The life that most of us engage in is a muddle, and that is what is so compelling for any writer or historian looking at France between 1939 and 1949, especially through the eyes of women. Turn the kaleidoscope one way and see women destroyed by the war; turn it the other and find women whose lives were enhanced with new meaning and fulfilment.
Anne Sebba’s account of Parisian women in the Second World War is a fascinating look at a city and its people. The mention of Paris conjures images of chic women and Sebba does consider the role that fashion and couture played in Paris’ fortunes in the war, but she also looks at those women who became part of the war effort both informally and as part of the secret service.
The book begins before the outbreak of war with a look at high society. There is a jaw dropping account of Elsie de Wolfe’s grand party, given on the 1st July 1939. Sebba comments on the ‘sense of recklessness’ amongst the wealthy who believed that France was impenetrable by the Germans. Coco Chanel was reckless in the sense that when war broke out, she closed her boutique and moved into the Ritz, putting hundreds of women out of work, and former athlete Violette Morris who ‘felt an outcast from French society’ was reckless in driving to the front line and possibly helping the Nazis.
One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the book is the picture of French society that’s created with regards to women. We’re used to thinking of France, and particularly Paris, as liberal, but in 1936 ‘women in France still did not have the vote, nor the right to have a bank account in their own name’. The later became a particular problem when men were away at the front and in the instance of their death. Women were only allowed to take a job outside of the home without their husband’s or father’s permission after 1938 in case they got ‘inflated ideas’ from it.
It’s clear from Sebba’s narrative that women had a difficult time during the war: abortions were illegal and only an option if you had the money to pay for them while any sort of fraternising with German soldiers led to consequences after the liberation in which women were deemed to be collaborators and charged with an act given the delightful title of ‘collaboration horizontale’.
While it’s interesting to hear about high-society and a way of life which continued for some throughout the war – sales of designer clothing increased; cultural pursuits continued as the Germans took in the delights of Parisian society – for me, the most compelling stories were those of women who took part in the résistance and worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) working undercover. The work of the latter was so secretive that some of the operatives and their work have only come to light in recent years. One such example is Catherine Dior, sister of designer Christian, who was an agent in the Massif Central unit, ‘gathering information about German troop and rail movements, production and weaponry’. Her story was shared in light of anti-Semitic remarks made by Dior’s now former creative director, John Galliano.
Sebba packs a lot of information into Les Parisiennes, covering a period of ten years and a significant number of women. She handles her material with aplomb spinning a narrative in which key characters reoccur as we move from the outbreak of war to the concentration camps to the aftermath and reconstruction. In both focusing on the stories of women and partially looking at high-society, Sebba provides us with stories about the war which have been hidden and neglected. Les Parisiennes is both a fascinating insight into the lives of women in Paris and a very welcome addition to the coverage of World War 2.
Anne Sebba appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Thursday 29th September, 4pm, in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.
Thanks to W&N for the review copy.