One of the pleasures of re-arranging my books was finding books I’d forgotten about. Over the years I have amassed a very small stash of work by Storm Jameson, without reading a single one or in fact having much of an idea about either her or her writing. High time, in other words, to get reading. I chose The Hidden River because my copy is a Reprint Society edition, which suggests that it was popular and probably pretty good. It had no jacket so I had absolutely no idea what it was about.
(Portrait of Margaret ‘Storm’ Jameson, by Howard Coster; National Portrait Gallery)
Adam Hartley is driving down to the Loire valley to visit some old friends when he stops to overnight in a hotel at ‘the town of V––’. He overhears the proprietress in angry conversation, and asks the waiter what it means.
‘It’s quite a story,’ he said softly. ‘Our patronne’s sister, who is a widow, has a daughter, a young tart [...] born it, if you ask me. [...] She ran away at sixteen and went to Dreux. The next year – it was ’41 – she took up with a German in the Gestapo, and as if that wasn’t enough, she got a lad she’d known all her life arrested and packed off to a camp. He died there. Naturally, after the war, she was sentenced to death, but the sentence was changed to life imprisonment. And now the poor lad’s mother has been suing widow Pilon for damages for her son’s death, because, says she, if the girl had been brought up decently, she wouldn’t have taken to bad ways. [...] What’s more, [...] yesterday the court agreed with her. Her daughter’s morals have cost Madame Germaine Pilon nine hundred thousand francs in damages and costs. How’s that for justice?’
Hartley was too shocked to be tactful. [...] ‘Justice? It’s entirely unjust,’ he retorted. ‘Punish the criminal if you like – why not? But why torment her mother?’
For it is 1949, France is struggling to come to terms with the repercussions of the Occupation, and Adam Hartley is returning to the area where he worked in Special Intelligence during the war and the family who sheltered him, the Monneries. Jean Monnerie was a local Résistance leader, now the local mayor. He, his younger brother Robert and Robert’s fianceé Elizabeth worked with Adam, and Robert was murdered for this by the Nazis. In fact, behind Adam’s visit is his very specific desire to discover who betrayed Robert. Yet not all of the Monneries were ‘on the right side of history’, as we say these days. Their uncle Daniel has been imprisoned for his friendship with a Nazi general. Jean wishes to start afresh and put the war behind them all; Marie, Robert’s mother, refuses to do so:
‘You think it’s absurd to tear away the silence stifling us, we ought to tread on it and press it down, press it over Robert’s eyes, and hands. And on all the others. Torture is indecent – so don’t look at it, shut your eyes, don’t listen to their cries. Don’t see ... ah! It oughtn’t to have happened, it was an aberration, a tiny flaw in our age of reason – and the polite, the sensible thing now is to forget it and go to sleep. No, I tell you. No one must sleep. [...] I couldn’t be so unkind to him.’
Thus, in microcosm, the family represents the deep fissures in French society and the novel explores, very sensitively, how to come to terms with this. Most of it is dialogue and most of it occurs in a series of scenes over just a few days, so that feels very like a play (indeed, Marie’s theatricality is commented upon). This works well both for discussing ideas of justice and for the characters to express very intense emotions – it somehow just stops them from becoming melodramatic, because the setting is not quite ‘realist’ fiction but something slightly artificial.
What, exactly, should justice be? Adam hasn’t really considered this before he sets in motion the hunt for Robert’s betrayer. In the guise of Cousin Marie, who wears a ‘Greek’ dress and thus seems very much like a character from an Aeschylus tragedy, it is akin to revenge. Blood spilt requires redress in the form of further blood. There is little room for mercy in her philosophy, though it is just about there. Jean, meanwhile, fears that few people’s behaviour in that dark time bears much scrutiny. After all, was his uncle’s crime so much worse than those of the unpunished farmers who for years profiteered from the war at the expense of their French neighbours? Was the crime of the person who ultimately betrayed Robert in a moment of fear so much worse? Did the invaders ‘infect’ people with their own evil? Do the families of collaborators and traitors bear some responsibility for their crimes? Should it matter that traitors who would have been executed during the war receive a much more lenient punishment now? But is it really desirable or even possible to try to continue living as if the past has no bearing on the present?
This is such a tight, humane, thoughtful novel about an enormously complex problem, which doesn’t shy away from how complicated people can be nor from the lack of easy answers. I am astonished that it isn’t better known and that is isn’t even in print at the moment.
(Duncan I. Grant, photograph of members of the Maquis in La Tresorerie, near Boulogne-sur-Mer, 14 September 1944; Library and Archives Canada; found here)