Vintage Books:The Reading List

Extract: Victoire by Roland Philipps

Discover an incredible story of heroism, complicity and survival about a charismatic double agent who played a major role in World War Two – Agent Victoire. Read on for your exclusive extract and watch the video with author Roland Philipps.

VICTOIRE BY ROLAND PHILIPPS

Victoire is the story of a passionate, courageous spy but also of a fragile hero, desperate to belong – a portrait of patriotism and survival in momentous times. Drawing on a wide range of new and first-hand material, Roland Philipps has written a dazzling tale of audacity, complicity and the choices made in wartime.

Read an extract of Victoire

"The ‘dirty, small black factory town’ of Le Creusot in Burgundy where Mathilde-Lucie Belard was born in 1908 could never have nourished a girl with her ardent imagination. She was an advanced, solitary child, able to both walk and talk at the age of one, and spent her early years in the wholesome mountain air of the Haut-Jura in her grandparents’ rambling eighteenth-century house with its steeply pitched roof, a paddock and a large garden.

Mathilde’s father was an engineer in the steel industry that dominated Le Creusot, and so in love with her assertive mother Jeanne that Lily, as Mathilde was known in her family, believed that their ‘amorous intimacy’ would have ‘disturbed’ her even as a baby if they had not sent her to live with her maternal grandfather. She would come to look back on herself as ‘a very miniature little lady’, and whilst an early lack of parental guidance meant she struggled to parse emotional nuance in herself or read those around her, it instilled a spirited self-determination to try out all that life had to offer.

“Her earliest memory was of ‘weariness, cold sweat and a feeling of nausea’. She was undergoing scarlet fever, and on her recovery was fed a baked apple, the taste of which would instil ‘childish joy’ for the rest of her life”

Her grandfather was an emotionally remote yet ‘tender and indulgent’ man who slipped Mathilde sugared almonds when she was reprimanded; he was eighty years her senior and shared his house with his spinster daughters, both in their thirties. Aunt Isoline and Aunt Lucie were contrasting and marked influences on their charge’s developing character. Aunty ’Tine loved music, a party, stories and clothes, and opened Mathilde’s mind to the possibility of a life of romance; Aunty ’Cie, nicknamed ‘the Sad One’ by her niece, was dutiful, virtuous, and ‘a high-minded substitute for a real mother’. Mathilde loved Lucie’s balanced calm but would share her periodic fits of depression, during which Lucie wrote poems she never dared to offer for publication. One of these involved a stream which Mathilde was told represented ‘devotion, patriotism and sacrifice’:

In that desert which is my life
There flows a charming brook,
Fragrant with honey and nectar
In which I have drowned many a regret . . .

The poem implanted a desire in Mathilde, ‘at all costs, to die as a martyr for France’, as she was to recall at a time when she was puzzling out the arc of her life. It was the first encapsulation of her romantic sense of her destiny, whose echo was to return to her twenty-six years later at a moment of devastating crisis to rally her innate heroism.

Her earliest memory was of ‘weariness, cold sweat and a feeling of nausea’. She was undergoing scarlet fever, and on her recovery was fed a baked apple, the taste of which would instil ‘childish joy’ for the rest of her life; she could never drink champagne, given as medicine, without bringing her sickness to mind. She could not understand why ‘the bells tolling wildly’ at the start of the war in 1914 caused her aunts to be so tearful, and was unsure how to behave: all she could think to do was continue with her household duties of making her grandfather’s bed and helping with meals. The skill that would be useful to her in the next war – of how to live with secrets whilst putting on a front of normality – was being imprinted early.

Mathilde learned to love nature in this period, and the thought of climbing roses and the scent of flowers was a great solace to her, particularly when she needed the distraction of daydreams, for the rest of her life. Her feeling for the area stayed with her and she knew that she would carry the house’s smell and the feel of its rough walls to her grave.

Her independence and sense that she alone could forge her identity were reinforced by the fact that she only moved to live with her family, now in a flat in Paris, in 1915, aged seven. She had no clear impressions of her parents or her younger brother, Pierre, before then. Her father was a small man with a black beard who ‘looked mild and good’ to his watchful daughter. He was in army uniform in her first solid memory of him, on leave from the war in which he was to be awarded the L.gion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. Her mother was ‘a large lady’ in spectacles, perpetually about to ‘fly into a passion’. After being the centre of attention in the Haut-Jura, Mathilde felt her parents were ‘so in love’ with one another that they excluded her from family life and ‘explained nothing’ to her whilst simultaneously ‘reproaching her for being a mediocre pupil’. She was always circumspect with her mother Jeanne Belard and complained about her ‘lack of affection’, but hardly ever mentioned her father, a shadowy figure who was possibly withdrawn through his experiences in the war.

Despite the help Jeanne later tried to give her daughter at the most tumultuous moments of her life, Mathilde never integrated into her family or found it easy to forge empathetic relationships. Her self-directing streak would be her essential and influential compass in her later adventures, but one that came at the cost of the ability to recognise true attachment to others. At the same time, she was always torn between being engaged with hubbub and community and longing to escape to the peace of a rural existence; and was often at the mercy of events in her immobility between these extremes.

During her frequent stays in the mountains, Mathilde followed the progress of the war on the Sad One’s map, and developed a hatred of ‘the Prussians’ or ‘the Boche’. In the quiet environment where feelings were not shown or spoken of, she craved love and fantasised about being a war widow: she had observed that they were ‘treated with solicitude, consideration and affection’, and did not appear to contemplate the necessary stage prior to widowhood.

She became closer to her brother when they caught whooping cough in 1919 and were quarantined together: it was an experience which inspired her ‘fervent wish’ to become a nurse, while Pierre was determined to be a general. This desire to serve complemented her ‘profound need to love and please’, her parents remembered. When she did not feel her love was reciprocated, she asked to be sent away to school, but the thrill of departure for the Lyc.e Jeanne d’Arc in Orleans aged twelve soon tipped into despair at her first experience of incarceration: she believed herself unworldly, unpopular and lazy as she lurched from excitement to despair. In her craving for security, she made surprising choices, such as opting to ‘remain an old-fashioned woman who knitted and looked after the house’ rather than to ‘become a modern, active woman’ when offered the choice as an essay topic. She drank a bottle of ink in this crisis of identity, which, rather than causing any ill effects, merely turned her tongue blue. The passion that had led her to suicidal thoughts brought her back to the reality of her situation, as it was to do so to vital effect on two occasions in the first years of the Second World War."

'step into englands story