Wars and armies, even now for the most part are male dominated. Though there have been women not only fighting but proving instrumental in turning the tides of battle, they are either classified as exceptions or simply overlooked. This misogynistic sentiment is echoed through time, but that hasn’t stopped women from stepping up and donning the mantle of the warrior, whenever needed and in whatever form needed. It is this warrior that is celebrated here in Hannah’s much acclaimed The Nightingale.
The prologue is set in 1995 USA. An old woman is packing her belongings to move into an assisted living facility; her son, the only living family she has, thinks she will be more comfortable there. During packing, she goes into her attic, where lies an old steamer trunk. As she opens it and sorts through the contents untouched for years, she is overwhelmed by memories of her past – her mother, her father, her sister and the War.
It is 1939, France. Vianne, a Frenchwoman in her twenties, lives with her husband Antoine and daughter Sophie in a small village in Carriveau. It is an idyllic life; Antoine is the village postman, Vianne teaches at the local elementary school along with her childhood friend and neighbour Rachel, and the house they stay in has been in Vianne’s family for generations. This tranquility is shattered when most of the able-bodied men in the village, including Antoine and Rachel’s husband are conscripted into the army as the Germans attack Poland.
Vianne recalls how her father Julien went away during the Great War and came back a changed person. Listless, angry, given to bouts of drunkenness, he no longer seemed interested in his family. After the death of their mother, Julien stopped pretending entirely, giving over the care of Vianne and her younger sister Isabelle to a matron and washing his hands off them both. He now lives in Paris, where he runs a bookstore. Antoine comforts her, saying it will be a short deployment as the Germans will be incapable of crossing the Maginot Line, and departs.
Isabelle, at the time, is getting kicked out a finishing school, the latest one in a line of many. Of the two sisters, she is outspoken, idealistic and always ready to challenge authority. Her impulsiveness, her habit of speaking her mind, her refusal to be molded into what society considers a “proper lady” makes her unpopular and feared by students and teachers alike. After being expelled, she returns to Paris to stay with Julien, even though he doesn’t want her there, and helps him with his bookstore; the arrangement doesn’t last long as the Germans breach the French defenses and approach Paris, causing a mass exodus of civilians.
Julien orders Isabelle to travel to Carriveau and stay with Vianne, overriding her objections. She travels in the company of one of Julien’s acquaintances, and after barely making any headway in the vast sea of refugees their car runs out of gas. Isabelle gets separated from the others when they start walking but continues traveling in the general direction of Carriveau. As night falls, she steps away from the road to find shelter, and stumbles upon a young man, Gaëtan, sitting next to a campfire, who offers to share his food and fire with Isabelle.
Answering her unasked question, he tells her he is a communist just released from prison and hence not in the army. He does, however, plan to fight by joining the underground resistance. The fiery Isabelle, having long established that she isn’t going to sit on the sidelines while others fight for her (her hero is Edith Cavell, a nurse in the Great War), immediately gets caught up in Gaëtan’s plans and offers to join him. They decide to make their way to Vianne’s place, get supplies and contact the resistance.
Making their way on foot, they witness the beaten and exhausted French army retreating alongside the civilians. As they approach Tours, the line of trudging people is suddenly fired upon by German planes, leaving scores dead or dying. It is Isabelle’s first experience with war and bloodshed and she handles it well, consoling the wounded and comforting the alive until she and Gaëtan move on again. Over a course of several days, they arrive at Carriveau, where despite his earlier assurances Gaëtan leaves her behind, saying she isn’t ready yet.
Vianne and Isabelle have never been close. As a child, Isabelle never understood why first her mother and then her father abandoned them, and her need for attention and affection made Vianne, who herself was coping with the same loss while a mere teenager, push her away too. As adults, the friction between them is worse. Vianne wants nothing more than to keep her head down and wait for Antoine to return, while Isabelle, claws bared, is ready to join the first insurrection she comes across.
The situation is acerbated by two events in rapid succession; Marshal Pétain’s surrender to the Germans, and a German officer being billeted in their house as Carriveau is taken over by the conquerors. After the surrender, Isabelle moves all their family heirlooms and other precious items into a concealed underground cellar under the barn. And while the German officer, Captain Wolfgang Beck, is civil to the point of being apologetic about requisitioning the house, Isabelle’s open hostility to him makes Vianne put her foot down and establish “my house, my rules” so as not to antagonize him and endanger them.
