Being sent to finishing school in Bavaria in 1936 was a dream for some English girls: there were winter sports and sachertorte, opera and sausages, and troupes of handsome Nazis in shorts. In Rachel Johnson’s new book, Daphne Linden and Betsy Barton-Hill, 18-year-old beauties who’ve never properly met any boys, find themselves at large in Munich.
In a museum 70 years later, Daphne’s grand-daughter Francie spots a picture of Hitler with her grandmother. She begins to make enquiries into Daphne’s National Socialist phase. Francie’s life has its own complications (she’s in love with her boss, and wondering whether or not to have children with her husband), and these develop as her investigation progresses.
Betsy and Daphne are not well-equipped to spot the signs of an impending cruel regime. When the zealous Siegmund Huber suspects his cousin Otto might not be keen on Hitler, he remarks: ‘If you weren’t my cousin I’d send you to Dachau.’ The girls are satisfied with the translation that it’s a ‘sort of lovely holiday camp’. At the end of a happy morning’s skiing, Otto loses his temper on seeing a sign saying Juden Zutritt Verboten, and the girls have a twinge of anxiety, but it’s social anxiety: ‘They’d all been having such fun up to now. It seemed such a shame, to spoil things over a silly little flag.’
Johnson builds up a picture of the sinister glamour of Nazism and of the small group of ex-pats who blithely made the most of the Nazis’ grand cars and well-stocked drinks cabinets. As Betsy says years later, ‘there was some sort of Putsch a few streets away, but we were so engrossed in ourselves, we barely noticed.’
The Francie sections are about London before Lehman Brothers: trendy restaurants and bankers’ bonuses, house prices and cappuccinos. Her life is described by means of designer furniture and Net-à-Porter deliveries:
Francie flicked on the kettle, sat down at the zinc-topped Conran table and opened her emails. Gus sat at the other end. They had matching MacBooks, so formed a sort of mirror image of each other — a portrait of the state of contemporary marriage.
As a literary device, the inventory is a mixed blessing: it’s efficient, but it leaves some of the modern characters rather nebulous. Francie’s husband is drawn almost entirely by means of the things he owns:
Gus had all the right toys for a trendy ad exec in his large, glass-walled office. He had the table football, the £1,000 Bose set of iPod speakers, the chunky Perspex awards, right down to the ironic orange SpaceHopper in the corner.
But Johnson is making the point that the lives of the so-called ‘Me Generation’ are less rich and more self-indulgent than the lives of their grandparents. The old people have more substance. They’re stalwart and uncomplaining and wise: ‘An awful lot was expected of our generation, and an awful lot was given,’ says one. Meanwhile, even Francie’s curiosity about the past is entirely self-interested. This contrast between the thirty-somethings and the eighty-
somethings of 2006 means that Francie’s quest turns out to be an edifying moral lesson as well as a tale of inter-generational sleuthing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012