Dame of Sark by Sibyl Hathaway
A Book Review
Coming home from an errand a few days ago, I found the family engrossed in an old Victoria magazine article about the Isle of Sark. They were looking at the beautiful gardens of the Seigneurie (the home of the ruler of Sark, the Seigneur) and had fetched the atlas to try and find the small island.
Asked if I could find out more information, I looked it up on the Internet, and soon found myself caught up in a fascinating story about this little Island in the English Channel.
The curious facts of the Island were interesting and amusing: The Isle of Sark was the last feudal state in the world as of two years ago; no cars are allowed on the Isle but they do drive tractors; only the Seigneur was allowed to keep pigeons; until recently they had a strict divorce law (none allowed); the tradition of Clameur de Haro, where a few sentences said in French alert the community that you have had your rights trampled upon, and which insures swift justice; and the brief story of the French physicist who tried to take the whole island over singlehandedly, but was arrested while loading his gun.
Any female hereditary ruler (Seigneur) of the Isle of Sark was called the "Dame of Sark," and after digging a little deeper into this fact, I found myself glued to a memoir written by a Dame of Sark in 1961 about her life on the Island.
The first chapter or two gave the history of the Isle of Sark, from the Normans, to pirates and privateers, to the charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I to allow people to inhabit the Island to protect from said pirates, through the various owners and finally to the Dame's clergyman grandfather, who became the Seigneur and set about with much enthusiasm to improve the poor and neglected island.
Mrs. Hathaway is a good writer, and writes her and the Island's history in an engaging and sometimes amusing way. The story carried me along at a good clip.
Soon, though, I was riveted and could not "put the book down," or in this case, as it was an online book, I couldn't turn it off. If you do not have time to read the rest of the book, I think that the chapters about WWII would prove an exceptional story by themselves.
The Dame of Sark showed tremendous courage by staying on Sark when the Germans invaded and occupied the Channel Islands in WWII. Though she told the Islanders they could have a way off before it was too late, many of them chose to stay on Sark. They could have no idea that they would be under this Occupation for 5 long years, and facing near starvation because of it.
When the Dame knew the Germans were coming, she and her husband set up some quick plans:
"I sent the Seneschal to the harbour to meet the
German officers and bring them to the Seigneurie, and then went
to the school to reassure the children and some of the women
who had read of German brutalities in Poland and were naturally
much more alarmed than the children; but by assuming an air
of cheerful confidence, which I was far from feeling, I steadied
them. It took me less than ten minutes after this to reach home
and have a consultation with Bob.
"'Let's take a leaf out of Mussolini's book,' I suggested. 'We'll
put two chairs behind the desk at the far end of the drawing
room. It is a long room and they'll have to walk the whole
length of it, which will give us a certain advantage,' adding,
'Besides, they'll have to walk up those few stairs from the hall
and then turn right before they are announced, and that will
also help us to look more impressive.'
"Bob agreed, and we hastily moved two chairs to the back of a
large writing table so that we could face the invaders. Next I
sent for my maid.
"'Now, when the German officers arrive, announce them as if
it was an ordinary occurrence to have German officers calling
on us.' She carried out my orders with great good sense.
"I was determined that this island, at least, should show a front
of firmness and dignity and give the impression that we were
taking everything in our stride in the firm conviction that we
would make the best of a bad time which we were convinced
would not endure long. I can only say that to my knowledge
no sign of defeatism was ever shown in Sark throughout the
The Dame maintained her dignity as rightful ruler, in spite of the Nazi rules and regulations, which she often disputed. Very quickly she established with the invaders that she was to be respected:
"I was treated with great courtesy by the senior officers and I,
in turn, extended to them the hospitality of the Seigneurie which
is due to all visitors in this island who are made known to me.
It is one of the pleasures and penalties of the Dame of Sark that
she never calls on strangers in her own island, but invites them
to her home. During the Occupation this feudal etiquette served
me well. For instance, in the course of polite conversation I was
often able to acquire useful information which would not other-
wise have been available and, in an affable manner without
argument or rudeness, indicate that we were not much im-
pressed by Hitler's regime or German boasts."
