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08 April 2017 @ 11:47 am
Review of "Les Parisiennes", by Anne Sebba, pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2017  
The last book I reviewed here was The Unwomanly Face of War , Svetlana Alexievich's account of Russian women who served in World War 2 and what happened to them in its aftermath. Now we have a similar account of "how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s" - ie, again in the war and its aftermath.

There are similarities, the most obvious being the attempts for many decades in both France and Russia to airbrush the contribution of women from history. But there are also great differences. Firstly, many of the Russian women were frontline combatants, which Frenchwomen, barring certain resistance fighters, were not (though the definition of "combatant" in postwar France became controversial, since those women who had hidden endangered soldiers and civilians, and often endured the horrors of Ravensbrück for doing so, understandably felt themselves as entitled to the name of combatant as the uniformed men who had put up such a brief resistance to the invader). Secondly, though parts of Russia were occupied, there was no question of "collaborating", even had civilians wished to, because the invader was interested not in coexisting with the locals but in exterminating them. In Paris it was otherwise, which meant there were choices to be made by the inhabitants, and some of these were far from easy. Those in public service might choose to resign their jobs, or stay and try to do them in such a way as best to serve the interests of civilians - though that might also leave them open to the charge of serving the enemy's interests. Rose Valland, volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume (her sex debarred her from a paid job as curator), stayed on and risked the suspicion, which surfaced briefly after the war, of colluding with the invaders' favourite occupation of looting artwork on a grand scale. What she was in fact doing was secretly keeping records of everything being looted and where it had gone, so that after the war, thousands of artworks could be located and restored to their rightful owners. She also managed, with the Liberation imminent, to notify the Resistance of a trainload of paintings waiting to be despatched by the panicking occupiers, with the result that the train was delayed and captured by the liberators.

Obviously many of the problems female civilians faced in Paris, such as food shortages and moral dilemmas - whether to resist, collaborate or simply keep one's head down - were problems for men as well, and nor were they confined to Paris. The rationale for concentrating on women is twofold. They did have special problems related to their sexual vulnerability and they were in some ways made scapegoats, after the armistice, by men still smarting from their own frontline failures. Sebba remarks of the "tondues", women publicly shaved and humiliated after the liberation for sleeping with Germans, "they were punished by the men who had failed to defend them" and it is true that when you look at the photographs, though there are women in the background it is nearly always men taking the lead. Postwar, too, government ministers, even former resistance fighters among them like Henri Frenay, who knew well the role women had played, were urging them to give up their jobs and let men coming home from prison camps and forced labour return to their role as chef de famille "so that they could regain their lost confidence". This emphasis on the needs of men also exacerbated, for women, the problem that all returning concentration camp survivors faced, namely that nobody wanted to hear what they had suffered. "Don't say anything, they won't understand" as one warned another. The one thing French women did get out of the war was the right to vote, which until 1945 they hadn't had - I must confess I didn't know that and was amazed by it.

The rationale for concentrating on Paris in particular I'm not so sure of, though it seems to be the supposition that Parisiennes are somehow more stylish and clothes-conscious than anyone else. The trouble with that notion is that half the women in this book, though they lived in Paris, were not born there nor even in some cases French nationals. One of the more famous photographs reproduced here was taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948 for the cover of Paris Match: a carelessly elegant young woman sitting on the banks of the Seine, typewriter perched on her knee, writing a novel, the quintessential Parisienne. Since he never spoke to her, he wouldn't have known that she was Emma Smith from London....

There is quite a lot about fashion, reasonably since it was a major industry of the city and the justification for couture houses continuing to operate through the war was that many people would be thrown out of work if they did not. But I did actually get a bit impatient with some of the women's preoccupation with being fashionable at all costs, especially when one reads that "some went as far as to call it 'resisting'" - well, it wasn't. It may have been their way of keeping up their morale but to call it resisting was an impertinence to those who actually were resisting, and risking their lives for others. Karma intervenes at one point when the fascist sympathiser Comtesse de Portes, deciding that even for collaborators an occupied Paris won't be much fun, tries to escape south in a car so overloaded that a hatbox falls from the roof, obscures the driver's view and causes him to hit a tree, killing her instantly. I'm afraid I laughed....

This is a history book with proper notes, bibliography, index etc and a lot of illuminating illustrations. Much of its interest lies in being able to follow individual lives through it, like the incredibly brave Noor Inayat Khan, resistance fighter, and the quiet, dowdy Rose Valland, who didn't much care about fashion or chic, but who preserved so much that was beautiful from thieves and vandals. Even the more dubious characters like Corinne Luchaire, dimwitted teenage actress who collaborates because she doesn't really know how to say no to any man, have their sad fascination. The author is commendably neutral, except where it would be an offence not to take sides. I'm especially glad she did not follow the advice she mentions in the prologue: "When I began this book a male historian suggested I spend hours in the subterranean Bibliothèque Nationale reading the diaries of men like Hervé Le Boterf and Jean Galtier- Boissière." Why yes, how better to discover what women were doing and thinking than to check what men have to say on the subject....
Helenheleninwales on April 8th, 2017 11:17 am (UTC)
Both your review of the book on Russian women and this one were fascinating. Thank you for posting them.