The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (7 page)

Your friend,

Isola Pribby

From Juliet to Dawsey
20th February 1946

Dear Mr Adams,

How did you know that I like white lilac above all flowers? I always have, and now here they are, plumed over my desk. They are beautiful, and I love having them—the appearance, 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 for coffee.

Due to your kind offices, I have received lovely long letters from Mrs Maugery and Isola Pribby. I hadn't realised that the Germans permitted
no outside news at all
, not even letters, in
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. Wilful 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 copies of
The Times
from 1900 to—yesterday. I shall mug 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 second-hand for 4s and I don't trust it. There I also learnt that Guernsey is ‘roughly 7 miles long and 5 miles wide, with a population of 42,000'. 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 it, 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 for 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,


From Juliet to Sidney
23rd February 1946

Dear Sidney,

I was only joking.



From Juliet to Sidney
25th February 1946




From Juliet to Sidney
26th February 1946

Dear Sidney,

Did you think I wouldn't notice you'd gone? I did. After three notes went unanswered, I made a personal visit to St James's Place, where I encountered the iron Miss Tilley, who said you were out of town. Very enlightening. Upon pressing, I learnt that you'd 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 apologised handsomely at the time).

I liked your other secretary more. And you sacked her for nothing, 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 hasn't mentioned
, 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 organisational 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 neighbour 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,


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 realised I hadn't heard from Sidney for 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 slap her.

Just as I was on the verge of concluding that Sidney had been approached 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 freeing 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 theatre, or a nightclub, 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
unmangled 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. 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 waving, its oily black moustache curling above pointed white teeth, the very picture of a villain. Dominic would adore it, after he had got over his first shock.



From Juliet to Isola
Miss Isola Pribby
Pribby Homestead
La Bouvée
St Martin's, Guernsey

28th February 1946

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
exactly the same moment

Our teacher had assigned
Wuthering Heights
to be read over the Easter holidays. 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 for the rest of the holidays but move from bed to hammock to armchair, reading
Jane Eyre
Agnes Grey
, 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. God 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.


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 speciality. These are 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 judgement in writing about the Society during the war. If Mrs Maugery says you can be trusted, I believe it. Also, you had the 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. Apart from Elizabeth, Mrs Maugery, and perhaps Booker, most of us hadn't had much to do with books since school. We took them from Mrs Maugery's shelves fearful we'd spoil the fine paper. 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 lift 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, planeload after planeload of them—and come off ships down in the harbour! All I could think of was,
Damn them, damn them
, over and over again. 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 the 30th of 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.

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