Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society: The Book In A Book

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society book cover

Allow me a little extraneous backstory. I am constantly going back to The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society; I’ve read it twice since buying it around 2015, and have re-read sections about four times since then. Most recently the reason was the film; it had highlighted to me things I’d not really thought, the cultural aspects of Juliet’s period – clothes, for example. For some reason I’d always pictured her in 1990s gear, so caught up was I in the story of the war. I also think much of my overlooking of things was due to the fact of letters rather than regular prose, description of a certain kind. (Incidently, I enjoyed the film, and thought it handled the source material, the limits imposed by letters, very well.) It’s apt that I was always seeing the book, its cover, everywhere, because this is what led me to buy it – it had seemingly followed me around, taunting me to read it, and since I gave in it’s continued to follow me, if now at my bidding.

It was during one of those later dips into the book that I realised the meta concept – author Mary Ann Shaffers’ book is fictional writer Juliet’s book.

Juliet needs to write an article to ‘address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading… I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate’ (p. 28). Over the course of the novel we see Juliet finding material for this article (which ends up becoming a book) and in so creating this narrative for Juliet, Shaffers in turn writes the same book. Guernsey is a book in a book.

Of course this idea contains a fair amount of conjecture on my part; if there’s something I’ve learned over the time spent planning this post it’s that we unlikely to find more background to the writing of the novel than we have. Shaffers’ death before its completion – happily, she knew it was to be published, after having handed it to her niece to finish (if I recall correctly, Barrows’ input was mostly in the editing of it1) – means that what we already know, partly from Barrows, will likely be it. We have a brief background, that’s included at the front of the book – at least in the UK edition; it was a trip to Guernsey that American Shaffers made, as well as persuasion from her book club to write, that got her started. Given the content of the book, the fictional literary society (which we can give the catch-all term of ‘book club’ to), together with the ‘value of reading’, as quoted in the previous paragraph, it’s fair to say that Shaffers mixed her day-to-day reality with her experience of Guernsey2 – we can see why she wrote what she did, the further content than the occupation. Juliet needed to write an article, needed something to continue the success she found in being a best-selling novelist. Shaffers needed a book, needed to write something after her peers told her she should. It’s pretty similar.

So then, in effect, Shaffers is the writer ‘part’ of Juliet. Shaffers uses Juliet’s experiences to look at the affect reading can have on people, to look at the way it can be used, both conventionally and unconventionally – if we consider its role as a loophole for which the residents of Guernsey could get around the banning of meeting in groups – and the way it brings people together in various ways. Most obvious is the use of the literary society with its colourful cast of characters; there is also the beginnings of Juliet’s trip – the love of Charles Lamb uniting two people, as well as the fact of the secondhand book trade in itself. There’s the use of what we can call marginalia for its effect – the name of a reader written into a book, which forms a connection as the book passes hands. (Here Shaffers brings in the musings of a reader who finds evidence of a previous owner, connecting the two readers in her fictional reality.) Reading brings Juliet and Dawsy together, it brings residents of an occupied island together, and its final result is that it brings the history of Guernsey to a wide readership, both the off-stage readers Juliet is looking to reach and the real-world readers of Shaffers’ novel. All those values of reading that Juliet lists, Shaffers satisfies in her work. And as to the practical, educational side, well, that’s what the literary discussions are for.

On page 34, Amelia Maugery notes that Juliet’s bestseller (Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War3) had provided her with an update on what those in Guernsey didn’t know about the war elsewhere. Juliet’s response, page 35, includes, ‘…the Spectator felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote and that humour would help to raise London’s low morale. I am very glad Izzy served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is – thank goodness – over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading.’ This somewhat coincides with Shaffers’ book – a happy tone where appropriate – and as much as she provides the bad, it is in effect an antidote to it, showing the humanity in an otherwise inhumane situation. (It’s interesting to compare the book with Caroline Lea’s more recent When The Sky Fell Apart – a book about occupied Jersey that uses a different method to tell a similar tale (the occupation of the Channel Islands). Happiness in the face of occupation, friendship and society doing what they can.

I’ve wanted to explore this topic without too much contemplation of facts because I found a lot more there for the taking than there was when just looking for the book’s backstory. There is so much of the idea and reasons for literature in itself in this book and the crafting of it that we’re not going to hear about directly from the authors. However there is this, at the end of Shaffers’ part of the acknowledgements that needs to be looked at:

If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

It surely does.

Footnotes

1 From the acknowledgements of the book (Bloomsbury edition): “…Annie, who stepped in to finish this book after unexpected health issues interrupted my ability to work shortly after the manuscript was sold.” Barrows took it on once it had been passed to an editor. Wikipedia (n.d.) notes, ‘After the manuscript had been accepted for publication (2006), the book’s editor requested some changes that would require substantial rewriting’, however there is no citation for this.
2 From the acknowledgements: “I had travelled to England to research another book and while there learned of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. On a whim, I flew to Guernsey and was fascinated by my brief glimpse of the island’s history and beauty. From that visit came this book, albeit many years later.” Shaffers also notes her daughters insisting she sit down and type, to get the book written.
3 Issac Bickerstaff was the pseudonym Jonathan Swift used as part of a hoax to predict someone’s death.

References

Shaffers, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie (2008) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Bloomsbury, London.
Wikipedia (n.d.) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, accessed 16th May 2019.

 
 

No Comments

 
Name:
Email:
URL:
Comments: