In July, on Bastille Day, Weidenfeld & Nicolson will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s. In October (in the book trade that’s considered simultaneous) St Martin’s Press in the US will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died under Nazi Occupation.
Spot the differences!
This is not the first time that one of my books has been published simultaneously in the UK and US but I had assumed that since this book had been planned with and commissioned by both publishers together five years ago it would be the same product. Actually it is, exactly the same inside. But both publishers have chosen not only slightly different subtitles (one has the word Nazi while the other points to the fact that I have written about a whole decade) but very different jackets in which to clothe the words. Since I am constantly asked why, I shall try to explain!
The British cover tells a story. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (just to make sure you know where this is happening), a slightly wary, elegant Parisienne is chatting up a German officer who, even from the back, looks highly relaxed. His head is sympathetically angled to one side and he has one foot perched on a ledge. What he is saying to her we can only guess at but this cover is so wonderfully evocative that everyone who handles it will want to know what on earth is happening and (I hope) have to buy the book to find out.
The American cover is more subtle but also features an elegant Parisienne, this time she is striding purposefully towards a shelter perhaps, or a doorway protected by sandbags, but into where? This cover too has an air of mystery and needs some explanation. Paris, once defeated in 1940 was declared an ‘Open City’ which was the deal between Vichy and the Nazis which prevented it being attacked by the Germans and saved its most iconic buildings and bridges. But the sandbags were put in place in 1939, when there was huge fear of German bombings, and largely not removed until the Liberation even though it was unlikely that the Allies would bomb civilians when they needed to concentrate their fire power on German and other targets. By 1944 however the Allies considered they had to bomb strategic targets in the vicinity of Paris and there were of course civilian casualties.
When I was first shown the UK cover (yes, authors are consulted!) I was worried the picture was almost too good and therefore must have been staged or even doctored. But, as I should have realised, the truth is always more interesting. It is a genuine photograph by Roger Schall who was given special permission to take pictures in occupied Paris (others were not and if your were caught with a camera there were serious consequences). He had also published during the Occupation several books of views of the monuments of Paris and of France, under the imprints of Verlag Schall, Odé and Kremer with captions in German and obviously directed at a German audience. According to a French museum curator, Catherine Tambrun at the Musée Carnavalet, Schall was probably paid by the Germans to take photographs during the Occupation and the most obvious destination for such photographs would have been the German propaganda magazine Signal. He used his talent to survive. Is it worse than a vegetable seller?
This is another kind of deal, then, and as my book tries to make clear, surviving in Paris was for almost everyone, dependent on doing some kind of deal. After the war this was often punished as collaboration and it was assumed there was a sexual element to many deals. Sometimes there was, but it was rarely as clear cut as that. I have tried over the last few years to understand where the line between survival and collaboration should be drawn and it shifts constantly. I think my two covers lead you enticingly and with great style into that debate.
Three new reviews this March weekend.
Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times Sunday book review wrote: “Anne Sebba boldly recasts the relationship that was once considered the most romantic love story of the last century as “a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core.”
Sebba’s devourable feast of highly spiced history doesn’t try to hide Wallis’s cayenne bite. Here she retains the epithets customarily attached to her — temptress, social climber, tactless boor, gold digger. But she is granted another that, in light of this substantial new evidence, seems to make her a little more palatable: helpless pawn.
That Woman acquires the propulsive energy of a thriller as it advances through Wallis’s life, picking up speed as she and her royal suitor gain notoriety, then slowing as the couple’s courtship screeches to a halt at their sparsely attended wedding in France.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/books/review/that-woman-by-anne-sebba.html?_r=1 (March 10 2012)
Sandra McElwaine in the Washington Times described it as “A delicious new biography… “That Woman” (the name the Queen Mother Elizabeth gave to the dreaded Wallis) is the reason she has returned to center stage in myriad books pegged to the present queen and her upcoming celebration, this meticulously researched, newsy account may well be the sleeper of the lot.” http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/mar/9/book-review-that-woman/ (March 9th 2012)
Linda Lear in the Washington Independent Review of Books wrote: “Sebba’s account, unlike others, succeeds in humanizing Wallis….A strength of Sebba’s work is the emotional and psychological context she provides for the remarkable character traits Wallis demonstrated as an aspiring, flirtatious, acquisitive adult. Sebba makes excellent use of newly unsealed letters from Wallis to Simpson before the 1936 Abdication crisis.” (March 8th 2012)
There have been several attempts to demythologise the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. It is variously alleged that she never really loved him and he never really loved her, or that theirs was a great love affair that the establishment tried to destroy. And of course, there is that photograph of the pair shaking hands with Hitler, making them not only a couple who perhaps weren’t in love but who were also fascist and treacherous, too.
Simpson in particular has always been demonised. A possible hermaphrodite who learned the ways of prostitutes while in Shanghai, her sexuality has been called into question, never mind what British biographers loyal to the Royal Family consider her “brash” American ways.
But in this commendably restrained biography, Anna Sebba creates some sympathy for a woman who endured a brutal and sordid first marriage before leaping into the comfort of a second, with Ernest Simpson, that, alas, could never save her. Sebba’s real coup, though, is the discovery of letters between Wallis and Ernest, dated long after she had become involved with Edward. Indeed, Simpson’s genuine sorrow at the loss of Ernest (“the grave of everything that was us”) and her terror at the Abdication show an ordinary woman caught up in events she couldn’t hope to control, and help to balance the damning indictments written even by some of her closest friends.