Sunday, 1 September 2019

Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba
Published in the UK by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in July 2016.

One of my Mount TBR Challenge reads and a 2019 COYER Summer Hunt Challenge read

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher in a Twitter giveaway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

June, 1940. German troops enter Paris and hoist the swastika over the Arc de Triomphe. The dark days of Occupation begin. How would you have survived? By collaborating with the Nazis, or risking the lives of you and your loved ones to resist?

The women of Paris faced this dilemma every day - whether choosing between rations and the black market, or travelling on the Metro, where a German soldier had priority for a seat. Between the extremes of defiance and collusion was a vast moral grey area which all Parisiennes had to navigate in order to survive.

Anne Sebba has sought out and interviewed scores of women, and brings us their unforgettable testimonies. Her fascinating cast includes both native Parisiennes and temporary residents: American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats. The result is an enthralling account of life during the Second World War and in the years of recovery and recrimination that followed the Liberation of Paris in 1944. It is a story of fear, deprivation and secrets - and, as ever in the French capital, glamour and determination.

Les Parisiennes is a fascinating book which seeks to overturn many of the gender-based assumptions made about Second World War Paris. Sebba's detailed research is obvious on every page as she collates and recounts the experiences of hundreds of women representing all walks of life and many of the nationalities resident in the city at the time. What she establishes is that there is no clear definition which can be applied to 'all' or even 'most' Parisian women, and that the traditional view of the men resisting while the women collaborated is positively absurd!

The only downside of Les Parisiennes for me is the sheer density of information. So many voices clamour to be heard that I initially found it quite difficult to concentrate on their stories. I had to consciously readjust my reading style from my usual devouring-of-fiction mindset to more of an idea of studying. That said though, this is certainly not a dry history tome! Sebba follows the progression of the war through the years and shows how, as the situation grew more desperate for everyone, women devised and discovered a myriad of ways to cope and survive.

What I hadn't previously understood was what a male vacuum there was in 1940s France, particularly in Paris. Tens of thousands of French men were taken as prisoners of war and 'forced' to work in Germany for the duration. The left-behind women suddenly found themselves responsible for their households, many for the first time ever, under extreme conditions. Initially French law even forbade married women from entering paid employment. The double standards shown as the end result of this should be shocking, but I found them to actually be depressingly predictable. (I was reminded of How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee). A French man, for example, returning from years of working in a German munitions factory is considered a hero and can hold his head high because he obviously had no choice, but survived. Meanwhile his wife, now responsible for feeding three children and her aged mother-in-law, for example, manages to find and hold down a job as a waitress in a cafe that, unfortunately, counts German soldiers among its customers. She is publicly denounced and has her head shaved because she chose to collaborate. The definition of 'choice' is hardly fair and, to me at least, many of the repercussions seemed more like exercises in salvaging egos than genuinely punishing collaboration.

Another aspect of Sebba's research which particularly interested me was the idea of maintaining Frenchness, even under occupation. If anything, the French cultural identity seemed even stronger at the end of the war than at the beginning despite the Germans' best efforts to confiscate art, prioritise German music and move the couture industry to Berlin. I loved seeing the lengths to which Parisian women went to preserve their sense of dignity and to out-chic everyone else - especially the female German soldiers and ancillaries in their comparatively drab uniforms. From the upper classes taking their fur coats to be retailored into the latest styles, to shop girls perfectly the art of the kohl pencil stocking seam, their determination and energy is still inspiring.

I am grateful to Anne Sebba for exhaustively researching and then writing Les Parisiennes. The book gives a very different overall perspective on an era which I thought I knew a lot about, but there was plenty more for me to learn here. I hadn't really considered to what extent women's voices were missing. Whether it is women running resistance safe houses, concierges hiding Jews or stealing their silverware, or famous names such as Coco Chanel, Violette Morris and Edith Piaf drawing their own lines in the sand, all together they provide a thought-provoking insight into this city in wartime.

Etsy Find!
by Covenants in
Ohio, USA

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Anne Sebba / History books / Books from England


  1. This sounds like a daunting read, but interesting, nonetheless. I'm curious.

    1. Les Parisiennes does contain a lot of information, but Sebba writes well so it was an interesting read. I'm glad I didn't have to study it for a test though!

  2. This sounds so interesting! Just the exposing of the double standard alone is enough to make me want to pick this up. I find it fascinating to learn about the lives of people who are largely ignored in history books because of their gender, race, etc, etc. Thanks for reviewing this, Stephanie, and giving it the exposure it seems to deserve! I'll definitely be on the look out for a copy.

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. I actually won this book over a year ago and had let it languish because I didn't really understand its premise until I started reading. Then I was kicking myself that I hadn't got around to it much sooner!