Last week I finished my first read of the year, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba, a non-fiction novel, full of personal, first hand accounts of women who lived in Paris during the Second World War and who bravely shared their stories.
Anne Sebba does a superb job combining these realities of friendship, love, loss and war in a ravaged 1940’s Paris. I will be honest, I don’t usually read non-fiction books but for some reason on the day I was in my local book store, I was drawn to the title of this book and just knew there was a whole world of Parisian Women in 1940’s that I was yet to explore.
Before reading this book I would always think of the women in historic Paris as strong and outspoken fashionistas, like Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf and Audrey Tatou. I have been very fortunate to have explored Paris and loved everything about it; the people, the food and the sites of course. From reading the personal accounts of some of the most brave and honourable women in history, my image of the Parisian Woman has changed and I’m not just talking about Marie Antoinette and Marie Curie. I have now discovered some amazing Parisian Women both French nationals and foreign whom during the 1940’s, gave up their stereotype ‘a women belongs in the home and behind a man’ custom!
The stories of Noor Inayat Khan, Jeanne Bucher, Odette Churchill, Catherine Dior, Geneviève de Gaulle and so many more shocked me as well as moved me! Reading the accounts of this time in history told by these women or those close to them is compellingly written. I really liked the way the Sebba gathered the details and illustrated to us, the reader, so many different mindsets of the women during this time and whether they chose to resist or fraternised with the enemy (Germans) and the consequences some of these faced in the aftermath of the war.
Now, I would say they had no choice but they did have a choice! They chose to ‘resist and survive’ the cruel and hard times that invaded their lives, their city, their home! While the men risked there lives to fight for their countries, the women became the bread winners for their family and children. However, it was not as simple as this as this book presents; Paris became divided when the Jewish society became threatened by the German invasion and the friendships and dishonesty alike ripped this beautiful city apart. This book tells us the story of these women and the horrors they endured in their home, work (everyday and resistant work) and for many, the women camps like Ravensbrück after being arrested.
There are many historical stories shared in regards to many genocides that have occurred in our world. The Holocaust being the most infamous one was casually brushed over during my history lessons at school. Growing up in the UK, of course, we get taught about the World Wars, especially WW2. Yes, we got told about the English army and it’s allies and the devastating bombings in the main Cities and the Holocaust, but what they didn’t teach us was how ordinary lives of men, women and children suffered and their stories! I believe that in secondary education, books like Anne Sebba’s should be used or recommended to educate the young, especially women, to show and tell them that we can be independent in a world that yes, unfortunately is still male-dominated even in 2018! Young women should be taught that no matter what the struggles or hard work it takes to prove, firstly ourselves, and secondly to our society that we can help others and make the world a better place for everyone!
As the war came to an end and those who were lucky enough to survive, returned home to a different world, Sebba starts to bring everything together; summing up what help some received on their return but also how many couldn’t tell their stories for many years because no one would listening or understand the trauma they had endured.
The last paragraph really sums up the main discussion of the book “But what seems clear today is that there were choices.” Some of the amazing women whom are mentioned in this book experienced what some of us can barely imagine and as Sebba finishes the book with “It is not for the rest of us to judge but, with imagination, we can try to understand.” this book definitely had me using my imagination to picture even just a fraction of what life was really like for these Parisian women. I have truly been touched by some of these women’s stories; what they did for one another and how strong they were through some agonising times.
Reading Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris, Lived, Loved and Dies in the 1940’s has been upsetting, enlightening and educational and I would recommend it to anyone that has an interest in Women of History and historical fiction. You will never again think the history of Paris as great, you will see it as exceptional. I can’t wait to travel back there and see it with new eyes.
Check out some of my other posts of the other books I’ve read and would recommend –