Q&A with Anne Sebba, author of Les Parisiennes

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Helen: Hello Anne! Let me first say that I was bowled over by Les Parisiennes – it’s a real tour de force of narrative history, totally absorbing and allowing the experiences of women to shine through.

Anne Sebba: How kind and thank you, I’m delighted!

H: How did you become a writer?

AS: I can’t remember wanting to do anything else … at least, I wanted to be a journalist but to tell (true) stories! My parents bought me a toy typewriter when I was eight as I just loved history and current affairs so I wrote a very juvenile and doubtless pretentious local news sheet soon after.

H: Would you describe an average working day in your life for us?

AS: If you are a freelance you work all the hours you can and you never say no! But I remember when I researched my first biog of Enid Bagnold she said that she always went into her study at 9 am even if she had nothing to write, just to establish a discipline! I do that too and these days of course there is always something you can blog about on social media but it must have been much harder for her in the 1920s.

H: Do you think that your experience as a foreign correspondent has influenced how you write?

AS: Of course because they taught me journalism first when I was very young. But at Reuters it’s very brief sentences and pyramid style – and some of that I have been trying to unlearn ever since – but at the same time it was a terrific discipline to tell on the facts and always have two sources and to check and double check. Accuracy and truth have never been more important.

H: What drew you to writing about women in Paris in the 1940s?

AS: So many things … I studied French history of this period at university and have always been fascinated. My previous book was about Wallis Simpson who lived in Paris until 1940 and bought lots of jewellery.

H: You have read and researched an astonishing amount, how on earth did you manage such a vast amount of material?

AS: Oh I love the research … could go on and on for ever … and I love interviewing old /elderly women. Such a privilege for me. Why wouldn’t anyone love that?

H: Did you find anything surprising while researching the book?

AS: Yes lots! That women were not allowed to wear trousers! That women didn’t have the vote until 1946 …

H: Fashion is often considered to be ‘not serious’, and yet as you show so well in Les Parisiennes it played a significant rôle culturally as well as economically, to resisters and collaborators. Could you tell us a bit more about it and why it was so important to Parisian women?

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s

AS: Fashion, even during the last war, was anything but trivial for Parisian women; they believed that looking your best at all times was crucial, initially as a way of showing support for their husbands and sons at the front, just as the magazines told them they must, but then, when defeat overwhelmed them, continuing to try and look their best as a way of not succumbing to their German occupiers. It was a form of resistance to show that they had not been ground down and it kept thousands of frightened and impoverished women employed in their ateliers, beading, attaching fur or inserting pockets and linings. So, when shortages of fabrics meant new clothes were almost impossible, women spent hours cutting down old clothes, sometimes the suits of their missing husbands, or turning two bags into one, covering wooden shoes with fabrics and creating extravagant creations on their heads that passed as hats. Many people commented on the vegetables, flowers and cascades of ribbons that appeared on the brims of hats. So keen were they to appear fashionable at all times that, even as they arrived in the brutal camp of Ravensbrück, the other women prisoners already inside muttered and whispered about ‘Frenchwomen’… one woman smuggled in a powder compact – an unheard-of luxury – while another wore an Hermès silk scarf.

I have written so much about why fashion mattered … so more info can be found at https://www.gransnet.com/pdf/anne-sebba–why-fashion-mattered-to-parisiennes.pdf

H: Has working on this book changed your ideas about the Second World War at all?

AS: Yes: don’t ignore the rôle of the women on the home front, which can be just as dangerous as traditional male military roles, especially the women of SOE [Special Operations Executive].

H: The stories you researched are often very moving. I have to admit that I cried several times while reading them. Did any of them touch you particularly? And how did you cope with reading and hearing so much distressing material?

AS: The most touching has to be Arlette Reiman, who was partly the model for the film Sarah’s Key and who told me the story of her amazing mother who persuaded her and her sister to jump off a moving train but then, after the war, could not continue living without her beloved husband and lost the will to live …

I often felt deeply sad after a trip to Paris when I had heard a distressing story or been with a survivor of the camps. Often I couldn’t sleep that night. Yes there were awful moments but I am not new to Holocaust stories and I just feel it is so important to have first hand witnesses to rebut any Holocaust deniers so basically I just gritted my teeth and got on with the writing.

H: In the acknowledgements you mention that you visited Paris, Vichy and Ravensbrück. Do you find it important to actually go to the places you write about? How do you think doing so might affect your writing?

AS: Yes, yes and yes … especially going to Ravensbrück. No amount of reading or imagination could have prepared me for how harsh it was and that was in November not January. I’d have collapsed within days …

H: Are you working on another book? Can you give us an idea of what it might be about?

AS: Well I am slowly trying to find a new idea but I am still so deeply living in this world I don’t want to leave it and I continually get amazing emails from people who have read my book and want to know more, perhaps in general or perhaps about a relative of theirs and it is time consuming answering them all! But when I do start a new book it will be something to do with a hitherto unexplored women’s perspective on history …

H: And finally, what books have you read recently that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?

AS: I adored Keggie Carew’s Dadland which I started because of the connection to the French resistance but it is much more than that. It’s an exploration of a father–daughter relationship and much more. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, a novel about family relationships, brilliant; and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, and finally Clare Mulley’s The Women who Flew for Hitler because I am fascinated by women’s varied rôles in wartime.

H: Thank you very much!

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Helen blogs at a gallimaufry. Read her review of Les Parisiennes HERE.

Anne Sebba, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 2016.  978-1780226613, 452 pp., paperback .

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