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Les Parisiennes Reviews

Read Negotiating with Silence by Lisa Hilton TLS (October 7th 2016)

One of the distinctive features of Anne Sebba’s richly intelligent history is the author’s evocation of sound. Sebba has deliberately eschewed a focus on well-known primary documentation for her history of Parisian women during World War II, choosing instead to alert her readers to a “quieter and frequently less well-known” set of voices. Those voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book, and through them we also hear the soundtrack to the city’s occupation, the “clackety-clack” of improvised wooden- soled shoes, the sinister clang of iron shutters banging closed on abandoned businesses, the squeak of a bicycle carrying hidden messages after curfew. Sebba’s story is also a negotiation with silence, the silence of the dispossessed, the vanished and the unacknowledged, many of whose stories, through the author’s indefatigable use of letters, diaries, objects and interviews, are heard here for the first time.

From the moment the French government retreated to Bordeaux on 10th June 1940, Paris became a ‘significantly feminized city”. It was women, Sebba argues, who represented the front line as the Wehrmacht poured in, who had to confront their country’s defeat both practically and ethically. The patriarchal nature of pre-war French society was the first obstacle: women without cheque books or bank accounts of their own were financially marooned, attempting to provide for their children without access to cash. For many, the obligation to resist became as urgent as finding food, but as Sebba delicately and compassionately demonstrates, this was, at least initially, no simple matter in the unprecedented atmosphere of moral ambiguity which pertained. Yet even as Paris emptied, life was just beginning for many disaffected women, and whilst resistance demanded both intense courage and sacrifice, the years of occupation were to prove richly fulfilling.

“Resistancialisme”, the term coined in 1987 by Henry Rousso in reference to the myth coined post-war by both Gaullists and Communists, and according to which the French unanimously and naturally resisted the Occupation, remains a vexed issue. As Margaret Atack observes, this myth was not in “monolithic domination”, and discordant voices of collaboration and complicity have found their place in a continuing examination of the legacy of French fascism and anti-Semitism, yet Sebba’s work demonstrates the extent to which, in contrast with Jewish experience, that of women who resisted, who were deported, tortured and killed has remained relatively unexplored. Sebba delineates the unutterable disgrace of Vichy’s treatment of French Jews- from the dehumanizing effects of the expropriation of their property to the deportation of Jewish children on the initiative of Pierre Laval, the head of the council of Vichy ministers. The youngest child sent to Auschwitz under Laval’s direct orders was 18 months old. Of the total of 76 000 Jews deported, just 3%, 2,500, returned to France. In contrast, 50% of resistants returned, designated as patriotic combatants, rather than victims by the provisional post-war government.

Within this vastly unjust disparity, Sebba detects another, that of the women, Jewish or not, whose bravery and suffering were largely discounted as de Gaulle welcomed home his nation’s returning sons. The General’s own niece, Genevieve, was deported to Ravensbruck, “where God”, she described “had remained outside”, yet pitifully few accounts of women’s lives there were given any public attention. The activities of the forty women who served actively in the F Division of the SOE, the Special Operations Executive created by Churchill in 1940 to assist resistance activities in occupied countries have also been neglected- since their very presence in France was in defiance of the Geneva convention, much of their work has been written out of history. Yet they fare better than the many prostitutes who were deported, victims of Vichy’s obsession with moral recovery, women who had perhaps hidden escaping airmen in brothels, but whose many acts of kindness and courage went undocumented. It was women who did penance for the emasculation of their nation- as Sebba describes, during the épuration sauvage in the immediate aftermath of the war, 20, 000 tondues displayed their shaven heads as exculpation for the men who had failed to protect them. Economic collaboration – the practice of a predominantly male commercial elite – was not nearly so severely punished as sexual submission to the enemy. And what constituted collaboration? As the writer

Colette discovered when she relied on the help of Suzanne Abetz, wife to the German Ambassador, to recover her Jewish husband Maurice Goudenet, when family members began to vanish, no one was above using highly placed contacts to help them.

Resistance is evoked here in two uniquely “Parisian” forms -art and fashion. Anyone who dismisses the latter as trivial would do well to observe the courage of Lucien Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale, who pleaded the case for French couture so successfully in Berlin that 25 000 women workers were saved from deportation. As a German visitor to Paris remarked, the resourcefulness of the women in remaining fashionable brought colour to an otherwise grey everyday life, whilst the re-establishment of the fashion industry after the war was an essential component of France’s economic recovery. Sebba’s definition of a ‘true” Parisienne is captured in the spirit of one woman, who, though nearly starving, preferred to use her daily allowance of an ounce of fat as hand-cream, a stubborn gesture of elegance which suggests the psychological power of chic. Aesthetic defiance was the stance of Jeanne Bucher, a gallerist who staged at least twenty shows of ‘decadent” cubists and surrealists during the Occupation, and whose premises served as a safe house- one man hiding from the Gestapo was amused to find himself sharing a hidden bed with a stack of Braques and Picassos.

Sebba is adept at explaining the changing political climate of Paris as the war progressed, but she never allows politics to overshadow her subjects’ voices. This book does not judge – instead, in the breadth of its humanity, it achieves some of the recognition which the Parisiennes own heroic

See the review online

Read Clare Mulley’s review of Les Parisiennes in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)

This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives — the indignity of having a period in camps with no sanitary protection, the abortionists who were put to death under Vichy while prostitution was legal, the children who died because their mothers were too weak to breastfeed. Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, such as Geneviève de Gaulle, who made great sacrifices to resist the enemy, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive. ..To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep.”
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/les-parisiennes-how-the-women-of-paris-lived-loved-and-died-in-the-1940s-by-anne-sebba-f8p6s8dnk
(July 2016)

” Anne Sebba’s tour de force of research and reflection…is a testament of silk and sacrifice of choices to resist or collaborate … Keep this extraordinary and evocative book close by and you will never lift a lipstick insouciantly again.”

By Madeleine Kingsley  http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/162416/review-les-parisiennes 

“Sebba has found an enthralling way of looking at the story by focusing on how the choice was made by French women, and, in particular, by the women of Paris.” By Sarah Helm Observer

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/31/les-parisiennes-anne-sebba-review

Read latest review in the Sydney Morning Herald: Accomplished biographer Anne Sebba has uncovered some extraordinary stories…. The author has also produced some extraordinary statistics …Sebba has produced a clear-eyed view of a bitter decade in the life of the City of Light.

 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/anne-sebba-portrays-womens-wartime-hardship-in-les-parisiennes-20160905-gr8yo6.html  Sept. 2017

Read latest review in the Sydney Morning Herald: Accomplished biographer Anne Sebba has uncovered some extraordinary stories…. The author has also produced some extraordinary statistics …Sebba has produced a clear-eyed view of a bitter decade in the life of the City of Light. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/anne-sebba-portrays-womens-wartime-hardship-in-les-parisiennes-20160905-gr8yo6.html (Sept. 2017)

” Anne Sebba’s tour de force of research and reflection…is a testament of silk and sacrifice of choices to resist or collaborate … Keep this extraordinary and evocative book close by and you will never lift a lipstick insouciantly again.”

By Madeleine Kingsley  http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/162416/review-les-parisiennes 

“This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives — the indignity of having a period in camps with no sanitary protection, the abortionists who were put to death under Vichy while prostitution was legal, the children who died because their mothers were too weak to breastfeed. Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, such as Geneviève de Gaulle, who made great sacrifices to resist the enemy, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive. ..To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep.”
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/les-parisiennes-how-the-women-of-paris-lived-loved-and-died-in-the-1940s-by-anne-sebba-f8p6s8dnk
(July 2016)

Caroline Moorehead in the Literary Review described it as “Sebba’s book, with its phenomenal amount of detailed research and its vast cast of characters, is rich in stories about the tricks of life under occupation, the heroism of those who carried out acts of defiance, the slipperiness of collusion and the vast profits made by fixers, contacts, middlemen and entrepreneurs. She is particularly good on the fashion world and the scheming equivocating social luminaries…”
https://literaryreview.co.uk/occupational-hazards
(July 2016)

Read Clare Mulley’s review of Les Parisiennes in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)

 

 

Les Parisiennes The Spectator Review

One Response to Les Parisiennes Reviews

  1. Reply steve cook,

    Hi Anne, how about a book on Christine Keeler? She is a very ordinary woman in extra ordinary times. A victim of the Establishment when her main “sin” was youthful libido and the desire for a life of glamour. Now a broken woman. She has written 3 accounts but they do not match as to detail. On the downside the BBC are ambivalent about the profumo case, and there seem to be forces still operating to keep something hidden. But a very saleable book could result from careful research. Also it would take a woman to get beside Keeler, I feel. I leave my email below if interested to follow up on these thoughts. Glad the latest book is going so well. You have a huge talent.

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