Kay's Reviews > The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I

The Englishman's Daughter by Ben Macintyre
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's review
Jul 22, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: world_war_i, european-civ, nonfiction

"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." (Attributed to Joseph Stalin)

While reading MacIntyre's account of one man's fate during World War I, I couldn't help but reflect on the above quote. Truly, it's easier in some ways to accept the deaths of thousands of nameless, faceless individuals than come to terms with the death of single person whose name and face become known to us. It might be argued that the central figure in this book, Robert Digby, died a "good death," well clear of the mud, poison gas, excrement, and soul-numbing experience of the front which lay just a few miles away. Yet as the author slowly reveals in this absorbing account, there are different shades to death, and the deaths of Digby and his fellow soldiers were anything but straightforward.

The Englishman's Daughter" is the fifth book I've read by Ben MacIntyre; obviously, I enjoy his writing and even moreso his subject matter. He has a knack for selecting and researching tales on the periphery of known history; people and events that would otherwise continue to gather dust in the cupboard of the past. MacIntyre has a novelist's gift for colorful characters, but a journalist's nose for a good story. In this tale of an all-but-forgotten event during a war long past, he brings both skills to the fore, etching vivid portraits of the inhabitants of the small village of Villeret. It's clear that he relished pulling together the details of this tale, and, on the whole I found his meticulously researched narrative of life in Villaret during German occupation to be a singular one. We have many accounts of what life was like in the trenches, but far fewer of what life was like in an occupied zone.

If there was one unsatisfactory part of the book, at least for me, it is that its central figure seemed such a cipher. While I had a firm mental image of a number of prominent villagers, Robert Digby remained something of an enigma. {SPOILER ALERT} Of course, if, as MacIntyre suggests, Digby was working as a spy behind enemy lines, then this aura of impenetrability becomes more understandable. MacIntyre labors hard to make Digby a sympathetic person, framing him within the resonant lines of WWI poetry, but he remained for me a shell of a figure. Somehow I had the sense that Digby was reduced to a heroic figurehead, accorded all due respect and reverence, but one whose motives and character are ultimately unknowable.

Who betrayed Robert Digby and his compatriots? That is the central mystery of the book, and the reader can't help but hope that MacIntyre will make a final dramatic reveal. Alas, while the author builds a strong case against one particular villager, the matter is left unresolved. Yet he ends the book with such a wonderfully poetic image -- that of an immense, battle-scarred oak gradually absorbing the iron spikes which have been hammered into its trunk -- that not having a complete resolution to the mystery seemed, somehow, appropriate.


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