markham V. Reynolds doesn’t exist.
I’ve just come back indoors. It’s hours later—the setting sun has rimmed the clouds in blazing gold and the sea is moaning at the bottom of the cliffs. Mark Reynolds? Who’s he?
27th May, 1946
Elizabeth’s cottage was plainly built for an exalted guest to stay in, because it’s quite spacious. There is a big sitting room, a bathroom, a larder, and a huge kitchen downstairs. There are three bedrooms and a bath upstairs. And best of all, there are windows everywhere, so the sea air can sweep into every room.
I’ve shoved a writing table by the biggest window in my sitting room. The only flaw in this arrangement is the constant temptation to go outside and walk over to the cliff’s edge. The sea and the clouds don’t stay the same for five minutes running and I’m scared I’ll miss something if I stay inside. When I got up this morning, the sea was full of sun pennies—and now it all seems to be covered in lemon scrim. Writers ought to live far inland or next to the city dump, if they are ever to get any work done. Or perhaps they need to be stronger-minded than I am.
If I needed any encouragement to be fascinated by Elizabeth, which I don’t, her possessions would do it for me. The Germans arrived to take over Sir Ambrose’s house and gave her only six hours to remove her belongings to the cottage. Isola said Elizabeth brought only a few pots and pans, some cutlery and kitchen china (the Germans kept the good silver, crystal, china, and wine for themselves), her art supplies, an old wind-up phonograph, some records, and the rest were armloads of books. So many books, Sidney, that I haven’t had time to really look at them—they fill the living-room shelves and overflow into the kitchen hutch. She even set a stack at the end of the sofa to use for a table—wasn’t that brilliant?
In every nook, I find little things that tell me about her. She was a noticer, Sidney, like me, for all the shelves are lined with shells, bird feathers, dried sea grasses, pebbles, eggshells, and the skeleton of something that might be a bat. They’re just bits that were lying on the ground, that anyone else would step over or on, but she saw they were beautiful and brought them home. I wonder if she used them for still-lifes? I wonder if her sketch-books are here somewhere? There’s prowling to be done. Work first, but the anticipation is like Christmas Eve seven days a week.
Elizabeth also carried down one of Sir Ambrose’s paintings. It is a portrait of her, painted I imagine when she was about eight years old. She is sitting on a swing, all ready to pump up and away—but having to sit still for Sir Ambrose to paint. You can tell by her eyebrows that she doesn’t like it. Glares must be inheritable, because she and Kit have identical ones.
My cottage is right inside the gates (honest three-barred farm gates). The meadow surrounding the cottage is full of scattered wildflowers until you get to the cliff’s edge where rough grass and gorse take over.
The Big House (for want of a better name) is the one that Elizabeth came to close up for Ambrose. It is just up the drive from the cottage and is a wonderful house. Two-storied, L-shaped, and made of beautiful blue-grey stone. It’s slate-roofed with dormer windows and a terrace stretching from the crook of the L down its length. The top of the crooked end has a windowed turret and faces the sea. Most of the huge old trees had to be cut down for firewood, but Mr. Dilwyn has asked Eben and Eli to plant new trees—chestnuts and oaks. He is also going to have peach trees espaliered next to the brick garden walls—as soon as they are rebuilt too.
The house is beautifully proportioned with wide tall windows that open straight out onto the stone terrace. The lawn is growing green and lush again, covering up the wheel ruts of German cars and trucks.
Escorted at different times by Eben, Eli, Dawsey, or Isola, I have quartered the island’s ten parishes in the past five days; Guernsey is very beautiful in all its variety—fields, woods, hedgerows, dells, manors, dolmens, wild cliffs, witches’ corners, Tudor barns, and Norman cottages of stone. I have been told stories of her history (very lawless) with almost every new site and building.
Guernsey pirates had superior taste—they built beautiful homes and impressive public buildings. These are sadly dilapidated and in need of repair, but their architectural beauty shows through anyway. Dawsey took me to a tiny church—every inch of which is a mosaic of broken china and smashed pottery. One priest did this all by himself—he must have made pastoral calls with a sledgehammer.
My guides are as various as the sights. Isola tells me about cursed pirate chests bound with bleached bones washing up on the beaches and what Mr. Hallette is hiding inside his barn (he says it’s a calf, but we know better). Eben describes how things used to look, before the war, and Eli disappears suddenly and then returns with peach juice and an angelic smile on his face. Dawsey says the least, but he takes me to see wonders—like the tiny church. Then he stands back and lets me enjoy them as long as I want. He’s the most un-hurrying person I’ve ever met. As we were walking along the road yesterday, I noticed that it cut very close to the cliffs and there was a trail leading down to the beach below. “Is this where you met Christian Hellman?” I asked. Dawsey looked startled and said yes, this was the spot. “What did he look like?” I asked, for I wanted to picture the scene. I expected it was a futile request, given that men cannot describe each other, but Dawsey knew how. “He looked like the German you imagine—tall, blond hair, blue eyes—except he could feel pain.”
With Amelia and Kit, I have walked to town several times for tea. Cee Cee was right in his raptures over sailing into St. Peter Port. The harbor, with the town traipsing straight up and steeply to the sky, must be one of the most beautiful in the world. Shop windows on High Street and the Pollet are sparkling clean and are beginning to fill up with new goods. St. Peter Port may be essentially drab right now—so many buildings need refurbishing—but it does not give off the dead-tired air poor London does. It must be because of the bright light that flows down on everything and the clean, clear air and flowers growing everywhere—in fields, on verges, in crannies, between paving stones.
You really have to be Kit’s height to see this world properly. She’s grand at pointing out certain things I would otherwise miss—butterflies, spiders, flowers growing tiny and low to the ground—they’re hard to see when you are faced with a blazing wall of fuchsias and bougainvillea. Yesterday, I came upon Kit and Dawsey crouched in the brush beside the gate, quiet as thieves. They weren’t stealing, though; they were watching a blackbird tug a worm out of the ground. The worm put up a good fight, and the three of us sat there in silence until the blackbird finally got it down his gullet. I’d never really seen the entire process before. It’s revolting.
Kit carries a little box with her sometimes when we go to town—a cardboard box, tied up tight with cord and a red yarn handle. Even when we have tea, she holds it on her lap and is very protective of it. There are no air holes in the box, so it can’t be a ferret. Or, oh Lord, maybe it’s a dead ferret. I’d love to know what’s in it, but of course I can’t ask.
Love to you and Piers,
From Juliet to Sidney
30th May, 1946
Do you remember when you sat me down for fifteen sessions of the Sidney Stark School of Perfect Mnemonics? You said writers who sat scribbling notes during an interview were rude, lazy, and incompetent and you were going to make sure I never disgraced you. You were unbearably arrogant and I loathed you, but I learned your lessons well—and now you can see the fruits of your hard work:
I went to my first meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last night. It was held in Clovis and Nancy Fossey’s living room (with spill-over into the kitchen). The speaker of the evening was a new member, Jonas Skeeter, who was to talk about The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Mr. Skeeter strode to the front of the room, glared at us all, and announced he didn’t want to be there and had only read Marcus Aurelius’s silly book because his oldest, his dearest, and his former friend, Woodrow Cutter, had shamed him into it. Everyone turned to look at Woodrow, and Woodrow sat there, obviously shocked and his mouth agape.
“Woodrow,” Jonas Skeeter went on, “came across my field where I was busy, building up my compost. He was holding this little book in his hands and he said he’d just finished reading it. He’d like me to read it too, he said—it was very profound.
“ ‘Woodrow, I’ve got no time to be profound,’ I said.
“He said, ‘You should make time, Jonas. If you’d read it, we’d have better things to talk about at Crazy Ida’s. We’d have more fun over a pint.’
“Now, that hurt my feelings, no good saying it didn’t. My childhood friend had been holding himself above me for some time—all because he read books for you people and I didn’t. I’d let it pass before—to each his own, as my Mum always said. But now he had gone too far. He had insulted me. He put himself above me in conversation.
“ ‘Jonas,’ he said, ‘Marcus was a Roman emperor—and a mighty warrior. This book is what he thought about, down there among the Quadi. They were barbarians who was waiting in the woods to kill all the Romans. And Marcus, hard-pressed as he was by those Quades, he took the time to write up this little book of his thoughts. He had long, long thoughts, and we could use some of those, Jonas.’
“So I pushed down my hurt and took the damned book, but I came here tonight to say before all, Shame, Woodrow! Shame on you, to put a book above your boyhood friend!
“But I did read it and here is what I think. Marcus Aurelius was an old woman—forever taking his mind’s temperature—forever wondering about what he had done, or what he had not done. Was he right—or was he wrong? Was the rest of the world in error? Could it be him instead? No, it was everybody else who was wrong, and he set matters straight for them. Broody hen that he was, he never had a tiny thought that he couldn’t turn into a sermon. Why, I bet the man couldn’t even take a piss—”
“Make him apologize!” cried another.
“He doesn’t have to apologize. He’s supposed to say what he thinks, and that’s what he thinks. Like it or not!”
“Woodrow, how could you so hurt your friend?”
“For shame, Woodrow!”
The room fell quiet when Woodrow stood up. The two men met in the middle of the floor. Jonas held out his hand to Woodrow, and Woodrow clapped Jonas on the back, and the two of them left, arm in arm, for Crazy Ida’s. I hope that’s a pub and not a woman.
P.S. Dawsey was the only Society member who seemed to find last night’s meeting at all funny. He’s too polite to laugh out loud, but I saw his shoulders shaking. I gathered from the others that it had been a satisfying but by no means extraordinary evening.
From Juliet to Sidney
31st May, 1946
Please read the enclosed letter—I found it slipped under my door this morning.
Miss Pribby told me you wanted to know about our recent Occupation by the German Army—so here is my letter.
I am a small man, and though Mother says I never had a prime, I did. I just didn’t tell her about it. I am a champion whistler. I have won contests and prizes for my whistling. During the Occupation, I used this talent to unman the enemy.
After Mother was asleep, I would creep out of the house. I’d make my silent way down to the Germans’ brothel (if you’ll pardon the term) on Saumarez Street. I’d hide in the shadows until a soldier emerged from his tryst. I do not know if ladies are aware of this, but men are not at their peak of fitness after such an occasion. The soldier would start walking back to his quarters, often whistling. I’d start slowly walking, whistling the same tune (but much better). He’d stop whistling, but I would not stop whistling. He’d pause a second, thinking that what he had taken for an echo was actually another person in the dark—following him. But who? He would look back, I’d have slipped into a doorway. He’d see no one—he’d start on his way again, but not whistling. I’d start to walk again and to whistle again. He’d stop—I’d stop. He’d hurry on, but I’d still whistle, following him with hard footsteps. The soldier would rush toward his quarters, and I’d return to the brothel to wait for another German to stalk. I do believe I made many a soldier unfit to perform his duties well the next day. Do you see?
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I will speak more about brothels. I do not believe those young ladies were there because they wanted to be. They were sent from the Occupied territories of Europe, same as the Todt slave workers. It could not have been nice work. To the soldiers’ credit, they demanded the German authorities give the women an extra food allowance, same as given to the island’s heavy workers. Furthermore, I saw some of these same ladies share their food with the Todt workers, who were sometimes let out of their camps at night to hunt for food.
My mother’s sister lives on Jersey. Now that the war is over, she can come visit us—more’s the pity. Being the sort of woman she is, she told a nasty story.
After D-Day the Germans decided to send their brothel ladies back to France, so they put them all on a boat to St. Malo. Now those waters are very wayward, broiled-up, and ugly. Their boat was swept onto the rocks and all aboard were drowned. You could see those poor drowned women—their yellow hair (bleached hussies, my aunt called them) spread out in the water, washing against the rocks. “Served them right, the whores,” my aunt said—she and my mother laughed.
It was not to be borne! I jumped up from my chair and knocked the tea table over on them deliberately. I called them dirty old bats.
My aunt says she will never set foot in our house again, and Mother hasn’t spoken to me since that day. I find it all very peaceful.
Henry A. Toussant
6th June, 1946
Mr. Sidney Stark
Stephens & Stark Ltd.
21 St. James’s Place
I could hardly believe it was you, telephoning from London last night! How wise of you not to tell me you were flying home; you know how planes terrify me—even when they aren’t dropping bombs. Wonderful to know you are no longer five oceans away, but only across the Channel. Will you come to see us as soon as you can?
Isola is better than a stalking horse. She has brought seven people over to tell me their Occupation stories—and I have a growing packet of interview notes. But for now, notes are all they are. I don’t know yet if a book is possible—or, if possible, what form it should take.
Kit has taken to spending some of her mornings here. She brings rocks or shells and sits quietly—well, moderately quietly—on the floor and plays with them while I work. When I am finished, we take a picnic lunch down to the beach. If it’s too foggy, we play indoors; either Beauty Parlor—brushing each other’s hair until it crackles—or Dead Bride.
Dead Bride is not a complicated game like Snakes and Ladders; it’s quite simple. The bride veils herself in a lace curtain and stuffs herself into the laundry hamper, where she lies as though dead while the anguished bridegroom hunts for her. When he finally discovers her entombed in the laundry hamper, he breaks into loud wails. Then and only then does the bride jump up, yell “Surprise!” and clutch him to her. Then it is all joy and smiles and kisses. Privately, I don’t give that marriage much of a chance.
I knew that all children were gruesome, but I don’t know whether I’m supposed to encourage them in it. I’m afraid to ask Sophie if Dead Bride is too morbid a game for a four-year-old. If she says yes, we’ll have to stop playing, and I don’t want to stop. I love Dead Bride.
So many questions arise when you are spending your days with a child. For instance, if one likes to cross one’s eyes a lot, might they get stuck that way forever—or is that a rumor? My mother said they would, and I believed her, but Kit is made of sterner stuff and doubts it.
I am trying hard to remember my parents’ ideas about child-raising, but, as the child raised, I’m scarcely a good judge. I know I got spanked for spitting my peas across the table at Mrs. Morris, but that’s all I can recall. Perhaps she deserved it. Kit seems to show no ill-effects from having been brought up piecemeal by Society members. It certainly hasn’t made her fearful and retiring. I asked Amelia about it yesterday. She smiled and said there was no hope that a child of Elizabeth’s would be fearful and retiring. Then she told me a lovely story about her son, Ian, and Elizabeth when they were children. He was to be sent to school in England, and he was not at all happy about it, so he decided to run away from home. He consulted Jane and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth persuaded him to buy her boat for his escape. The trouble was, she had no boat—but she didn’t tell him that. Instead, she built one herself in three days. On the appointed afternoon, they hauled it down to the beach, and Ian set off, with Elizabeth and Jane waving their hankies from the shore. About half a mile out, the boat began to sink—fast. Jane was all for running to get her father, but Elizabeth said there wasn’t time and since it was all her fault, she would have to save him. She took off her shoes, dove into the waves, and swam out to Ian. Together, they pulled the wreckage to shore, and she brought the boy to Sir Ambrose’s house to dry off. She returned his money, and as they sat steaming before the fire, she turned to him and said gloomily, “We’ll just have to steal a boat, that’s all.” Ian told his mother that he decided it would be simpler to go to school after all.
I know it will take a prodigious amount of time to catch up on your work. If you do have a moment to spare, could you find a book of paper dolls for me? One full of glamorous evening gowns, please.
I know Kit is growing fond of me—she pats my knee in passing.
From Juliet to Sidney
10th June, 1946
I’ve just received a wonderful package from your new secretary. Is her name really Billee Bee Jones? Never mind, she’s a genius anyway. She found Kit two books of paper dolls—and not just any old paper dolls either. She found Greta Garbo and Gone with the Wind paper dolls—pages of lovely gowns, furs, hats, boas—oh, they are wonderful. Billee Bee also sent a pair of snub-nosed scissors, a piece of thoughtfulness that would never have occurred to me. Kit is using them now.
This is not a letter, but a thank-you note. I’m writing one to Billee Bee, too. However did you find such an efficient person? I hope she’s plump and motherly, because that’s how I’m imagining her. She enclosed a note saying eyes do not stay crossed permanently—it’s an old wives’ tale. Kit is thrilled and plans to cross her eyes until supper.
Love to you,
P.S. I would like to point out that contrary to certain insinuating remarks in your last, Mr. Dawsey Adams makes no appearance in this letter. I haven’t seen Mr. Dawsey Adams since Friday afternoon, when he came to pick up Kit. He found us decked in our finest jewels and marching about the room to the stirring strains of Pomp and Circumstance on the gramophone. Kit made him a dishtowel cape, and he marched with us. I think he has an aristocrat lurking in his genealogy; he can gaze benevolently into the middle distance just like a duke.
To: “Eben” or “Isola” or Any Member of a Book Society on Guernsey, Channel Islands, Great Britain
(Delivered to Eben 14th June, 1946)
Dear Guernsey Book Society,
I greet you as those dear to my friend Elizabeth McKenna. I write to you now so that I may tell you of her death in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. She was executed there in March of 1945.
In those days before the Russian Army arrived to free the camp, the SS carried truck loads of papers to the crematorium and burned them in the furnaces there. Thus I feared you might never learn of Elizabeth’s imprisonment and death.
Elizabeth spoke often to me of Amelia, Isola, Dawsey, Eben, and Booker. I recall no surnames but believe the names Eben and Isola to be unusual Christian names and thus hope you may be found easily on Guernsey.
I know also that she cherished you as her family, and she felt gratitude and peace that her daughter, Kit, was in your care. Therefore, I write so you and the child will know of her and the strength she showed to us in the camp. Not strength only, but a métier she had for making us forget where we were for a small while. Elizabeth was my friend, and in that place friendship was all that aided one to remain human.
I reside now at the Hospice La Forêt in Louviers in Normandy. My English is yet poor, so Sister Touvier is improving my sentences as she writes them down.
I am now twenty-four years of age. In 1944, I was caught by the Gestapo at Plouha in Brittany, with a packet of forged ration cards. I was questioned, beaten only, and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. I was put in Block Eleven, and it was here I met Elizabeth.
I will tell you how we met. One evening she came to me and said my name, Remy. I had a joy to hear my name spoken. She said, “Come with me. I have a wonderful surprise to show you.” I did not understand her meaning, but I ran with her to the back of the barracks. A broken window there was stuffed with papers, and she pulled them out. We climbed out and ran toward the Lagerstrasse.
There I saw fully what she had meant by a wonderful surprise. The sky showing above the walls looked to be on fire—low-flying clouds of red and purple, lit from below with dark gold. They changed shapes and shades as they raced together across the sky. We stood there, hand in hand, until the darkness came.
I do not think that anyone outside such a place could know how much that meant to me, to spend such a quiet moment together.
Our home, Block Eleven, held almost four hundred women. In front of each barracks was a cinder path where roll call was held twice a day, at 5:30 A.M., and in the evening after work. The women from each barracks stood in squares of one hundred women each—ten women in ten rows. The squares would stretch so far to the right and left of ours, we could often not see the end of them in the fog.
Our beds were on wooden shelves, built in platforms of three. There were pallets of straw to sleep upon, sour smelling and alive with fleas and lice. There were large yellow rats which ran over our feet at night. This was a good thing, for the overseers hated the rats and stench, so we would have freedom from them in the late nights.
Then, Elizabeth told me about your island of Guernsey and your book society. These things seemed like Heaven to me. In the bunks, the air we breathed was weighted with sickness and filth, but when Elizabeth spoke, I could imagine the good, fresh sea air and the smell of fruit in the hot sun. Though it cannot be true, I do not remember the sun shining one day on Ravensbrück. I loved to hear, too, about how your book society came to be. I almost laughed when she told of the roasted pig, but I didn’t. Laughter made trouble in the barracks.
There were several standpipes with cold water for us to wash in. Once a week we were taken for showers and given a piece of soap. This was necessary for us, for the thing we feared most was to be dirty, to fester. We dared not become ill, for then we could not work. We would be of no further use to the Germans and they would have us put to death.
Elizabeth and I walked with our group each morning at 6:00, to reach the Siemens factory where we worked. It was outside the walls of the prison. Once there, we pushed handcarts to the railroad siding and unloaded heavy metal plates onto the carts. We were given wheat paste and peas at noon, and returned to camp for roll call at 6:00 P.M. and a supper of turnip soup.
Our duties changed according to need, and one day we were ordered to dig a trench to store potatoes in for winter. Our friend Alina stole a potato but dropped it on the ground. All digging stopped until the overseer could discover the thief.
Alina had ulcerated corneas, and it was necessary that the overseers not notice this—for they might think her to be going blind. Elizabeth said quickly she had taken the potato, and was sent to the punishment bunker for one week.
The cells in this bunker were very small. One day, while Elizabeth was there, a guard opened the door to each cell and turned high-pressure water hoses on the prisoners. The force of the water pushed Elizabeth to the floor, but she was fortunate that the water never reached her folded blanket. She was eventually able to rise and lie under her blanket until the shivering stopped. But a young pregnant girl in the next cell was not so fortunate or so strong as to get up. She died that night, frozen to the floor.
I am perhaps saying too much, things you do not wish to hear. But I must do this to tell you how Elizabeth lived—and how she held on hard to her kindness and her courage. I would like her daughter to know this also.
Now I must tell you the cause of her death. Often, within months of being in camp, most women stopped menstruation. But some did not. The camp doctors had made no provision for the prisoners’ hygiene during this time—no rags, no sanitary towels, no soap. The women who were menstruating just had to let the blood run down their legs.
The overseers liked this, this oh so unsightly blood, it gave them the excuse to scream, to hit. A woman named Binta was the overseer for our evening roll call and she began to rage at a bleeding girl. Rage at her, and threaten her with her upraised rod. Then she began to beat the girl.
Elizabeth broke out of our line fast—so fast. She grabbed the rod from Binta’s hand and turned it upon her, hitting her over and over. Guards came running and two of them struck Elizabeth to the ground with their rifles. They threw her into a truck and took her again to the punishment bunker.
One of the guards told me that on the next morning soldiers formed a guard around Elizabeth and took her from her cell. Outside the camp walls there was a grove of poplar trees. The branches of the trees formed an allée and Elizabeth walked down this by herself, unaided. She knelt on the ground and they shot her in the back of her head.
I will stop now. I know that I often felt my friend beside me when I was ill after the camp. I had fevers, and I imagined that Elizabeth and I were sailing to Guernsey in a little boat. We had planned this in Ravensbrück—how we would live together in her cottage with her baby, Kit. It helped me to sleep.
I hope you will come to feel Elizabeth by your side as I do. Her strength did not fail her, nor her mind, not ever—she just saw one cruelty too many.
Please accept my best wishes,
Note from Sister Cecile Touvier, placed in the envelope with Remy’s letter
Sister Cecile Touvier, Nurse, writing to you. I have made Remy go to rest now. I do not approve of this long letter. But she insisted on writing it.
She will not tell you how sick she has been, but I will. In the few days before the Russians arrived at Ravensbrück, those filthy Nazis ordered anyone who could walk to leave. Opened the gates and turned them loose upon the devastated countryside. “Go,” they ordered. “Go—find any Allied troops that you can.”
They left those exhausted, starving women to walk miles and miles without any food or water. There were not even any gleanings left in the fields they walked past. Was it any wonder their walk became a death march? Hundreds of the women died on the road.
After several days, Remy’s legs and body were so swollen with famine edema, she could not continue to walk. So she just laid herself down in the road to die. Fortunately, a company of American soldiers found her. They tried to give her something to eat, but her body would not receive it. They carried her to a field hospital, where she was given a bed and quarts of water were drained from her body. After many months in hospital, she was well enough to be sent to this hospice in Louviers. I will tell you she weighed less than sixty pounds when she arrived here. Otherwise, she would have written you sooner.
It is my belief that she will get her strength back properly once she has written this letter and she can set about laying her friend to rest. You may, of course, write to her, but please do not ask her questions about Ravensbrück. It will be best for her to forget.
Sister Cecile Touvier
From Amelia to Remy Giraud
16th June, 1946
Mlle. Remy Giraud
Hospice La Forêt
Dear Mlle. Giraud,
How good you were to write to us—how good and how kind. It could not have been an easy task to call up your own terrible memories in order to tell us of Elizabeth’s death. We had been praying that she would return to us, but it is better to know the truth than to live in uncertainty. We were grateful to learn of your friendship with Elizabeth and to think of the comfort you gave to one another.
May Dawsey Adams and I come visit you in Louviers? We would like to, very much, but not if you would find our visit too disturbing. We want to know you and we have an idea to propose. But again, if you’d prefer that we didn’t, we will not come.
Always, our blessings for your kindness and courage.
From Juliet to Sidney
16th June, 1946
How comforting it was to hear you say “God damn, oh God damn.” That’s the only honest thing to say, isn’t it? Elizabeth’s death is an abomination and it will never be anything else.
It’s odd, I suppose, to mourn so for someone you’ve never met. But I do. I have felt Elizabeth’s presence all along; she lingers in every room I enter, not just in the cottage, but in Amelia’s library, which she stocked with books, and Isola’s kitchen, where she stirred up potions. Everyone always speaks of her—even now—in the present tense, and I had convinced myself that she would return. I wanted so much to know her.
It’s worse for everyone else. When I saw Eben yesterday, he seemed older than ever before. I’m glad he has Eli by him. Isola has disappeared. Amelia says not to worry; she does that when she’s sick at heart.
Dawsey and Amelia have decided to go to Louviers to try to persuade Mlle. Giraud to come to Guernsey. There was a heartrending moment in her letter—Elizabeth used to help her go to sleep in the camp by planning their future in Guernsey. She said it sounded like Heaven. The poor girl is due for some Heaven; she has already been through Hell.
I am to take care of Kit while they are gone. I am so sad for her—she will never know her mother—except by hearsay. I wonder about her future, too, as she is now—officially—an orphan. Mr. Dilwyn told me there is plenty of time to make a decision. “Let us leave well enough alone at the moment.” He doesn’t sound like any other banker or trustee I’ve ever heard of, bless his heart.
All my Love,
From Juliet to Mark
17th June, 1946
I’m sorry that our conversation ended badly last night. It’s very difficult to convey shades of meaning while roaring into the telephone. It’s true—I don’t want you to come this weekend. But it has nothing whatever to do with you. My friends have just been dealt a terrible blow. Elizabeth was the center of the circle here, and the news of her death has shaken us all. How strange—when I picture you reading that sentence, I see you wondering why this woman’s death has anything to do with me or you or your plans for the weekend. It does. I feel as though I’d lost someone very close to me. I am in mourning.
Do you understand a little better now?
From Dawsey to Juliet
21st June, 1946
Miss Juliet Ashton
Grand Manoir, Cottage
St. Martin’s, Guernsey
We are here in Louviers, though we have not been to see Remy yet. The trip has tired Amelia very much and she wants to rest for a night before we go to the hospice.
It was a direful journey across Normandy. Piles of blasted stone walls and twisted metal line the roads in towns. There are big gaps between buildings, and the ones left look like black, broken-off teeth. Whole fronts of houses are gone and you can see in, to the flowered wallpaper and the tilted bedsteads clinging somehow to the floors. I know now how fortunate Guernsey really was in the war.
Many people are still in the streets, hauling away bricks and stone in wheelbarrows and carts. They’ve made roads of heavy wire netting placed over rubble, and tractors are moving along them. Outside the towns are ruined fields with huge craters and torn-up land and hedges.
It is grievous to see the trees. No big poplars, elms, and chestnuts—what’s left is pitiful, charred black, and stunted—sticks without shade.
Mr. Piaget, the innkeeper here, told us that the German engineers ordered hundreds of soldiers to chop down trees—whole woods and coppices. Then they stripped off the branches, smeared the trunks with creosote, and stuck them upright in holes they had dug in the fields. The trees were called Rommel’s Asparagus and were meant to keep Allied gliders from landing and soldiers from parachuting.
Amelia went to bed right after supper, so I walked through Louviers. The town is pretty in spots, though much of it was bombed and the Germans set fire to it when they retreated. I cannot see how it will become a living town again.
I came back and sat on the terrace till full dark, thinking about tomorrow.
Give Kit a hug from me.
23rd June, 1946
We met Remy yesterday. I felt unequal somehow to meeting her. But not, thank Heavens, Dawsey. He calmly pulled up lawn chairs, sat us down under a shade tree, and asked a nurse if we could have tea.
I wanted Remy to like us, to feel safe with us. I wanted to learn more about Elizabeth, but I was frightened of Remy’s fragility and Sister Touvier’s admonitions. Remy is very small and is far too thin. Her dark curly hair is cut close to her head, and her eyes are enormous and haunted. You can see that she was a beauty in better times, but now—she is like glass. Her hands tremble a good deal, and she is careful to hold them down in her lap. She welcomed us as much as she was able, but she was very reserved until she asked about Kit—had she gone on to Sir Ambrose in London?
Dawsey told her of Sir Ambrose’s death and how we are raising Kit. He showed her the photograph of you and Kit that he carries. She smiled then and said, “She is Elizabeth’s child. Is she strong?” I couldn’t speak, thinking of our lost Elizabeth, but Dawsey said yes, very strong, and told her about Kit’s passion for ferrets. That made her smile again.
Remy is alone in the world. Her father died long before the war; in 1943, her mother was sent to Drancy for harboring enemies of the government and later died in Auschwitz. Remy’s two brothers are missing; she thought she saw one of them in a German train station as she was on her way to Ravensbrück, but he did not turn when she screamed his name. The other she has not seen since 1941. She believes that they, too, must be dead. I was glad Dawsey had the courage to ask her questions—Remy seemed to find relief in speaking of her family.
I finally broached the subject of Remy coming to stay awhile with me in Guernsey. She grew reserved again and explained that she was going to leave the hospice very soon. The French government is offering pensions to concentration-camp survivors: for time lost in camps, for permanent injuries, and for recognition of suffering. They also give a small stipend to those who wish to resume their education.
In addition to the government stipend, the Association Nationale des Anciennes Déportées et Internées de la Résistance will help Remy pay the rent of a room or share a flat with other survivors, so she has decided to go to Paris and seek an apprenticeship in a bakery.
She was adamant about her plans, so I left the matter there, but I don’t believe Dawsey is willing to do so. He thinks that sheltering Remy is a moral debt we owe to Elizabeth—perhaps he is right, or perhaps it is simply a way to relieve our sense of helplessness. In any case, he has arranged to go back tomorrow and take Remy for a walk along the canal and to visit a certain patisserie he saw in Louviers. Sometimes, I wonder where our old, shy Dawsey has gone.
I feel well, though I am unusually tired—perhaps it is seeing my beloved Normandy so devastated. I will be glad to be home, my dear.
A kiss for you and Kit,
28th June, 1946
What an inspired present you sent Kit—red satin tap shoes covered with sequins. Wherever did you find them? Where are mine?
Amelia has been tired since her return from France, so it seems best for Kit to stay with me, especially if Remy decides to come to Amelia’s when she leaves the hospice. Kit seems to like the idea too—Heaven be thanked. Kit knows her mother is dead now; Dawsey told her. I’m not sure what she feels about it. She hasn’t said anything, and I wouldn’t dream of pressing her. I try not to hover unduly or make her special treats. After Mother and Father died, Mr. Simpless’s cook brought me huge slices of cake and then stood there, watching me mournfully while I tried to swallow. I hated her for thinking that cake would somehow make it up to me for losing my parents. Of course, I was a wretched twelve-year-old, and Kit is only four—she would probably like some extra cake—but you understand what I mean.
Sidney, I am in trouble with my book. I have much of the data from the States’ records and a slew of personal interviews to start the story of the Occupation—but I can’t make them come together in a structure that pleases me. Straight chronology is too tedious. Shall I pack my pages up and send them to you? They need a finer and more impersonal eye than mine. Would you have time to look them over now or is the backlog from your Australian trip still so heavy?
P.S. Thank you for the lovely clipping of Mark dancing with Ursula Fent. If you were hoping to send me into a jealous rage, you failed. Especially as Mark had already telephoned to tell me that Ursula follows him about like a lovesick bloodhound. You see? The two of you do have something in common: you both want me to be miserable. Perhaps you could start a club.
From Sidney to Juliet
1st July, 1946
Don’t pack up your pages—I want to come to Guernsey myself. Will this weekend suit you?
I want to see you, Kit, and Guernsey—in that order. I have no intention of reading your pages while you pace up and down in front of me—I’ll bring the ms back to London.
I can arrive Friday afternoon on the five o’clock plane and stay until Monday evening. Will you book a hotel room for me? Can you also manage a small supper party? I want to meet Eben, Isola, Dawsey, and Amelia. I’ll bring the wine.
Wonderful! Isola won’t hear of you staying at the inn (she hints of bedbugs). She wants to put you up herself and needs to know if noises at dawn are apt to bother you? That is when Ariel, her goat, arises. Zenobia, the parrot, is a late sleeper.
Dawsey and I and his cart will meet you at the airfield. May Friday hurry up and get here.
From Isola to Juliet (left under Juliet’s door)
Friday—close to dawn
Lovey, I can’t stop, I must hurry to my Market stall. I am glad your friend will be staying with me. I’ve put lavender sprigs in his sheets. Is there one of my elixirs you’d like me to slip in his coffee? Just nod to me at Market and I’ll know which one you mean.
6th July, 1946
I am, at last, on Guernsey with Juliet and am ready to tell you three or four of the dozen things you asked me to find out.
First and foremost, Kit seems as fond of Juliet as you and I are. She is a spirited little thing, affectionate in a reserved way (which is not as contradictory as it sounds) and quick to smile when she is with one of her adoptive parents from the Literary Society.
She is adorable, too, with round cheeks, round curls, and round eyes. The temptation to cuddle her is nearly overwhelming, but it would be a slight upon her dignity, and I am not brave enough to try it. When she sees someone she doesn’t like, she has a stare that would shrivel Medea. Isola says she reserves it for cruel Mr. Smythe, who beats his dog, and evil Mrs. Guilbert, who called Juliet a Nosy Parker and told her she ought to go back to London where she belonged.
I’ll tell you one story of Kit and Juliet together. Dawsey (more about him later) came by to pick Kit up and go see Eben’s fishing boat come in. Kit said good-bye, flew out, then flew back in, ran up to Juliet, lifted her skirt a quarter of an inch, kissed her kneecap, and flew back out again. Juliet looked dumbfounded—and then as happy as you or I have ever seen her.
I know you think Juliet seemed tired, worn, frazzled, and pale when you saw her last winter. I don’t think you realize how harrowing those teas and interviews can be; she looks as healthy as a horse now and is full of her old zest. So full, Sophie, I think she may never want to live in London again—though she doesn’t realize it yet. Sea air, sunshine, green fields, wildflowers, the ever-changing sky and ocean, and most of all, the people seem to have seduced her from City life.
I can easily see how they could. It’s such a homey, welcoming place. Isola is the kind of hostess you always wished you’d come across on a country visit—but never do. She rousted me out of bed the first morning to help her dry rose petals, churn butter, stir up something (God knows what) in a big pot, feed Ariel, and go to the fish market to buy her an eel. All of this with Zenobia the parrot on my shoulder.
Now, about Dawsey Adams. I have inspected him, as per instructions. I liked what I saw. He’s quiet, capable, trustworthy—oh Lord, I’ve made him sound like a dog—and he has a sense of humor. In short, he is completely unlike any of Juliet’s other swains—praise indeed. He did not say much at our first meeting—nor at any of our meetings since, come to think of it—but let him walk into a room, and everyone in it seems to breathe a little sigh of relief. I have never in my life had that effect on anyone, can’t imagine why not. Juliet seems a bit nervous around him—his silence is slightly daunting—and she made a dreadful mess of the tea things when he came by for Kit yesterday. But Juliet has always shattered teacups—remember what she did to Mother’s Spode?—so that may not signify. As for him, he watches her with dark, steady eyes—until she looks at him and then he glances away (I do hope you’re appreciating my observational skills).
One thing I can say unequivocally: he’s worth dozens of Mark Reynoldses. I know you think I’m unreasonable about Reynolds, but you haven’t met him. He’s all charm and oil, and he gets what he wants. It’s one of his few principles. He wants Juliet because she’s pretty and “intellectual” at the same time, and he thinks they’ll make an impressive couple. If she marries him, she’ll spend the rest of her life being shown to people at theatres and clubs and weekends and she’ll never write another book. As her editor, I’m dismayed by that prospect, but as her friend, I’m horrified. It will be the end of our Juliet.
It’s hard to say what Juliet is thinking about Reynolds, if anything. I asked her if she missed him, and she said, “Mark? I suppose so,” as if he were a distant uncle, and not a favorite one at that. I’d be delighted if she forgot all about him, but I don’t think he’ll allow it.
To return to minor topics like the Occupation and Juliet’s book, I was invited to accompany her on calls to several Islanders this afternoon. Her interviews were to be about Guernsey’s Day of Liberation on May 9 last year.
What a morning that must have been! The crowds were lined up along St. Peter Port’s harbor. Silent, absolutely silent, masses of people looking at the Royal Navy ships sitting just outside their harbor. Then when the Tommies landed and marched ashore, all hell broke loose. Hugs, kisses, crying, yelling.
So many of the soldiers landing were Guernseymen themselves. Men who hadn’t seen or heard a word from their families in five years. You can imagine their eyes searching the crowds for family members as they marched—and the joy of their reunions.
Mr. LeBrun, a retired postman, told us the most unusual story of all. Some British ships took leave of the fleet in St. Peter Port and sailed a few miles north to St. Sampson’s Harbor. Crowds had gathered there, waiting to see the landing craft crash through the German anti-tank barriers and come up onto the beach. When the bay doors opened, out came not a platoon of uniformed soldiers, but one lone man, got up as a caricature English gent in striped trousers, a morning coat, top hat, furled umbrella, and a copy of yesterday’s Times clasped in his hand. There was a split-second of silence before the joke sank in, and then the crowd roared—he was mobbed, clapped on the back, kissed, and put up on the shoulders of four men to be marched down the street. Someone screamed, “News—news from London herself,” and snatched the Times out of his hand! Whoever that soldier was, he was brilliant and deserves a medal.
When the rest of the soldiers emerged, they were carrying chocolates, oranges, cigarettes, tea bags to toss to the crowd. Brigadier Snow announced that the cable to England was being repaired, and soon they could be talking to their evacuated children and families in England. The ships also brought in food, tons of it, and medicines, paraffin, animal feed, clothes, cloth, seeds, and shoes!
There must be enough stories to fill three books—it may be a matter of culling. But don’t worry if Juliet sounds nervous from time to time—she should. It’s a daunting task.
I must stop now and get dressed for Juliet’s supper party. Isola is swathed in three shawls and a lace dresser scarf—and I want to do her proud.
Love to you all,
From Juliet to Sophie
7th July, 1946
Just a note to tell you Sidney is here and we can stop worrying about him—and his leg. He looks wonderful: tanned, fit, and without a noticeable limp. In fact, we threw his cane in the ocean—I’m sure it’s half-way to France by now.
I had a small supper party for him—cooked by me alone, and edible, too. Will Thisbee gave me The Beginner’s Cook-Book for Girl Guides. It was just the thing; the writer assumes you know nothing about cookery and writes useful hints—“When adding eggs, break the shells first.”
Sidney is having a grand time as Isola’s houseguest. They apparently sat up late talking last night. Isola doesn’t approve of small talk and believes in breaking the ice by stomping on it.
She asked him if we were engaged to be married. If not, why not? It was plain to everyone that we doted on one another.
Sidney told her that indeed he did dote on me; always had, always would, but we both realized we could never marry—he was a homosexual.
Sidney told me that Isola neither gasped, fainted, nor blinked—just gave him her good old fish eye and asked, “And Juliet knows?”
