HIP READ: Quietly Occupied by Rose Miller
Artist, writer and long-time St Leonards resident Rose Miller has written a first novel set in Normandy under German military occupation in the Second World War. It chronicles the life of a remote village which is taken over by the conquering Wehrmacht in June 1940 and subjected to gradually tightening conditions of economic hardship and political control through a four-years-plus period until liberation in August 1944 and its immediate aftermath.
Rose Miller’s French husband Michel was born into just such a village during the war. His half-sister still lives there over 70 years on, and the material for the novel comes from the writer’s many visits to her Norman in-laws during which stories of the past, in particular reminders and reminiscences of the wartime years and their social consequences, were told and re-told as an ever-returning motif.
She says that she set out originally to recount these stories as true biographical histories. However, she found herself drawn in on an emotional level to the dramas that she heard unfolded, and decided that she could recreate a less constrained version of them by adapting them to fiction. Perhaps it was also easier to justify any inferences and conjectures that went beyond the strict evidence available to her. After all, she is portraying her husband’s family, and recourse to a certain poetic licence may excuse any ideas she has of them that are different from his.
Popular accounts of the occupation from outside – and not just in the 1980s BBC TV sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo – have tended to adopt simplistic hero/villain dichotomies: resistance fighters versus coward collaborators and German oppressors. But the realities were not so black-and-white. And, as the novel interestingly reveals, rather different for the respective male and female populations of the defeated and dominated nation.
In a patriarchal society (before the war women had no vote at any level of French democracy; few women in rural France went out to work, still fewer had any military connection) defeat in war is primarily a defeat for men – both physically and psychologically. The practical effects of the German occupation of France were also much harsher for men than for women. The male adult workforce was, as time went on, at increasing risk of being conscripted by their conquerors.
From February 1943, as is explained in one of the helpful historical notes set out at the end of the volume, all young French men between the ages of 20 and 23 were eligible for conscription, which usually meant deportation to Germany to work in munitions factories. Older men were subject to be requisitioned for work useful to the administration of the occupation, including patrol of railway lines – which in Normandy (and no doubt elsewhere) put them in the direct fire of resistance saboteurs. The system was thus not only oppressive but divisive, bound to set neighbour against neighbour, old against young, opportunist against victim.
From a feminist viewpoint the women, on the other hand, were at worst exchanging one lot of male oppressors for another. Sexual ‘collaboration’ between French and Germans is kept low key in the novel, at least in the village (it is suggested that what was going on in Paris might be rather different); but French housewives take in German washing or perform other services for the invaders, and some are glad of the money for it. The fact that the men have lost control is both a source of grief to their wives and daughters and an opportunity for them to live in some respects freer lives. The chief female character of the novel, based (the writer says) on her mother-in-law, gets the chance for an extra-marital romantic relationship which arises from the circumstances of the occupation.
What is Rose Miller’s viewpoint as narrator? She keeps the temperature cool, observing from a number of different viewpoints. If you are looking for melodrama, violent actions or passions on the part of charismatic characters, you may be disappointed. The title – Quietly Occupied – is apt. But it’s also ironic. The quiet masks deep personal and social consequences of the occupation that still resonate.
• Quietly Occupied is published by New Generation Publishing and available from Bookbuster, Waterstones, Amazon, Book Depository and elsewhere, price £7.99.
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