“So remind me again which of the family lived here?”
I am asking this of my father, as we walk the family pets around the remarkably well-preserved remains of a Guernsey castle that is more than a century old. Within the bailey – the central part of the castle – the grass is pockmarked with an odd set of stone foundations. Certainly, even non-historians could tell that they do not belong to the original stonework of the old building. In actual fact, they are the remnants of people’s homes. Sometime in the early twentieth century they were barracks, and after the First World War they were used as houses for some of the local population.
It was here that my paternal great-grandmother made her home, amongst the old granite walls of a castle that started its own life as an iron age fortress, perhaps as long ago as 500 BC.
By 1942, after Britain had gone to war again, the Channel Islands were occupied by Nazi soldiers. Through the means of the forced labour of Russian prisoners of war, the barracks were destroyed and my family’s home was gone forever.
In spite of this, our collective memory – whether accurate or not – lives on, and according to my father, a relative of a relative knows precisely which home was once ours.
“It might have been this one,” he tells me, striding towards one little rectangle, clearly demarcated from its neighbour. These houses would have been like a terraced street, except that they lined the belly of a medieval castle. Dad looks doubtful, casting his eyes to the neighbouring rectangle. “Or, no. Perhaps it was this one.”
Our inability to accurately recall our family history seems pertinent because, as any historian will tell you, the notion of historical memory is a complex thing. From commemorative but politicised monuments like the Cenotaph in London, to ambitious biopic films such as Lincoln or Darkest Hour, there is a buzzing debate about what it really means to present history to a wide audience.
Although it is fair to say that historical fiction is never unpopular, the coverage of cinema’s recent Awards Season illustrates how in vogue historical film currently is. From The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots to Green Book, putting history on our screens remains a mainstream staple.
On the most basic level, presenting history on film has always been a topic of debate. Even the term ‘historical fiction’ sounds almost oxymoronomous. If our high school understandings are anything to go by, then history is something grounded in fact: the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister during the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. If history is fact and fiction is, well, fiction then surely the synthesis between telling history and telling stories should not come so easily.
Happily, then, two degrees in History would lead me to confidently conclude that high school history is not the end all. History is, in fact, almost always about storytelling. It is, I would argue, one of the historian’s responsibilities to simply be as objective as possible in relating and analysing the tales of the past. History is subjective – dependent entirely on who has recorded it and who goes on to interpret the records. If history is subjective then historical memory is all the more so. We retain collective memories of things we never experienced; think about British people buying poppies (and not, as we should, cornflowers) in November and the phrase Lest We Forget.
Historical film is trying, among other things, to tap into this collective memory. It is trying to bring us home, even when that is to a time (and sometimes even a place) we have never known. Historical films can be politics and ideology, they can be genuine and well-meaning attempts to give a truthful account, they can be pure nostalgia and love. Historical fiction is so hard to pin down, and that is why it has always been the source of some of my favourite films and television shows.
In 1940, my grandmother, her sister, and my grandfather were among many thousands of young people evacuated from their homes in Guernsey and sent to live with strangers in England. My grandmother was ten, her sister nearly thirteen, and my grandfather was nine. They were escaping the impending occupation of the Channel Islands by German soldiers, making it the only part of Britain that Hitler ever reached. For years, the islanders left at home lived under extreme cruelty and privation, while many young evacuees – my grandfather among them – faced abuse at the hands of those who took them in and were supposed to care for them. On a good day, you will hear my grandmother and her sister talk about the war. My late grandfather never spoke to me about it.
More than sixty years later, in 2008, there was a minor furore amongst the inhabitants of Guernsey when it was announced that a book had been written to tell our island’s story. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the work of American-born Mary-Ann Shaffer who had never seen more of Guernsey than the inside of our diminutive airport. In 2018, a decade after the book was published with the help of Shaffer’s niece Annie Barrows, it was adapted into a film starring Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson, and Penelope Wilton.
The reaction here at home was mixed. The film’s source material was written not by a local person but by two Americans who had done impressive amounts of research about Guernsey’s history and geography but who were not, after all, connected to our heritage. It could not be filmed in the island due to constraints surrounding the size of the island. Many did not believe this to be true, and I myself remain convinced that a small token could have been passed to concerned islanders who hold our history very, very close to their chests. For a long time, ours was a story untold.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society approaches the subject cleverly. We follow Juliet (James), a writer looking for her next story. By way of a letter from a stranger called Dawsey Adams (Huisman), she learns of the eponymous book society. It is composed of a small group of islanders who had nearly been caught outdoors after curfew by a German soldier. The punishment for this would have been serious, and so to provide a cover story they invent a book club. To maintain the lie, the group forms an actual club, and their lives twine together irreversibly.
Throughout the film, set immediately after the war, Juliet corresponds with the literary society and eventually falls in love with its members, its island, and their history. As an outsider, Juliet becomes the perfect vehicle for both the author and the audience to learn about Guernsey. I am convinced that for most who watch the film, it will be their very first encounter of the story of where I am from.
Guernsey… is an example of a film which does a commendable job of adapting its source material. It is not the easiest work to adapt. The novel is an epistolary, and deals with stories that have very rarely been told outside of our own homes. This, I believe, is a part of where the charm in the film lies. The audience are discovering a new setting and a new history, and for anyone interested in that sort of storytelling, it must bring a layer of intrigue to the film. The history in this film is not political or even military history, although it is about war. It is social history as, I believe, it should be: telling the stories of everyday people, of people like you and I.
I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Barrows last year, and when asked what she thought attracted people to the book and the film, she stated that she thought it made people feel a part of something. The characters in the film are united by a shared love of stories, much as many of us who read books and watch films and television are. Just like historical fiction more generally, this story wants us to feel like we have found a group and a home. I believe it achieves that. The film admittedly runs the risk of being described with such words as charming or even, dare I say it, twee but it creates a roster of characters that I believe the audience genuinely cares for.
There is a rather obvious and predictable romance between Juliet and Dawsey, but for me the strength of this story lies in its presentation of relationships between women. Juliet easily befriends a slightly eccentric women named Isola (Parkinson), and she strikes a close bond with a young girl, Kit, whose mother was taken away by German soldiers. There is a slow-building maternal undertone between Juliet and the older Amelia Maugery (Wilton), who herself was close to Kit’s mother. For me, this story does what more historical fiction needs to do: it centres women in the narrative. It gives voice to one of so many voiceless groups in history.
If history is written by the victors, then maybe that statement is worth applying to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society too. The facts it presents are not totally watertight and the characters names are not remotely local names, and these issues only add to islanders’ complex relationship to the film. It is not always easy to see our own stories told back to us, nor is it easy to admit that these are not really our stories. They are my grandparents’ stories, but because they have been passed down to me they feel like they are mine too. I feel an ownership over them, just as as many of us do with stories – be they historical or otherwise. This is an interesting line for creators to walk, as much as it is for audiences. I first read Guernsey… in 2008 when I was fifteen. I am willing to admit that I did not like it. I wasn’t ready to like it. But now that I am in my twenties, I adore the book and the film, and I connect with each of the characters for more reasons than I can list here.
I think about this film lot when I walk the foundations of my great-grandmother’s old home. It looks to be impossibly tiny. It is so out of place here in a medieval castle. But Guernsey is a tiny island, and it too is full to the brim with history and folklore. So much of human history, not just here but everywhere, is stacked up upon itself; so many stories blend together, one into the next. I still believe that historical fiction wants us to find a common group, a common voice, and a sense of unity with people we never met and events we never experienced. I still believe that historical fiction is trying to bring us home. This is where its power lies. After all, we all want to be found at some point.