Soon, the occupation results in shortages of food and other items for the French. Vianne still works at the school, so Isabelle is charged with going into the village every day to stand in the ever-lengthening lines and redeem their ration coupons. On one of these trips, she vandalizes a German poster, and is seen by a group of Frenchmen who are part of the resistance. One of them is Henri, the owner of the local hotel, who knows her from childhood. Henri offers her a chance to work with them, distributing pamphlets of news forbidden by the Germans.
Isabelle jumps at the chance, incorporating the task into her daily routine so that nothing seems out of the ordinary. At the same time, Beck informs Vianne he has located Antoine in a POW camp, and she can send her husband letters and care packages through him. As payback, though, he coerces her into listing down the names of all teachers in her school who are Jewish or have communist leanings. The people on the list are relieved of their jobs, including her friend Rachel, and as the guilt-ridden Vianne confesses to her it causes a temporary split in their friendship.
Isabelle’s early disappearances from the house get noticed by Vianne. She lies, saying she is meeting a boy, which reinforces Vianne’s view of her as a self-centered person. She continues her task of distributing the pamphlets for months, never once getting caught even though the Germans are on the lookout for resistance members; their assumption that it is a man makes them overlook her. Her success makes the resistance move her up to the role of a courier, for which she must go to Paris and stay with her father.
Obtaining a travel pass from Beck under a false pretense, Isabelle lies to Vianne that she is eloping with the boy; a story which, to her dismay, Vianne accepts. Arriving in Paris, she has a heated argument with her father who doesn’t want her there; he has closed the bookstore and is working as a clerk in the German High Command. But Isabelle stands her ground and Julien gives in, admonishing her to not get in his way. Meeting her contact with the resistance, an older woman named Anouk, she has the idea of reopening her father’s bookstore; it gives her a job and provides the perfect cover for her activities. Julien only has one demand; the back room with its printer is off limits, not even Isabelle can go in there.
Isabelle is given false papers in the name of Juliette Gervaise; a subterfuge doubly necessary given Julien works for the German High Command. During one of her missions, she comes across an RAF pilot on the run. After temporarily hiding him in her house, she brings him to the resistance who is hiding downed and escaped pilots, trying to devise ways to get them out of the country. Isabelle suggests a possibility, crossing over into Spain on foot though the Pyrenees and handing the pilots over to the British Consulate there. She knows a Basque woman, a friend of her mother’s, who could help them with the crossing, and volunteers to lead the pilots herself.
Planning for the long and dangerous trip brings her face to face with Gaëtan again. One of the leaders of the resistance, it is he who has suggested moving Isabelle to the role of courier after observing her handling herself with the pamphlets. In that brief interlude, he admits to loving her, but states it is a luxury neither of them can afford, given the nature of their work; a fact she reluctantly agrees to. Coming back home, she is confronted by Julien who has discovered the pilot’s hiding place. Isabelle tries to pass it off as having hidden a boy she is meeting, but Julien tells her he is aware of her true purpose in Paris, as well as her plan to escort the pilots across the Pyrenees.
He comes clean to the dumbstruck Isabelle, admitting he too is part of the resistance; he was the author of the pamphlets she distributed and is now a forger. His position in the German high command gives him access to both news and original documents to work with. Afraid and proud at the same time, he remarks that once she begins her new mission, she will no longer be able to stay with him; for her own safety she will have to keep moving frequently from one place to another. After years of estrangement, the act of rebelling against oppression together begins the process of healing the rift between them but is marred by the knowledge that they will have to keep their distance until it is all over.
Isabelle, now codenamed the Nightingale (a play on her family name, Rossignol, which means nightingale in French), makes her way to the border town, picking up the pilots on the way like strangers traveling in the same direction. She contacts her mother’s friend, Micheline Babineau, who agrees to help her cross over with a Basque guide. They set off on the arduous hike that takes them a better part of four days to complete, battling hunger, intense cold and avoiding detection by German and Spanish patrols. Despite it all, the pilots and Isabelle make it to the other side, and meeting the British MI9 man at the consulate, she is promised financial aid for all future missions.
In Carriveau, things have gone from bad to worse for Vianne. Dismissed from her job for questioning the removal of another teacher, she is forced to sell her family heirlooms for food. This works for a while, but as winter arrives even the black-market dealings cannot provide enough for her and Sophie. She falls ill and collapses in the presence of Beck. Beck, who has been cordial and aloof all this time, hears about the lack of food and takes it upon himself to add to the rations without making it seem obvious. There is an uneasy truce between them, with both their absent spouses serving as a shield.