And later a visitor was
"...impressed by the way I dealt with the
Germans, and I often caught a look of amusement in his eyes
as he watched me remaining seated while the officers walked up
the drawing-room, bowed, kissed my hand and then bowed
again when I invited them to sit down. The stiff German
formality worked in my favour because it showed the Germans
that I expected to be treated in my home with the rigid etiquette
to which they were accustomed in their own country."
The people of Sark were imprisoned in their own land, and though they showed no violent resistance, they were determined that the Nazis know they were not to be beaten:
"The relationship between the Occupier and the Occupied was
of the utmost importance, and to me it was a great strain to keep
a balance. In the first place, we could do no good by sabotage.
There could be no underground movement where there was
absolutely no contact with the outside world - we were like
prisoners in a gaol with a garden to it. Our only weapon was
propaganda, and our only propaganda was a cheerful confidence
in victory for the Allies. We never disagreed with the Germans
openly, but we could annoy by asking ostensibly silly questions,
such as, 'Haven't you landed in England yet?' or 'I suppose
Russia has by now been conquered.' I found I could irritate
them by asking innocent questions about education in Germany,
and when told of Hitler's youth camps expressing great surprise
that children could be sent to these without the parents' wishes."
"I made a point of putting banned anti-Fascist books such as
Sawdust Caesar and The House that Hitler Built in a prominent
place on my sitting-room bookshelf where they were bound to
be seen. It was fun to watch the Germans eyeing them, but I was
never asked to move them, which was disappointing because I
had planned to say, 'Take them away by all means. Everybody
on the island has already read them in any case.' "
The Nazis took their food, searched their houses, cut off communication from the outside world except for the German-written propaganda newspapers, destroyed property, placed land mines and barbed wire around the island, required permits for everything, ruined the agriculture and fishing through their ignorant rules (not knowing how things worked on the island, their rules actually cut food productivity needlessly), and deported many to prison camps. Sometimes all it took was a criticism of the Nazis or Hitler to land someone on a boat to a prison camp. Mrs. Hathaway's own husband was taken to prison for over two years, for no reason.
"By now our quiet existence had changed. We had been warned
that the military authorities would turn over their administra-
tion to civil officials and that conditions would then deteriorate.
The warning was justified - conditions did deteriorate. Instead
of one sergeant and ten men, we were now bedevilled by swarms
of officials who arrived and demanded statistics of every con-
A hidden wireless enabled the islanders to get the “real” news, unfiltered through the Nazi media:
"Constant propaganda by the German troops and their news-
papers might well have undermined the morale of the islanders,
but on an island with only 400 inhabitants news spreads rapidly,
and a few words passed on quietly each morning worked
wonders. We could meet our neighbours shopping, wait till
the right moment occurred, then say, 'The B.B.C. announced
last night...' Those to whom information was passed on could
be trusted never to admit under any provocation that they had
Mrs. Hathaway had tenacity, a quick mind, and fortitude, and so did the people of Sark. Through the war, they managed to keep up their morale in the face of hopeless times and a looming death by starvation. I think this story shows a great example to us, who, though not going through any awful experiences like these, often feel like we are "going under" when any small, everyday crisis threatens.
Keep up a good sense of humor, keep hope alive, and never give up!
"But in spite of privations, restrictions, the shortage of food
and all the nonsense of Occupation, the people of Sark absolutely
refused to show any signs of alarm or despondency. Sometimes
the Germans commented on this obvious self-confidence to me
and each time I would say smugly, 'There is no reason why we
should be depressed. We know that the Allies will win in the
end and even if the day of victory is a long way ahead there is
no doubt in our minds about the outcome.'"
Notes for Home schoolers: Though a lot of the book is, in my opinion, for adults (for instance, the accounts of war deaths), a judicious mother can choose some interesting bits to read to her children for a study of the Island's history, and a glimpse into another culture, and a first-hand account of a people living through WWII. It is a quick read, so read it first to see what would be appropriate for the grades you teach.
There is a chapter or two in the book that relates the failings of her father, his temper, and his character (both good points and bad). I could tell that she learned good things from him, and endured the painfully bad, and loved him in spite of it, and there is a reason she relates all this: later on in life she could see that her childhood prepared her for a lot of the hardships she had to endure, and her experiences were part of what helped her to survive these dark periods.
I think several chapters of this book would be great to use as a supplement or a break from the “everyday” history schoolwork!
Obituary for the Dame of Sark:
More pictures and also some discussion here: