Category Archives: Reviews of Anne’s Books

One book two covers

One cover, two books
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.

Buy the book at your local bookshop please! or else through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or IndieBound

The American view of Wallis Simpson and my book

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.” (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.” (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)

Sympathy for the devil-woman by Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday 22.01.2012

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.

Pursuit of Beauty by Remote Control

Review by Peter Stanford, Independent on Sunday, August 15 2004

We are a society addicted to home improvements. With a sheet of MDF and a few relics rescued from the back of the garage, we have all been encouraged to believe by Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and his acolytes that we can create our own Petit Trianon in Penge. William Bankes worked on a larger scale, but essentially shared the same dream.

Even before the death at 21 in 1806 of his elder brother, Henry, Bankes had been planning a makeover for Kingston Lacy, the family seat in Dorset. But as son and heir to the estate – as well as to Soughton Hall, a slice of north Wales owned by a great uncle – he quickly developed his own grand designs for changing both rooms and facades.

However, his remorseless pursuit of an eclectic artistic and architectural vision was interrupted by a moment of madness with a guardsman in some bushes in London¹s Green Park in 1841. Gay sex at that time carried the death penalty and Bankes was forced to flee into exile, pursued by a vindictive (Tory) government which declared him an outlaw and forced him to sign over all his properties to a younger brother to prevent them being seized by the state. For the last 15 years of his life, living in Venice, Bankes had to complete the rebuilding of Kingston Lacy by remote control, never seeing with his own eyes the achievement of his vision.

Anne Sebba tells this tale of talent and tragedy with great aplomb, producing in the process a wonderful hybrid of a book that is part biography, part tear-jerker, part lesson in art and architectural history, and part exquisite guide book to what is now one of the finest properties in the National Trust’s portfolio. She even manages to weave in some insights into the psychological make-up of the great collector of artefacts, contrasting Bankes¹s need for emotional support in an unfriendly world¹ with the motivation of history¹s other hoarders.

She is helped enormously by her subject¹s knack for rubbing shoulders with a succession of figures who have enjoyed a more enduring fame. Looming largest in Bankes¹ life was Lord Byron. They were close as students at Cambridge where their relationship caused such jealousy among Byron’s circle that they accused Bankes of attaching himself to Byron’s coronet. There was certainly an on-going rivalry between the two men, one flamboyant, the other arrogant, but both single-minded. Yet there was also an enduring friendship and respect. They both proposed simultaneously to the same woman – Annabella Milbanke. She said yes – disastrously – to Byron and no to Bankes who she rightly suspected as being half-hearted in his suit.

Sebba shows her mettle as a biographer (her previous subjects have included Enid Bagnold, Laura Ashley and Mother Teresa) by her handling of Bankes¹ sexuality. It would have been all too easy to make him a gay martyr and use the appalling nineteenth century prejudice he suffered as a stick to beat those who today still believe homophobia has any place in a civilized society. But that would have unbalanced the text. Equally she could have indulged the habitual prurience of contemporary readers with speculation about what exactly went on in the bushes in Green Park – or in the toilets behind Saint Margaret¹s Church, Westminster, where in 1833 Bankes was arrested with another soldier, but on that occasion eventually acquitted.

Instead Sebba conveys the facts, the context and the consequences with a benign detachment. Bankes, she shows, was bisexual. As well as his failed proposal to Annabella, he had a notorious affair with the Countess of Buckinghamshire. And Sebba is not afraid to explore ideas that for some might seem politically incorrect – like the suggestion that an artistic temperament and sexual orientation could be linked.

But this is absolutely not a psychologically intense portrait. Rather it hugely enjoys the wonderful detail of Bankes¹ life – his youthful shopping sprees in Spain buying Zurbarans, Murillos and Velasquezes for what became the ornate Spanish Picture Room as Kingston Lacy; his pioneering role in nineteenth century Egyptology and his jaunts around the Near East where he clashed with another formidable traveller, Lady Hester Stanhope; and his largely failed and often comical attempts as an MP to make a name for himself as an orator on the floor of the Commons.

His monument, however, is Kingston Lacy, preserved in aspic by successive generations of the Bankes family before being handed with its contents to the National Trust in 1981. The story of his work with Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, to revive earlier plans that Inigo Jones had drawn up for the property is fascinating. In later years he would send off from Venice plans and drawings for a house he hadn¹t seen in years (and didn’t own) but over which he insisted on maintaining the most exacting control.

You end up yearning for there to be a happy ending. There were, Sebba recounts, local stories that he used to sail into Studland Bay at night and wander round his house, leaving before morning, but try as she might she cannot make them stand up to historical scrutiny. Perhaps we just have to let our imagination run away with us. That was after all the genius of William Bankes.

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