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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: https://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.”
https://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  https://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.

 https://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. https://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  https://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.”
https://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: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)

 

 

Les Parisiennes The Spectator Review

Ice Cream for the Soul or Reading for Pleasure

ICE CREAM FOR THE SOUL: ANNE SEBBA ON READING FOR PLEASURE

Council member Anne Sebba reflects on reading for pleasure.

I fell asleep last night with a book in my hands. There were just 40 pages to go until the end but, after a long and tiring day, much as I was desperate to know who lived and who died, I just failed to make it to the finish. Luckily I woke at 5am, before the rest of the household, and raced to the end, sorry it was over but happy to have shared a few days of my life with those heroic yet flawed characters. It was the most gripping and poignant story I have read for ages and urge anyone looking for a beautifully written tale in an original voice, who wants to understand how the heart functions and learn something about twentieth century history along the way (thats all of us, right?) to read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel, One night, Markovitch although you have to get to the end of the book to find out why it is so named.

It’s hard to convey, in a black and white, matter-of-fact sentence why reading can bring such intense pleasure. Why getting immersed in a good book really does take you to other places, other times. Why, when youre engrossed in a good book, you really cant put it down. Like most things (playing an instrument, running or hiking) the more you do, the better you get and the more you like it but, unlike most things, you dont need any training to start. Reading is not exactly therapy but reading about someone who has experienced the same pain, sorrow, jealousy, elation, fear as you may be experiencing is a wonderfully comforting feeling. We are not, after all, entirely alone in the world.

I realise how lucky I am to have a job (as a writer) where I have to read. But most of what I read for work is factual, has source notes and demands that I take notes as I read. It has its own delights of discovery of course but it simply isnt the same pleasure as reading a novel. I cannot imagine a life where I dont have several books on the go, some on my bedside table, one always in my bag (how often have I been stuck on a train or even in a broken lift?) and others in various places.

But mostly, when we try and tell others, especially children who havent yet caught the bug, about the delights of reading the phrases that creep in have an earnest ring to them: reading is good for you, reading will help you do well at school, etc. That may be true but now at last here is a report that tells you yes, people who read for pleasure do benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, possess better communication skills and are better able to access information. But, above all, reading is a pleasure. So why deny yourself?

Go on, have fun – read a book. Its ice cream for the soul.

Get involved

Share the report (commissioned by The Reading Agency) and your responses online using the hashtag #readingforpleasure.

About the author

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

This weekend I spoke in the beautiful old Town Hall in Devizes and right next to the entrance way was the old lock up cell for the town, ‘more of a dungeon than a prison,’ I was told. ‘You wouldn’t want to spend a night in there.’ I don’t suppose anyone who got thrown in to it especially wanted to either. But rough and ready justice was often doled out a hundred or so years ago.

And my current reading material is a book I picked up at San Francisco airport called ‘Orange is the new Black’ and was completely hooked throughout a long flight before I knew anything about the current phenomenon of the TV series based on the book.

For those who aren’t watching, the story concerns a pretty young middle class woman, Piper Kerman, who foolishly delivered a suitcase of drug money as a young jobless graduate from the prestigious Smith University keen to earn money. Ten years later, engaged to be married, her past caught up with her and she is convicted and sentenced to 15 months inside.

What saves her are books. Books by every post. Books from her adored family and books from people she doesn’t know. Books that she lends out in prison. Books that enable her to stay sane and enter another world.

Yet, bizarrely, the British government recently ordered that prisoners are no longer allowed to receive any small packages, which effectively means that books are banned in UK prisons. Yes there are libraries, but these are often not open at the brief time when a prisoner might visit and the book selection is often old and torn. Books are one of the few means prisoners have to improve their life inside and prepare for a life beyond. Often the books needed are legal books to help them prepare their cases for appeal. Or just books to read to pass the interminable time of day. Many leading writers, actors and poets have campaigned against the government’s bizarre ruling. Next week six leading figures from the publishing world are hoping to spend a night in a cell themselves to highlight the need to overturn this ban. I hope to be one of the ‘lucky’ ones who can spend a night on a cold stone floor in this important cause. If you want to support me please do NOW go to www.justgiving.com/AnneSebba1 where you can read more about the campaign, press the button for Anne and donate. Thank you!

Museums and Women!

Blog on Museums and WomenAs book titles go, Museums and Women is about as boring as it gets. But in John Updike’s hands, of course it is emotional and sensuous, intellectual and erotic. It is the title of a short story (and subsequent volume) about a small boy first visiting a museum with his mother which morphs into a tale of adultery with a woman working in a museum. It is beautifully written.  It was left on a table for me to read at the club in New York where I am staying this week. I had plenty of other reading material with me but, waking early from jet lag, this fifty- year old volume spoke to me.

One of my favourite cities for visiting Museums is New York and today was no different. I was aware of the newly opened Memorial to 9/11 Museum on the site of the tragedy which announces that it “will display artifacts associated with the events of 9/11, while presenting stories of loss and recovery.”  There is an associated gift shop selling T Shirts and other memorabilia. Not surprisingly,  it is deeply controversial and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to go instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. There I looked at all the children thronging the Egyptian galleries of the Met and wondered what their memories of childhood visits to admire ancient statuary would be. What could they possibly make of the faces with no noses, the bodies with no arms and magnificent jewellery?

I was there to see the amazing ball gowns designed by legendary 20th century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James. One of his 1950’s creations would cost around $12,000 in today’s money so they were a true “investment piece” as the phrase goes. James was born in England in 1906 to a British army father who never understood his creative son and treated him cruelly and a Chicago socialite mother, almost wealthy enough to be called a dollar princess and whose contacts among American high society were to prove invaluable when her son set out in Paris, first as a milliner.

He returned to England during the war but Post-war established himself in New York.

What’s not to like about a designer who says: “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

Or this “All my work was inspired by women who were not merely lovely or rich but personalities and who seemed to share some of my own feeling about life in general.”

But it’s not just that I warmed to the man. The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute Charles James: Beyond Fashion is spectacular technically and visually. https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images

By using robotic electronic cameras, most of the ball gowns on display are individually deconstructed on an adjacent screen which explains and explores James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct his revolutionary and magnificent ball gowns.

The exhibition is not just entertainment for women. James himself saw himself as a creative artist on a par with many famous writers and musicians of the day. He is also an inventor. He needed women for his art but, as the Met curators rightly recognise, this story is not just about fashion, it goes way beyond fashion.

Charles James : Beyond fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 8th 2014

Paris in the springtime

Worth La Belle Dame sans MerciParis in the springtime may be a romantic cliché but the day I have just spent in the city was everything the song promised. It was one of those blue sky sunny days which offer so much hope for the summer to come. And it was in the middle of Paris fashion week so the city was full of statuesque women wearing platform soles and 6 inch heels, painted nails and powdered faces, bizarre hair styles and outrageously wonderful clothes. There was also a half marathon so hundreds of muscular types were wandering around looking dazed in their blue plastic wraps declaring their achievement. And of course, the inevitable Paris traffic chaos.

Paris is fighting hard to keep its title as the fashion capital of the world. London, bursting with the creative fashion talent of so many young British designers, is intent on chasing it into second place. But as one designer described it to me: ‘Paris is still where you are judged at the highest level. To succeed in Paris is still the greatest challenge.’

He has a point. Somehow Paris has an allure, an allure that perhaps still trades on its glory days of The Belle Époque, the days when rich Americans with shiny new fortunes would bring their daughters to Paris to give them some old world polish, hoping to take the brassy look off their very nouveau fortunes before launching them onto impoverished British aristocrats. They were the dollar princesses and nothing defined their superiority over their English sisters better than their fabulous clothes and their ability to wear them with style, ease and confidence. They knew how to cause a stir when they entered a room. Edith Wharton advised any young American girl preparing for a grand marriage to have approximately eleven Worth gowns in her trousseau; Jennie Jerome had twenty three, a fact which caused her fiancée, Lord Randolph Churchill, no end of difficulties in finding a house big enough for them all.  Wharton also advised young women to keep this year’s model for a year before wearing so as to let the ostentation fade a little.

Charles Frederick Worth, born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1825, an Englishman who reinvented himself in Paris, is the man responsible for establishing the idea of haute couture as we know it today. Blame him for the idea of a brand as he labelled all his creations – a small critical rectangle of fabric usually sewn in the waistband – cultivated an international clientele of aristocrats, royals and actresses and plenty of mystique. He saw himself as an artist and created out of the commercial transaction of buying a gown a theatrical experience. But he also had responsibilities to ensure that his aristocratic clients never encountered his courtesan or actress clients, of whom there were many. Some of these were given a special prix d’artiste, the forerunner of film stars borrowing gowns from famous houses in the hope of bringing them fame.

In 1850, just as Worth was starting out in Paris (he had left England just five years before and was not yet established) there were an estimated 158 couturiers in Paris and 67 maisons de nouveates confectionées. By 1895 that figure had risen dramatically to 1,636 couturiers and 296 maisons de nouveates confectionées, the best of them, as Maison Worth, clustered around Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix.

This week sees the publication of a fabulous book about Worth* with truly lavish illustrations thanks to the Victoria and Albert’s unique archive of over 7,000 official house records. And it is full of interesting tidbits. On one occasion Grace Elvina, the Marchioness of Kedleston and a loyal Worth client, found herself wearing an identical Worth gown as the Queen of Spain, a woman she had invited to dine at her home. She went quickly upstairs to change and chided the master afterwards. But he was not especially penitent. He did not need to be.

One of the loveliest museums in Paris is the Musée Carnavalet, in the fashionable Marais where it is always a pleasure to be a flanêur, currently has an exhibition entitled **Roman d’une Garde-Robe, or Tales from a Wardrobe, which brings alive in a wider sense the world of haute couture in Paris for its privileged clientele and those who served them.  The show is based on the wardrobe of Alice Alleaume, head saleswoman at Chéruit, rival to Worth and in fact the first couture house to set up in Place Vendôme. Her sister, Hortense, was head saleswoman at Worth. The whole family was immersed in fashion and the exhibition brilliantly captures the spirit of la Belle Époque as well as the freedom of the twenties and the difficult years of the depression. It’s especially good at showing the links between artists and photographers who were clearly fascinated by elegant Parisiennes who shopped not only at Worth but at Paquin, Doucet and Chéruit and one painting illustrates how a whole family would be involved in the dressmaking process – children too. Dressing to the best of one’s financial resources is a tenet deeply engrained in the psyche of a Parisienne. It’s a sacred duty, what they owe themselves. But, oh, where did they find the time for all these fittings and  regular changes of outfit throughout the day.

Parisian haute couture did not end in 1939, with the outbreak of War, nor even in 1940 with the German occupation.  Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture had to negotiate with the occupying German regime. He courageously refused Nazi demands to take the entire couture industry to Germany and made a spirited fight to keep Parisiennes well-dressed in gowns made by French houses as well as hundreds of seamstresses working in small ateliers. But there were also important sales to Nazi wives which helped keep the industry alive during the war years but meant that after liberation some couturiers were tainted with the collaborationist brush. Thus the flame never burned out and after the war Christian Dior with his ‘New Look’, but others too, breathed new life into an industry vibrantly alive today.

 

*The House of Worth Portrait of an Archive V& A Publishing  £35.00

**Roman D’Une Garde-Robe  Musée Carnavalet until March 16