My World War II kick seems to be continuing. I've already raved endlessly about my favorite WWII memoir, Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto (including just a few days ago in my birthday post, which so many of you so nicely commented on). So it's really high time that I rave about another memoir, which hasn't supplanted Faviell's book as my favorite but was a similarly riveting read about a very different experience of the early days of the war. And by the way, this one was much easier to track down.
I first came across Cecily Mackworth's I Came Out of France in Jenny Hartley's anthology Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War (1994), in which an excerpt appeared. I must have read something about the book when I researched Mackworth—who also wrote two novels—Spring's Green Shadow (1952) and Lucy's Nose (1992)—to add her to my Overwhelming List, but for some reason it never really made it onto my radar as something that I had to read. But recently I found myself restlessly dissatisfied with all the many, many, MANY books on my TBR shelves (books that one doesn't own have a way of seeming so much more tantalizing than those already on one's shelf, don't they?) and happened to notice that I Came Out of France was, quite unusually for books I take an interest in, just sitting on the shelf at the San Francisco library two blocks from where I work, waiting patiently for me.
From what I understand from the book and from the biographical information I've found on her, Mackworth was born in Wales, married a Belgian who had died in 1939, and was living in Paris at the time of the fall of France. The harrowing tale of her multi-stage escape from France may be of particular interest to fans of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, which also vividly portrays the horrors of millions of refugees trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis.
I was hooked from the first page, which dives right into the drama, so much so that I can't resist sharing several excerpts right off. These are all from the first three pages, including the scene-setting opening paragraph:
When I look back on the last week before Paris fell, I see an endless vista of burning golden days and warm nights, heavy with the smell of lime-tree flowers, when we walked till dawn by the quays of the Seine, listening for the distant sound of guns. I see the refugees from Belgium and the north fighting around the water-barrels at the Austerlitz Station, ready to play any dirty trick to get an extra drop of tepid water flavoured with cola powder. I can feel the glare of sun on concrete and smell the railway carriages which had become like red-hot cages when the people had been locked in them for fourteen hours without food or drink, waiting to escape to the south.
At first the refugees had come in a thin trickle of cars, rich people who had escaped from Belgium with money and a few possessions and who stopped us in the streets asking rather pathetically for a hotel which would not be too expensive. Their money had got them to Paris, but there were sometimes machine-gun bullets through the windscreen and sometimes blood on the smart upholstery. Then the stream of cars grew thicker, until there were long traffic blocks all down the central streets, then came convoys of bicyclists, then lorries and ambulances, until Paris seemed to be full of dejected, listless people who sat about all day on benches and doorsteps and called to each other in thick foreign accents, asking for news of the martyred Flanders towns.
On that day, when I arrived to start my shift at the station, I found the streets blocked for half a mile around by thousands of people jammed into a compact mass, pushing and struggling under the burning sun. A few policemen were trying to keep order and one of them, when he saw my uniform, explained that the lines had been blown up outside Paris so that the station was closed, but that all these people were waiting in the hope of getting a last train and refused to go away. He tried to force a way through for me, but the crowd was too dangerous. A wave of panic began to sweep through it at that moment, for someone had spread the news that the Germans were entering the city and massacring the population. The mob seethed forward, determined to break down the station gates. Women screamed and fainted and I could see that children were being trampled under foot. Some men started wrenching at the iron railings. The policeman shrugged his shoulders and said, "They'll calm down in a minute. They've been like this all night, waiting quietly one minute and going crazy the next. They won't believe there isn't going to be a train. There are a lot of people inside and most of them seem to be sick. I'll try to get you in."
It's not long before Mackworth herself, along with some friends and acquaintances, joins the refugees on the roads—first heading for Chartres and then changing course as her situation changes and the Nazi soldiers and bombers move ever closer. Initially, she is determined not to leave France altogether, and she bypasses opportunities which might have allowed her to get back to England right away.
The book is excellent at showing the only gradually dawning realization of Mackworth and the French men and women around her of the hopelessness of the situation in France. The initial capitulation is greeted with disbelief, and people try to convince themselves that it can't be as it seems, that it must be part of some elaborate resistance to Hitler that they aren't yet in a position to understand. Real news is almost nonexistant, and the friends, friends of friends, and, eventually, complete strangers that Mackworth finds herself among try desperately—usually without success—to tune in British news through the wall of radio interference with which the Germans try to block it.
|Cecily Mackworth in 1961
In lieu of real news, rumor and fear take charge, and Mackworth describes her belief that much of the misinformation is evidence of an efficient German "fifth column," though certainly with the benefit of hindsight one wonders if it wasn't primarily just the natural chaos of a vast human tragedy, combined with some very legitimate fears based in truth. For example, Mackworth herself notes that:
I was beginning to notice that the towns of western France were being bombed in rotation, from north to south, and once each. It was not difficult to conclude that the Germans were using this method of ensuring that the refugees were in constant motion and constantly multiplying. It was the best possible means of exercising pressure on the government and forcing them to accept whatever terms the victors chose to dictate.
