*This post contains book & film spoilers
Last week, anyone with a Netflix account and a love for Annie Barrows’ and Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel was jumping for joy. The adaptation starring half the Downton Abbey cast (Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, and Penelope Wilton) premiered, and I can safely say that I am well pleased. So pleased, in fact, that I watched the movie twice in a single night.
(The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Metro US)
The Power of Words
I’ve been thinking about the story a great deal since I saw it come alive on the screen. I first heard about the book when it was assigned as summer reading during high school. At the time, my taste in literature was, shall I say, less cultivated. My interest in history at the time was far weaker than it is now, and knowing that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was an epistolary work made me even more reluctant to crack open the front cover. I imagined reading from this sub-genre was like going through my mail when, in fact, this particular style ended up being quite an effectual way to tell a story about the German occupation of the channel islands. What better way to capture individual personal experiences than to have each character communicate on his or her own?
(The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
During the harrowing tragedy that was the Second World War, our lovable cast of characters re-discovered the importance of fellowship. Isolated and under constant scrutiny by the enemy, they concocted the idea to host a secret dinner party in the hopes of enlivening their dampened spirits. In the movie, they stalk back home through the dark and are suddenly stopped by the glare of a flashlight when two German soldiers demand to see their papers. During this intense moment, the audience meets Elizabeth McKenna, played by Jessica Findlay Brown. Daring and prepared to save herself and her friends, she blurts out with convincing assurance, “We were reading! We’re in a book club.” Suddenly struck with the responsibility of convincing the Germans of their hobby, the group rushes out to steal what books they can find in the ransacked shops of their home town. In a letter from on book club member, Amelia Maugery, Juliet reads:
…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. 1
(Elizabeth McKenna played by Jessica Findlay Brown)
The running theme throughout the story is the idea that words are a refuge. The novel’s protagonist—Juliet Ashton—is a writer, having earned her fame during the war writing the serial entitled “Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.” Both readers and viewers quickly surmise that Juliet is deeply unfulfilled despite the notability of her war-time work. When she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey, she is at once inspired and reinvigorated as an author. He reveals to her that he found her address scribbled on the front cover of the Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb,
I want to ask a kindness of you. Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post. I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me? For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.
Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb.
I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writings have made me his friend. 1
The key part in this introduction to Dawsey is the way in which he feels about literature: “his writings have made me his friend.” It feels undeniably magical when printed words on a page can produce such a vivid emulation of human companionship. I, myself, experienced this kindship when reading Barrow’s and Shaffer’s novel. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I cried when the tale was finished. As I closed the book, I sat in the dim light of my room stroking its cover as if lulling a newborn to sleep. I treasured the story and the time I spent “corresponding,” so to speak, with Dawsey, Eben, Isola, Amelia, and Juliet.
(Juliet and Dawsey played by Lily James and Michiel Huisman)
Women Collaborators in Guernsey
Speaking of tears, I want to get into the darker aspect of the story (as if World War Two in general isn’t already dismal). Elizabeth McKenna is the heart of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, although she only comes to life through the other characters’ recollections of her. It was her fool hardiness that brought a bunch of acquaintances together; her one white lie the catalyst for a bond that would hold them together during the occupation. One can’t help but feel that the spirit of Elizabeth is what placed that particular book by Charles Lamb with Juliet’s address in Dawsey’s path. Her existence sparks the curiosity that drives Juliet to Guernsey. Once in Guernsey, Juliet learns about Elizabeth’s daughter, Kit, which propels her into an even more ferocious hunt for answers and strengthens her connection with the book club.
At the peak of her inquisitiveness, Juliet learns more about Kit’s parentage. In the film, her landlady Miss Stimple (a stand-in character for the book’s Adelaide Addison) takes it upon herself to act as a moral guide, insisting that the Guernsey Literary Society is hiding a dirty secret from her. She says,
I see you with them. And I hear you writing away up there, and I worry what story it is they have you putting down. Tall tales of her heroic kindness and virtue, I’m sure. Elizabeth McKenna was no saint. She was nothing more than a common Jerrybag; no better than any other of those other little sluts who dropped their knickers for extra rations or for cigarettes. For lipsticks! Littering the island with their half-German bastards!
Thus, I will begin writing about the “women collaborators” of the Second World War. Whitehall documents released in 1992 reveal the extent to which Channel Islanders fraternized with the German soldiers that occupied the island from 1940 until the end of the war. Twenty-seven folders of papers were released, while seven were withheld for privacy purposes. The general consensus was that the German-English associations were most commonly formed in an effort to find loopholes in the rationing system. 2 The Black Market was not only active in urban London; it flourished in Guernsey as citizens bartered in order to feed themselves. Of course, it is likely that many “collaborators” didn’t drop their knickers simply for a tube of lipstick, but rather used whatever means necessary to gather enough food for their families when many Channel Islanders were starving (and the German soldiers with them). In one letter from the novel, Micah Daniels (a character not included in the adaptation) writes,
Except for the devils in the Black Market, not a spoonful of sugar is left on the island. All the flour for bread had run about the first of December of ’44. Them German soldiers was as hungry as we was—with bloated bellies and no body warmth for food…
Mr. Churchill, he wouldn’t let the Red Cross ships bring us any food before then because he said the Germans would just take it, and eat it up themselves. Now that may sound like smart planning to you—to starve the villains out! But to me it said he just didn’t care if we starved alone with them. 1
(German Occupation of the Channel Islands, 1940)
Channel Islanders were never prosecuted for war crimes like operating the Black Market or deporting over 2,000 English Jews to concentration camps. However, there is proof that women, in particular, were punished during war time if they were exposed as collaborators or, in other words, were thought to be romantically linked to German soldiers. Stephen Ward writes, “The records disclose that ‘numbers of women including a surprising number of married women formerly considered respectable have carried on and lived with Germans. Illegitimate babies are common.’ A secret club was set up–the Guernsey Underground Barbers–to punish women who had ‘misconducted themselves’ with Germans.” 2 It’s hard to produce a reasonable explanation as to why women were publicly humiliated while the idea of conducting a tribunal to hear evidence against the most malicious collaborators was shot down. In 1945, the Attorney General said doing this would simply be “undesirable.” Yet, allowing women to have had their hair shaved as a punishment for perceived collusion was acceptable.