When he told her yes, I had always known, Isola jumped up, swooped down, kissed his forehead, and said, “How nice—just like dear Booker. I’ll not tell a soul; you can rely on me.”
Then she sat back down and began to talk about Oscar Wilde’s plays. Weren’t they a stitch? Sophie, wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall? I would.
Sidney and I are going shopping now for a hostess gift for Isola. I said she would love a warm, colorful shawl, but he wants to get her a cuckoo clock. Why???
P.S. Mark doesn’t write, he telephones. He rang me up just last week. It was one of those terrible connections that forced us perpetually to interrupt one another and bellow “WHAT?” but I managed to get the gist of the conversation—I should come home and marry him. I politely disagreed. It upset me much less than it would have a month ago.
From Isola to Sidney
8th July, 1946
You are a very nice house guest. I like you. So did Zenobia, else she would not have flown onto your shoulder and cuddled there so long.
I’m glad you like to sit up late and talk. I favor that myself of an evening. I am going to go to the manor now to find the book you told me about. How is it that Juliet and Amelia never made mention of Miss Jane Austen to me?
I hope you will come visit Guernsey again. Did you like Juliet’s soup? Wasn’t it tasty? She will be ready for pie crust and gravy soon—you must go at cooking slowly, else you’ll just make slops.
I was lonesome for company after you left, so I invited Dawsey and Amelia to take tea yesterday. You should have seen how I didn’t utter a word when Amelia said she thought you and Juliet were going to marry. I even nodded and slitted my eyes, like I knew something they didn’t, to throw them off the scent.
I do like my cuckoo clock. How cheery it is! I run in the kitchen to watch it. I am sorry Zenobia bit the little bird’s head off, she has a jealous nature—but Eli said he could carve me another one, as good as new. His little perch still pops out on the hour.
With fondness, your hostess,
From Juliet to Sidney
9th July, 1946
I knew it! I knew you’d love Guernsey. The next-best thing to being here myself was having you here—even for such a short visit. I’m happy that you know all my friends now, and they you. I’m particularly happy you enjoyed Kit’s company so much. I regret to tell you that some of her fondness for you is due to your present, Elspeth the Lisping Bunny. Her admiration for Elspeth has caused her to take up lisping, and I am sorry to say, she is very good at it.
Dawsey just brought Kit home—they have been visiting his new piglet. Kit asked if I was writing to Thidney. When I said yes, she said, “Thay I want him to come back thoon.” Do you thee what I mean about Elspeth?
That made Dawsey smile, which pleased me. I’m afraid you didn’t see the best of Dawsey this weekend; he was extra-quiet at my supper party. Perhaps it was my soup, but I think it more likely that he is preoccupied with Remy. He seems to think that she won’t get better until she comes to Guernsey to recuperate.
What on earth did you say to Isola? She stopped in on her way to pick up Pride and Prejudice and to berate me for never telling her about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Why hadn’t she known there were better love stories around? Stories not riddled with ill-adjusted men, anguish, death, and graveyards! What else had we kept from her?
I apologized for such a lapse and said you were perfectly right, Pride and Prejudice was one of the greatest love stories ever written—and she might actually die of suspense before she finished it.
Isola said Zenobia is saddened by your leaving—she’s off her feed. So am I, but I’m so grateful you could come at all.
From Sidney to Juliet
12th July, 1946
I’ve read your chapters several times, and you are right—they won’t do. Strings of anecdotes don’t make a book.
Juliet, your book needs a center. I don’t mean more in-depth interviews. I mean one person’s voice to tell what was happening all around her. As written now, the facts, as interesting as they are, seem like random, scattered shots.
It would hurt like hell to write this letter to you, except for one thing. You already have the core—you just don’t know it yet.
I am talking about Elizabeth McKenna. Didn’t you ever notice how everyone you interviewed sooner or later talked about Elizabeth? Lord, Juliet, who painted Booker’s portrait and saved his life and danced down the street with him? Who thought up the lie about the Literary Society—and then made it happen? Guernsey wasn’t her home, but she adapted to it and to the loss of her freedom. How? She must have missed Ambrose and London, but she never, I gather, whined about it. She went to Ravensbrück for sheltering a slave worker. Look how and why she died.
Juliet, how did a girl, an art student who had never held a job in her life, turn herself into a nurse, working six days a week in the hospital? She did have dear friends, but in reality she had no one to call her own at first. She fell in love with an enemy officer and lost him; she had a baby alone during war time. It must have been fearful, despite all her good friends. You can only share responsibilities up to a point.
I’m sending back the ms and your letters to me—read them again and see how often Elizabeth is spoken of. Ask yourself why. Talk to Dawsey and Eben. Talk to Isola and Amelia. Talk to Mr. Dilwyn and to anyone else who knew her well.
You live in her house. Look around you at her books, her belongings.
I think you should write your book around Elizabeth. I think Kit would greatly value a story about her mother—it would give her something to hang on to, later. So, either quit altogether—or get to know Elizabeth well.
Think long and hard and tell me if Elizabeth could be the heart of your book.
Love to you and Kit,
15th July, 1946
I don’t need more time to think about it—the minute I read your letter, I knew you were right. So slow-witted! Here I’ve been, wishing that I had known Elizabeth, missing her as if I had—why did I never once think of writing about her?
I’ll begin tomorrow. I want to talk to Dawsey, Amelia, Eben, and Isola first. I feel that she belongs to them more than the others, and I want their blessing.
Remy wants to come to Guernsey, after all. Dawsey has been writing to her, and I knew he could persuade her to come. He could talk an angel out of Heaven if he chose to speak, which is not often enough to suit me. Remy will stay with Amelia, so I get to keep Kit with me.
Undying love and gratitude,
P.S. You don’t suppose Elizabeth kept a diary, do you?
17th July, 1946