In Netflix's new romantic movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, bright young writer Juliet (Lily James) heads to the British Isle of Guernsey in the 1940s to investigate the titular book club. Viewers see the society's origins up front; caught out after curfew during the Nazi occupation, it's an on-the-spot invention by islander Elizabeth (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay) to protect her and her friends from retaliation. The society becomes real post-fact, doubling as a resistance outlet, but was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a real book club during the Occupation?
The real history of the Channel Islands shows these British did more than keep a stiff upper lip during wartime. While a great deal of WWII history's been translated to film, this Netflix movie based on the bestselling book of the same name covers a chunk of history rarely talked about. As the BBC reports, The Channel Islands, of which Guernsey is one, were the only part of the British Isles ever occupied by Nazi forces. Physically closer to France but citizens of the Crown, Channel Islanders spent five rough years living under Nazi occupation, from 1940 until 1945, months after the liberation of France itself. In the film, Juliet's investigation reveals more about the town's life under Occupation.
Under Nazi rule, Islanders weren't allowed to have open-air meetings of any kind, and several social clubs, including the Salvation Army and Freemasons, were disbanded entirely. The meeting of three or more people was restricted, and punishment for disobeying included jail and deportation to concentration camps. However, a number of clubs remained open after applying for permission, and the rule regarding people meeting was more to restrict open shows of political solidarity, like mass funeral attendance for drowned British soldiers. It's quite likely an innocuous book club would have been allowed to continue.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society's central mystery is the whereabouts of the Society's "founder" Elizabeth. Arrested and sent to prison in France for inciting rebellion, Elizabeth hasn't yet returned home, and the islanders are collectively raising her daughter Kit until her return.
News of Elizabeth's fate comes from Remy Giraud, a Frenchwoman who spent time in the Ravensbrück concentration camp with her. Remy visits Guernsey at the encouragement of several book club members, and Juliet fears the man she's fallen for has fallen for Remy. Still, talking to Remy and other islanders, she learns more about firebrand Elizabeth and her acts of rebellion. Islanders didn't really demonstrate much open rebellion as the occupation of British territory was symbolically important to Hitler, resulting in a high ratio of soldiers to citizens. There were minor acts of defiance and morale building, of which holding a book club would certainly qualify.
Some citizens did openly defy Nazi rules, but of course there were severe consequences. The Daily Beast reports that Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were a French Jewish lesbian couple living in the Jersey isles who openly defied Nazi rules and even slipped anti-German poems into soldiers' pockets suggesting they kill their commanding officers. Denounced by a neighbor, they were arrested in 1944 and sentenced to death, though an intervention by a local bailiff had the sentence commuted to prison.
Encouraged and helped by members of the book society, Juliet discovers a lot more than the historical information for her initial newspaper column. A small gesture of solidarity in rough times, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is real in concept as the human spirit behind it.