In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Elizabeth McKenna falls in love with a German soldier, Christian Hellman, “[he] looked like the German you imagine: tall, blond hair, blue eyes, except he could feel pain.” Despite his disdain for the Nazi regime, his role in the war positions him as the enemy to the English, no matter who he loves. Amelia is clearly a surrogate mother for Elizabeth, and in turn the latter is like a daughter for Amelia after she loses her own Jane during the first bombings of Guernsey. Afraid that fraternizing with the Germans will ultimately result in exposure and punishment, Amelia forcefully reminds Elizabeth that Christian is not an ally, and that who he represents is the same group holding her and her friends hostage.
Nevertheless, knowing she is pregnant with Christian’s child, Elizabeth is loath to end the relationship. In the book, Dawsey writes to Juliet, “The way that Christian and I met may have been unusual, but our friendship was not. I’m sure many islanders grew to be friends with some of the soldiers.” 1 Though, those who found more than friendship with the Germans were disdainfully called “Jerrybags,” a term Ms. Stimple uses in reference to Elizabeth. The Anglo-German relationships of the war are often understood as having been tainted by mutual connivance. Although fictional, Elizabeth and Christian prove that non-conventional war-time relationships could have been both consensual and pure.
One real-life relationship is strikingly similar to Elizabeth’s and Christian’s. In 1947, English woman Dolly Edwards and German Willi Joanknecht were married. When Dolly was seventeen, she was accused of stealing a loaf of bread and was subsequently penalized. While being shipped along with slave workers to fortify bunkers on the Guernsey coast, she was spared by Willi, and soon after their romance flourished. Their daughter, Suzanne, writes,
For Mum and Dad, liberation was heartbreaking. They thought it was the end of their romance. They didn’t have time to say goodbye because the Germans were all taken to PoW camps. Dad was sent to a camp on Dartmoor. While Mum had no idea where in the UK he’d be sent, she decided to come over and build a life while she tried to find him and waited for him to finish serving his sentence. By complete chance, they ended up in the same place. She got a job at a country house and he was working in the fields next to the house as a PoW. They always said it was the most incredible piece of luck either of them ever had. They were granted license to marry in August 1946, when Dad was still a PoW. He had to marry in his prison clothes. When Dad was released, they desperately wanted to return to Guernsey but the governor wouldn’t allow Germans to live on the island. 3
(Suzanne holds picture of her parents, The Sun, UK)
What Happened to Women Collaborators in France?
Not long ago, I stumbled upon an article from The Guardian called “An Ugly Carnival” by Antony Beevor. In this piece, Beevor discusses the brutal treatment of French women accused of collaborating with German soldiers during the occupation of their country. After France was liberated, French women were taken to “underground barbers” like the women from Guernsey. Beevor writes,
Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work. In mid-June, on the market day following the capture of the town of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly. In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truckload of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the local German military headquarters.
(A crowd jeers as a woman’s head is shaved during the liberation of Marseilles. Photograph: Carl Mydans)
Often, those who cut the women’s hair hadn’t joined the resistance and were attempting to distract authorities and their peers from the crimes they committed during the war; “elsewhere some men who had volunteered to work in German factories had their heads shaved, but that was an exception. Women almost always were the first targets, because they offered the easiest and most vulnerable scapegoats, particularly for those men who had joined the resistance at the last moment.” In cities like Paris, prostitutes were kicked to death in the streets for accepting German clientele. And even women of the highest order had their heads shaved as well for communicating with officers. Beevor makes an excellent point that sums of the reason for this violent turn against women, “Revenge on women represented a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation.” 4
The act of cutting a woman’s hair as a punishment is obviously deeply sexist; hair is considered markedly feminine. The general idea was that without this characteristic women were made less valuable. Essentially, the penalty of involving oneself with a German was being stripped of that trait society used to measure beauty and seductiveness. The cutting of women’s hair was a pointed indictment of society’s twisted view of females: their worth was superficial, and their moments of imperfection were unforgivable. The idea that women are “angels on earth” has long been an insufferable aspect of a misogynistic past (and present, really). During and after the Second World War, people in power prosecuted women swiftly and with great fervor, but left male conspirators largely alone. Their discriminatory actions suggested a belief that a woman, held in high esteem as the representation of all that is good and agreeable, has further to fall when she makes a lapse in judgment.
EMOTIONAL SCENES DEPICTED: