Monday, November 02, 2020

The background to Censorettes, a historical novel of WWII-era Bermuda, a post by author Elizabeth Bales Frank

Elizabeth Bales Frank is here today with a guest post about the path she took in writing her novel, Censorettes, which is out on November 5th from Stonehouse Press. The author is a fellow librarian, and the subject she's chosen is fascinating: the young women involved in reading and censoring mail in Bermuda during WWII.  Please read on...


Elizabeth Bales Frank 

1. Meet the Censorettes

I first learned of the Censorettes from a brief description of the Princess Hamilton Hotel. In the spring of 2006, I was in Bermuda, visiting a friend. I was flipping through one of her guidebooks to find something amusing to do when I came across this description of the Princess Hamilton, “during the war, the basement of the Princess served as a station for the Imperial Censorship Detachment. It was nicknamed the ‘Bletchley of the Tropics.’”

Who would have bestowed such a nickname? Bletchley’s activities were not made public knowledge until decades later. Further, the employees of Bletchley focused their activities on computing and code-breaking, while those of the Imperial Censorship Detachment, initially at least, concentrated on the interception of correspondence and cargo between warring Europe and the neutral United States. And, Bermuda is not in the tropics. It is approximately 700 miles east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Its location was helpful in many American wars, including the Civil War in which, you may recall from Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler secured his fortune as a blockade runner by diverting shipments of cotton, almost certainly using Bermuda as a way station.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What fascinated me was the description, scant as it was, of the “Censorettes,” young European women hired because of their knowledge of languages or, in some cases, chemistry.

I walked from my friend’s house to the Bermuda Historical Society, passing the Princess Hamilton Hotel, reminding myself that it had during the war been known as the Princess Louise Hotel, after one of Queen Victoria’s many daughters. I stood in its driveway, caressed by (sub) tropical breezes and asked myself, how would a Censorette have felt, to be here, in this demi-paradise, reading mail in a basement, knowing that ‘out there’ – and life on Bermuda must surely consist of a lot of speculation regarding ‘out there’ – the world was in flames? Would she feel relieved at her own safety? Worried about the people back home? Would she be made frantic by her own isolation and helplessness?

I addressed the man at the Bermuda Historical Society, “I’m looking for anything you might have on Bermuda during the Second World War?”

“Won’t find much,” he replied. (In fairness, he was probably a volunteer. He certainly looked weary enough to have lived through the war himself.)

My Censorette was lonely. Perhaps bereaved. Perhaps she studied the ocean, wishing she could swim back home. 

At the Bermuda Maritime Museum, I was advised to look into Sir William Stephenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. I received the same advice at the Bermuda Library. Then, I tucked away my notebook. I was on vacation, after all.

2. Secondary Sources

Won’t find much were prophetic words. A Man Called Intrepid devotes a scant five pages to the entire Bermuda operation. The Censorettes receive an even briefer account, described by their shapely legs and their presumed “romantic” notions of a posting to Bermuda. A story in World War II magazine, “How Bermuda’s ‘Censorettes’ Made a Nest of Spies Disappear,” provided my central mystery. A cover story in the August 18, 1941 edition of Life magazine described the social activities of the Censorettes while focusing a photo spread on the blasting on the island by American troops, the U.S. Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers, who had arrived on the island as a result of the Destroyer for Bases Act (later folded into the Lend-Lease Act) to create a Navy air base and Kindley Field, the airfield which is still in use today.

Handsome men, clever girls with “shapely” legs – I began to presume “romantic” notions myself.

I would call my heroine Lucia, I decided. Lucy to her friends.

3. Primary Sources, Librarians, and Archivists

Elizabeth Bales Frank photo
author Elizabeth Bales Frank
I wrote to the curator of the U.S. Naval Museum, the historian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a librarian at the Bermuda National Library, who was kind enough to photocopy several issues of the Royal-Gazette from 1941 so I could see what kind of public information would be available to my homesick Censorettes. An inquiry to the Imperial War Museum in London resulted in the location of an account of her time as a Censorette by Gwendolyn Peck (née Owen) tucked away in a folder. 

I decided that Lucy, in addition to being fluent in Italian due to her Italian mother, should also have fluency in French and German and an education from Girton College, Cambridge (one of the few colleges that accepted women at the time). What did I know of the Girton College curriculum in 1939? Nothing, but Hannah Westall, the archivist of Girton College, supplied all the information I needed.

Each librarian and archivist I reached out to was not only courteous and thorough in their response, devoting hours to my questions, but encouraging and enthusiastic about the novel. Their professionalism was not the only factor, but certainly a major one, in my decision to attend library school myself in the spring of 2014. It is now fourteen years since I first studied that pink hotel, fourteen years of researching, correspondence and why not, while I’m at it, pursuing a master’s degree in library science. Now I have a novel and an MLIS, and will be someday in the position to return the favor to another novelist.


Elizabeth Bales Frank is the author of the historical novel Censorettes (Stonehouse Publishing, November 5, 2020). Her previous novel was Cooder Cutlas, published by Harper & Row. Her essays have appeared in Glamour, Cosmopolitan, The Sun, Barrelhouse, Post Road, Epiphany, The Writing Disorder and other literary publications. She was awarded a residency at Ragdale. Frank earned a BFA in film from New York University, and an MLIS from the Pratt Institute. She lives in New York City. Her website is


  1. Liz V.6:56 PM

    I looked for this book on Goodreads and didn't find it. Did come across

    Read Man Called Intrepid years ago.

  2. You're right - it's not there, yet. It can be added, though! I'll make a note to do that tomorrow.

    1. Liz V.11:16 PM

      Thank you. Want to add to Mt. TBR.

    2. Liz V.10:16 AM

      Thanks Sarah.

      I've posted on GR WWII Group's thread on novels.

    3. Sounds good.

      I don't know why Goodreads didn't have it in there already - I had thought its database and Amazon's were connected. Easy enough to add, though.

  3. Excellent essay and commentary on the way one does historical research and moves from research to the writing of a novel.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I thought so as well.