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Little Grey Lies

Written by Hedi Kaddour

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It’s a true story, that of a woman who cross-dressed as a war veteran in 1920s England.  At the time, she made banner headlines, and then just disappeared.  Yet hers is a captivating story.

In London, where he is covering a story, French journalist Max Goffard runs into an old lover, beautiful American singer Lena Helström. His feelings for her are still very much alive. She is rehearsing for a recital and involved in a hopeless love affair with her accompanist, who is fifteen years her junior.

On one of their daily walks, Max and Lena come upon a parade of veterans led by a man whose compelling presence attracts the attention of all, Colonel William Strether. Whispers ripple through the crowd: he is a hero of the battle of Mons, in 1914.

When Max and Lena discover that the colonel is also the maître d’hôtel at Regent’s, where he conducts his duties with equal grace and authority, Max strikes up a conversation with him. He has no difficulty persuading him to tell them the story of the battle of Mons. Strether’s ideas about chivalry, immortal and on the brink of resurgence, and his commitment to the British Fascist League as one of its leaders convince Max that the man is interesting enough to merit several articles. Night after night, the colonel tells them the story of his life, neglecting to mention a few of its less glorious episodes, such as his hasty departure from Birmingham in the wake of a bankruptcy for which he failed to appear in court, thus leaving him still at risk of being arrested at any given moment.

Meanwhile, Sir Jeremy Cox is investigating European fascist movements for the secret service. Craftily using “the Birmingham affair” to pry information about his movement out of Strether, he even coaxes the veteran officer to spy in Germany, where he enjoys the status of official representative of his party.

We are also following the difficult life of Gladys Walthers, an unusually tall and cultivated young woman who was a nurse and then a labourer during the war. Peacetime came and, like all women, she was obliged to make way for the men returning to the work force. But her meagre war widow’s pension is not adequate to live on, so, after her second marriage fails, she becomes a maid, a delivery girl for a milliner, a gofer in a theatre, etc. But none of these odd jobs lasts very long, and times are very hard. With a woman friend, she decides to take off for Birmingham, where both of them hope to have better luck.

Cox asks Strether to develop ties with a new political party whose rise he finds cause for concern. But Strether has misgivings about its leader, especially regarding his ideas about women, and so he refuses, counting on his political connections to save him. Nonetheless, Cox has him arrested.

In prison, ordered to undress, Strether resists as long as possible, finally saying, “Don’t touch me, I am a woman”, thus revealing his true identity, as Gladys Walthers.

Publisher: Gallimard

Number of Pages: 240

Genre: Drama – Historical

Setting: London in the 1920s

Film rights available.

Translated into English (Seagull Books), German (Eichborn Verlag)

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