One hardly needs a fifth column to explain the sort of panicked misinformation that could result from a situation like that. And if you add to that Mackworth's gutwrenching description, a short while later, of a German bomber's attack on a crowd of refugees, it's hard not to think that much of the fearful gossip being passed around was simply based in real horror and perhaps multiplied or exaggerated through simple human nature:
The playground was full of refugees staring up into the sky. Presently a big black 'plane swooped out of the clouds and immediately the crowd scattered, running in all directions to crouch in the shelter of the walls or racing back to the house. Some big boys had been digging a trench shelter and stopped their work to run into the yard to fetch any stray children they could see.
The 'plane dived and a bomb fell with a terrific crash about a hundred yards behind the building. I caught up two shrieking children in my arms and ran to the ditch, dropping them on to its muddy depths. Most of the refugees had dropped face-downwards on the ground and were lying with their hands pressed over their ears, sobbing nervously. A few distracted women ran backward and forward, calling to their children.
Another bomb fell, then another. Then the 'plane wheeled and mounted leisurely into the sky, disappearing behind the clouds.
Like Frances Faviell, Mackworth is serving as a sort of unofficial or volunteer nurse when the war breaks out. Her early disclaimer about this ("I don't quite remember how I found myself in a nurse's uniform at the Austerlitz Station, for I am not a nurse and had never nursed anyone in my life") seems disingenuous, and I wonder if she wasn't perhaps just shying away from acknowledging that the Red Cross—with which she was obviously affiliated in some way—had allowed an untrained nurse to work under its auspices. But regardless, her nursing, official or unofficial, leads her to situations as harrowing as Faviell's, as when she hesitates, with completely inadequate supplies, to treat a soldier with a bullet wound in his foot, and he ends by taking the knife away from her and prying the bullet out himself. At the other end of the spectrum, however, and a rare bit of comic relief in her narrative, is her consternation when a real nurse arrives at one point and discovers that Mackworth has been "putting eye-drops into the children's ears and ear-drops into their eyes. My own horror at the discovery was mitigated by the knowledge that they were all making excellent recoveries under this treatment."
Mackworth is perhaps less vivid in describing the people she encounters than Faviell, and because she is among strangers for much of the book she has less chance of creating interesting "characters" than Faviell had in describing her Chelsea neighbors. But I Came Out of France offers its own strengths. I found Mackworth's writing style—which is calm and matter of fact even in describing horrifying events, and which uses short, simple, Hemingway-esque sentences to move the story irresistibly along—to be highly effective. And, because I know much less about the war in France than elsewhere, I was fascinated by Mackworth's insider's view of both refugees and citizens.
One striking detail that she makes note of is the shady behavior of some of the officers of the French army, such as this encounter on the road reveals:
At the terminus we were in sight of the Loire. Soldiers were stationed all along the road, directing the cars and trying to prevent traffic blocks. I was surprised to see several officers in uniform driving away, and by the resentment of the soldiers I could see that they must have been leaving their men. Most of them looked straight ahead, trying to ignore the jeers and angry calls of the troops. Once a young soldier stooped and seized a handful of mud from the roadside and flung it into the face of an officer who was driving by with a smartly dressed woman at his side. The officer's lips tightened, but he brushed the mud from his cheek and drove on looking straight ahead.
And finally, one of the book's best strengths is the way it portrays the kinds of paranoia and distrust that was part and parcel of the displacement of so many people in such a frightening and violent upheaval. At one point, Mackworth is taken in by a friendly young woman, but is nearly forced to leave by the distrust of the woman's father, whose suspicions are only finally alleviated by the discovery that he has visited the Welsh town in which Mackworth was born and the realization that they have mutual acquaintances.
|Refugees in a Paris train station, 1940
But my favorite passage, dealing with these same themes, is one in which Mackworth occupies the threatening outsider role in a situation readers of British home front literature will find completely recognizable and familiar—a working party organized by local women of the upper classes, which is as much a social gathering as it is war work and which could have come straight from the pages of a Mollie Panter-Downes story:
As the day's work was not quite finished I stayed to help, in spite of the surprised glances of the other patronesses, and spent an hour tying up parcels among the wives of the high functionaries of Limoges. It was difficult to judge from the attitude of these Iadies what was their attitude to the capitulation, for the war seemed to be a forbidden subject. They worked without haste, gossiping about the affairs of the the town and the food situation. The atmosphere was almost exactly that of the many similar organizations in Paris during the first months of the war. All of them cast glances of deep suspicion at me and I felt that at any moment someone might ask who had let such a disreputable refugee into the building. This sort of thing is one of the novel and probably salutary experiences one is apt to have when divorced from a change of clothing. A small thing like a ragged dress or a hole in the shoe, and one automatically becomes one of a herd, and an undesirable herd at that, at the mercy of snobbish servants with ideas about back-door entrances, and a natural subject for charitable experiments.
We know from the beginning, of course, that Mackworth does succeed in reaching England, though she describes several events (not to mention gradual starvation and exposure to the elements) that certainly could have led to a very different outcome. Upon her return to France, she worked with the Free French in London, where she remained throughout the Blitz (would that she had written a memoir of those times as well!). But even knowing the ending in advance, her experiences en route were, for me, endlessly fascinating. If I Came Out of France isn't quite my favorite memoir of the more harrowing events of the war, it's nevertheless a completely compelling and entertaining read, and the pages turned themselves.
Perhaps I'll need to start a new series in my fantasy publishing concern, of the best non-fiction that deserves to be in print but isn't...