The months pass, and Isabelle has now crossed over the Pyrenees many times, rescuing almost a hundred pilots. With the money given by the British, the resistance has set up a series of safe houses along the route. Despite her experience with the operation, there have been some pilots who have refused to take orders from a woman and struck out on their own, getting captured and alerting the Germans. She is warned that the Germans are trying to ensnare the Nightingale by having Gestapo officers impersonate downed pilots and that she needs to be careful. Back in Paris from the latest crossing, she uncovers information that the Germans are making lists of French Jews for deportation to labour camps but is unsuccessful in warning more than a handful of people.
In Carriveau, Beck, who is aware of the Gestapo’s plan, warns Vianne and advises her to hide Rachel and her children. He also tells her of a loosely guarded border post that they could use to cross over into Vichy French governed territory. During the escape attempt, a firefight breaks out and Rachel’s daughter is killed by a stray bullet. They hide in Vianne’s cellar, but as the day goes by without incident, Rachel thinks it is a false alarm and returns home only to be apprehended by the Gestapo who had changed the time of the operation. In her desperation, she leaves her son Ari with Vianne, asking her to look after him. The guilt-stricken Beck provides her with a set of false papers that show Ari as being non-Jewish.
Isabelle, Gaëtan and Henri get summoned to a meeting of the resistance leaders in Carriveau. Though determined to avoid meeting her sister, circumstances force Isabelle’s hand. An Allied pilot strafing Carriveau’s airfield gets shot down near the resistance’s rendezvous point. Pulling the injured and unconscious pilot out of the wreckage, Isabelle hides with him in Vianne’s underground cellar while the others search for a way to get him out; they will only be able to meet again the next night, leaving Isabelle alone during the day. Vianne, after hearing from Beck of the unsuccessful search for the downed pilot, thinks to look in the cellar and spots her sister and the now dead pilot.
As Isabelle reveals the truth of her flight to Paris and her affiliation with the resistance, Vianne is even more insistent she stay away from her and Sophie, asking her to never return. Isabelle, mentioning she will be gone at night, calls Vianne a coward for not doing anything and allowing rumours of her and Beck to circulate in the village. As the day ends, Beck comes back empty handed, and while talking with Vianne realises the only place that hasn’t been searched is where he himself stays. He knows of the cellar, and as he opens it with his gun ready, a desperate Vianne hits him in the back of his head with a spade. At the same time, both Beck and Isabelle spot and shoot each other. Beck dies of the multiple wounds, but Isabelle is saved by the arrival of Gaëtan and the others.
Gaëtan hides the unconscious Isabelle in the coffin meant for secreting the pilot over the border post. Vianne, remorseful of her last words to her sister, accompanies them till the post and bids Gaëtan to tell Isabelle she will always have a home with her. Returning, she is questioned by the Gestapo over the disappearance of Beck but convinces them she knows nothing about it. The downside, though, is that the new officer who gets billeted in her house is Sturmbahnführer von Richter. He is everything Beck was not, and makes his intentions regarding Vianne clear from the beginning.
Isabelle is tended to by Gaëtan and they grow closer, becoming lovers despite the ever-present threat of death hanging over them. As she heals, they go their separate ways once again, to their separate missions. All this while, the deportation of the Jews continues. During one such round up in Carriveau, a woman Vianne knows begs her to hide her son; she takes him despite the presence of von Richter at home. She approaches the local orphanage, run by nuns; the Mother Superior, in defiance of the Vatican’s non-stance, agrees to house the children and offers Vianne the position of a teacher as a cover. She also contacts Henri for false papers for the children she rescues.
In 1995, the old woman, now at the assisted living facility, is deliberating over an invitation she has received. It is to honor Juliette Gervaise, the Nightingale, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. She has delayed her response for a long time, debating whether she wants to go back and revisit the past she has tried to put behind her. Impulsively, she books a ticket to Paris, and is joined by her son at the last minute. As they board the flight, the woman tells her son she will tell him the truth soon, all of it.
It is now May 1944. The French resistance, well organized and well placed, is receiving air drops from the Allies and coded messages to unleash a series of attacks just before the Normandy landings. Isabelle meets her father, who warns her that the German High Command is quite keen on capturing the Nightingale; she promises to be careful. It is an empty promise, as on her next trip through the Pyrenees, she is betrayed and captured by the Germans. They torture her for information, refusing to believe that she, a woman, could be the Nightingale.
