Katherine MacAlister speaks to the constantly moving Nicholas Shakespeare about his new book tracing the powerful personal story of his aunt back to wartime France

Nicholas Shakespeare wanted to meet in the St Giles Cafe, insisted even, which seemed fitting for someone delving into The Occupation, clandestine in its very suggestion. And yet the friendly, articulate 56-year-old who met me there was far removed from the murky world of his recent novel.

Here to discuss his aunt’s mysterious circumstances as uncovered in Priscilla – The Hidden Life Of An Englishwoman in Wartime France, instead he begins with an anecdote about the first time he came to St Giles Cafe.

“My friend and I used to escape from the Dragon School aged nine and sneak down here to eat eggs on toast in the booth at the back so that the teachers couldn’t see you when they walked past the window,” he remembers.

As a diplomat’s son, the Shakespeare family moved around Cambodia, Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Lisbon, Peru and Morocco, Nicholas boarding in Oxford, followed by a stint at Winchester and an English degree at Cambridge University. Not Oxford then? “I didn’t get in,” he says regretfully. “So having the book launch at Trinity College was delicious,” he laughs. “But it was a good life lesson: don’t believe anything until it happens, which has served me well.”

His upbringing around the world, however, considerably aided his career as a journalist, TV presenter, novelist, biographer and Times arts editor, travelling to far-flung, dangerous and inhospitable places such as Peru during the revolution.

It was also these remote destinations that inspired Nicholas to write his first novels The Vision of Elena Silves in 1989 which won the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask awards, and The Dancer Upstairs which was subsequently made into a film.

Similarly it was utter isolation Nicholas craved after writing his last book, the enormously acclaimed biography of Bruce Chatwin. “I needed to get away from Bruce,” he tells me solemnly. “I loved him, he was an astonishing writer but he took up four years of my life.” Wavering over an island in the Arctic, the Shakespeares finally settled in Tasmania, buying a desolate house on a beach facing the South Pole where Nicholas’ soul still resides.

“I’d be there now if I could. I didn’t really want to come back at all because I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful. I want to grow old there, it’s my sanity,” he says mournfully. Indeed when his own father came out to dissuade him from buying the house, the pensioner sat on the shore and cried at the beauty.

Sadly Tasmania doesn’t pay the bills, so returning to Oxford with his children’s author wife the Canadian Gillian Johnson, their own children are following in the family footsteps at The Dragon School.

Back in Oxford for four years now, Nicholas writes regularly for The Telegraph between books, and has finally finished his new, epic novel about his tragic aunt Priscilla whose story is so irrevocably entwined with his own; Nicholas’ no-holds-barred account opening up a whole can of worms in terms of his own family.

For example his own grandfather, the famous broadcaster and Oxford Times writer SPB Maise pretty much abandoned Priscilla in favour of his new family (Nicholas Shakespeare’s mother).

Yet it didn’t deter Nicholas from following in his grandfather’s footsteps, starting off working for the BBC, reporting for Barry Norman, then on a series of his own chat shows, commentating on the royal wedding and then joining the Times as literary editor in 1984 and later arts editor, covering “everything and anything” such as interviewing Ronnie Kray in Parkhurst.

It was his Bruce Chatwin biography that raised the stakes even further in terms of public acclaim: “Bruce was one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years and I am very protective of him, so writing his biography was a very exciting time and I felt as if I got to know him, so it took me a while to recover because the book was so intense.”

The same combination of tenacity, investigation and attention to detail was applied to Priscilla – The Hidden Life Of An Englishwoman in Wartime France, an aunt he still remembers as being truly arresting, even more so when Nicholas inherited Priscilla’s letters after her death. “Having found the chest which had half the story how could I not follow it up?” he asks me. “I do feel that I was put on this earth to fit the puzzle together and besides no one else was going to do it.”

The result is an astonishing page-turner of a book, where Nicholas tracks Priscilla from England to France where she married a Vicomte, was imprisoned in Nazi camps, and then survived occupied Paris, before returning to England.

“It’s not an extraordinary story but neither was she a traitor, she just tried to save herself. And at least now she will be understood because all the things she couldn’t talk about for the last 30 years are out in the open.”

So does Nicholas feel disloyal airing Priscilla’s skeletons so publicly? “No, she wanted to tell the story herself but was a restless sprit congested with rejection slips. So by publishing this book, I hope it will vindicate her,” he says, smiling and getting up to leave.

The question only remains then about how Nicholas feels about Priscilla now? “That’s a hard question because she was full of flaws and had to make her own decisions. But we have no right to judge, especially our generation, because who knows what we would have done to survive in the war? So while it was crazy to spend four years writing her story, I can feel a sigh of relief from beyond.”

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is published by Harvill Secker, £18.99.

Nicholas Shakespeare will appear at Blackwell’s Oxford on Tuesday January 14 at 7pm to discuss Priscilla further. 01865 333623.