Vianne has by now rescued and concealed nineteen Jewish children with the help of Henri and the Mother Superior. Her routine is interrupted by Julien’s sudden visit, who lets her know that Isabelle is captured, and that he intends to sacrifice himself in place of her; he wants Vianne to bring Isabelle home and look after her. At the German prison, Julien’s lies about being the Nightingale are believed, and he is executed on the spot as a warning to others. Isabelle however, is not released but instead sent to Ravensbrück.
Vianne returns without Isabelle, to the news that Henri too has been arrested and executed. As an acquaintance of Henri’s, she is questioned by von Richter and reveals a chink in her armour – her children and how much they mean to her. The sadistic von Richter uses this, raping her repeatedly in return for her children’s protection; she bears it as much for them as for the other nineteen she is hiding. The torture is short-lived, the Germans soon retreat in the face of the advancing Allies, but as they leave, Vianne is pregnant.
As Vianne debates on how to handle the pregnancy, Antoine returns home; he fled from a POW camp after multiple beatings, deciding it would be better to die escaping. Their reunion is bitter-sweet and it takes a while for them to get used to each other again. Vianne, only two months pregnant at the time of his arrival, decides to never reveal the circumstances to Antoine, and to pretend instead that the baby is premature. With Antoine’s help, she travels to Paris to contact the Red Cross for any news of Isabelle; she also gives them details of the Jewish children she has saved. As a result, Ari is taken away from her to be rehabilitated with his relatives living in America.
Isabelle, meanwhile, has survived Ravensbrück, forced death marches and more camps, and has almost reached the end of her endurance when her camp is liberated by Americans. After a brief hospital stay, she travels to Carriveau where Vianne is waiting for her. The sisters bond more closely than before, with the knowledge of their shared burdens and of the love their father had for them but could never tell them. For Isabelle, it is too brief a moment of peace; she has been through too much, contracting typhus and pneumonia in the camps. She dies in the arms of Gaëtan who, surviving arrest and camps, arrives just to see her breathe her last.
The old woman, now revealed to be Vianne, arrives in Paris. It is the first time she has been here since migrating to America with Antoine, Sophie and her son, who she has named Julien in honor of her father. At the ceremony, she speaks of her sister, Isabelle Rossignol who became Juliette Gervaise who became the Nightingale. Seeing the number of people gathered, and the knowledge of her sister helping so many of them survive overwhelms her with love. There are reunions with both Anouk and Gaëtan; Gaëtan has named his daughter after Isabelle. A more emotional meeting occurs between Vianne and the now grown up Ari who has never forgotten them. Julien, in light of all that he has seen and heard of his mother that night, views her as she was during the war, signaling the beginning of a new facet of their relationship.
The Nightingale, even after just a few re-readings, has become one of my favourites. Hannah takes multiple topics – war, relationships, courage, history, gender roles – and brings it all together in such an intertwining dance of vivid emotions that it leaves you breathless, and just a little teary eyed. Isabelle’s fight to be considered an equal among male resistance fighters is resonant of the struggle faced even today by a vast number of women. Even when the Germans’ sexist attitude works in her favour and they refuse to acknowledge that she, a woman, could possibly be the leader of an escape operation as large as this, you can feel her disappointment in not being given her due.
The character of Isabelle is inspired by Andrée De Jongh, a 24-year-old Belgian woman who devised the Comet Line, an escape route over the Pyrenees for downed Allied pilots. Like Isabelle, Andrée too was captured by the Germans at the end of the war and sent to Ravensbrück, facing the same disbelief that she could be the brains behind the operation. Unlike Isabelle, however, Andrée survived the camps and lived up to 2007, continuing her humanitarian work and being made a countess by the king of Belgium on the way. Isabelle’s story also follows along the lines of Andrée Peel’s. Peel was a French resistance fighter known as Agent Rose, who has been credited with rescuing a 102 downed pilots by ferrying them through safe houses to secluded beaches in Brest for evacuation; although Hannah makes no mention of Peel in her acknowledgements.
Hannah shows us that courage need not just be charging into the face of fire. Sometimes it can be as subtle as pretending to be a nobody while gathering information like Julien does, knowing one false move could see you dead. Sometimes it can be fiery and rousing like Isabelle making the journey over the Pyrenees again and again, knowing the Germans were looking for the Nightingale. And sometimes, it can just be doing what is right, and once done never speaking of it again, as Vianne does when she rescues the children. As she tells Julien, when he asks her why she never mentioned the role she or Isabelle played in the war: “Men tell stories, women get on with it.”