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

Author(s): Anne Sebba

Popular History

WINNER OF THE FRANCO-BRITISH SOCIETY BOOK PRIZE 2016

What did it feel like to be a woman living in Paris from 1939 to 1949? These were years of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets until - finally - renewal and retribution. Even at the darkest moments of Occupation, glamour was ever present. French women wore lipstick. Why?

It was women who came face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis - perhaps selling them their clothes or travelling alongside them on the Metro, where a German soldier had priority over seats. By looking at a wide range of individuals from collaborators to resisters, actresses and prostitutes to teachers and writers, Anne Sebba shows that women made life-and-death decisions every day, and, in an atmosphere where sex became currency, often did whatever they needed to survive. Her fascinating cast includes both native Parisian women and those living in Paris temporarily: American women and Nazi wives, spies, mothers, mistresses, and fashion and jewellery designers.

Some women, like the heiress Béatrice de Camondo or novelist Irène Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like lesbian racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; only a handful, like Coco Chanel, retreated to the Ritz with a German lover.

In enthralling detail Sebba explores the aftershock of the Second World War and the choices demanded. How did the women who survived to see the Liberation of Paris come to terms with their actions and those of others? Although politics lies at its heart, Les Parisiennes is the first in-depth account of the everyday lives of women and young girls in this most feminine of cities.


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Joint winner for Franco-British Society Book Prize 2017.

This is a fascinating book I couldn't stop reading. Anne Sebba knows everything about Paris during the war and she relates the end of all the whispered stories I've been hearing all my life. She understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood -- Edmund White, author of THE FLANEUR Wonderfully researched, this is an important retelling of Les Annees Noires in Paris which puts women's stories, and the complications of their lives under Occupation, centre stage. Sebba reminds us that we should listen and put ourselves in their shoes, before leaping immediately to judgement, and backs this up with testimonies from many women whose voices have remained unheard -- Kate Mosse, author of LABYRINTH and CITADEL 'Anne Sebba's fascinating and beautifully written study gives voice to a myriad of narratives belonging to the Parisian women who resisted, collaborated, flourished, suffered, died or survived through a mixture of defiance and compromise ... Sebba skilfully weaves the history of 1940s Paris through the remarkable stories of women from all walks of life' -- Clare Mulley SPECTATOR Anne Sebba has the nearly miraculous gift of combining the vivid intimacy of the lives of women during the Occupation with the history of the time. This is a remarkable book -- Edmund de Waal, author of THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES 'As Anne Sebba shows, life for a Parisian woman was a deeply ambiguous affair. Their experiences, like a kaleidoscope can be 'turned any number of ways to produce a different image'. Sebba's book, with its phenomenal amount of detailed research and its vast cast of characters, is rich in stories about the tricks of life under Occupation, the heroism of those who carried out acts of defiance, the slipperiness of collusion and the vast profits made by fixers, contacts, middlemen and entrepreneurs. She is particularly good on the fashion world and the scheming, equivocating social luminaries' -- Caroline Moorehead LITERARY REVIEW 'One of the distinctive features of Anne Sebba's richly intelligent history is her evocation of sound. Sebba has deliberately eschewed a focus on well-known primary documentation for her history of Parisian women during the Second World War, choosing instead to alert her readers to a 'quieter and frequently less well-known' set of voices. Those voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book ... Sebba is adept at explaining the changing political climate of Paris as the war progressed, but she never allows politics to overshadow her subjects' voices. This book does not judge - instead, in the breadth of its humanity, it achieves some of the recognition that the Parisiennes' own heroic modesty often denied them' -- Lisa Hilton TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT The debate over the extent of collaboration versus the extent of resistance during the occupation is not new, but Sebba has found an enthralling way of looking at the story by focusing on how the choice was made by French women, and, in particular, by the women of Paris ... Sebba doesn't offer an explanation as to why some women chose one course, others another, rightly letting their actions, compelling life stories - and the physiognomy of the wonderful selection of photographs - speak for themselves -- Sarah Helm OBSERVER 'This is an elegant, enthralling and richly illustrated account of how the female residents of the French capital survived the Second World War and its aftermath with Parisian panache' -- Caroline Sanderson SUNDAY EXPRESS 'As Anne Sebba makes clear in her fascinating book Les Parisiennes, there was no Hollywood clarity about life in the City of Light ... there were very many reasons not to resist ... Sebba has interviewed women who, remarkably, are talking about their experiences for the first time. This is a valuable book ... Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive ... To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep' -- Daisy Goodwin THE TIMES 'In the inter-war years women, who were yet to win the vote, had been encouraged to remain at home with motherhood vaunted as the ideal of womanhood. The reality of war propelled women into very different and often dangerous roles and it is these roles that Sebba explores in this powerful and moving book ... Sebba's researches have been exhaustive: she has interviewed survivors and read countless documents' -- Vanessa Berridge DAILY EXPRESS 'The book takes an unflinching and sympathetic look at the roles women were asked to play in the war, and those they wrote for themselves ... Sebba interviewed many of the surviving women, and tells their stories here, many for the first time ... Les Parisiennes insists on the moral incertitude of wartime, 'especially through the eyes of women'. Perhaps because their lives were so complicated and roles so divided, they were more able to perceive, and be at home with, ambiguity ... I am filled with admiration not only for the women themselves, but for Sebba's heroic research, for her meticulous tracking of these people and their exploits, of their fragility and their strength. This book is an important reminder of the fact that fully half of the story of the second world war is buried in memory and the archive, and has only recently been unearthed' -- Lauren Elkin GUARDIAN 'Anne Sebba's tour de force of research and reflection, Les Parisiennes, is a testament of silk and sacrifice; of choices to resist or collaborate with the Nazis; of dalliance, defiance, and survival that turned on a concierge's random kindness or a stick of gelignite strapped to the chest ... Sebba sources first-time stories of wartime women and records tales of collaboration horizontale with real sensitivity for the 'moral ambiguity' of those who exchanged sexual favours for privileges - or survival ... extraordinary and evocative' -- Madeleine Kingsley JEWISH CHRONICLE 'This is the most wonderful book. It's something that you could read every night in small doses because it's packed with stories of women, both wonderful women and awful ones, aristocrats, concierges, prostitutes, actresses, they're all in here ... The stories that you find, not just from diaries and ration books and things but actual interviews are completely riveting ... making us think how we ourselves perhaps might behave, which is always the most interesting kind of history book ... very moving ... it's got everything, humour, bravery, tragedy and wonderful stories' -- Amanda Craig MONOCLE 'The fruit of thorough research and interviews with survivors, this is a collage of extraordinary stories' -- Piers Paul Read THE TABLET 'This is a fascinating account of how women lived in Paris during the Forties. Novelist Irene Nemirovsky converted to Catholicism; the lesbian racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; Coco Chanel retreated to the Ritz with a lover. Chacun a son gout. Come liberation, of course, there was a heavy price to pay' -- Sebastian Shakespare TATLER 'The Nazi occupation of Paris and the violent aftermath of liberation forced women and young girls to be collaborators, resisters, bystanders or victims. Their moral dilemmas are told in Anne Sebba's poignant stories, many of them gleaned from interviews with survivors. Her theme is choice: to what extent did women passively collaborate in buying black-market food for their own children? How did so many women resist and save other people's children? Such life-and-death decisions beat at the heart of this powerful history' SAGA magazine 'In Les Parisiennes, historian Anne Sebba explores the tough choices made during the occupation. By weaving together a range of stories - of struggling housewives, social climbers, artists and actresses - she brings alive the challenges of Les Annees Noires ... she also demonstrates that, under occupation, life was mostly blurred lines and ethical trade-offs ... Is a degree of collusion justified if it puts you in a position to do good? And can too great an adherance to principles be counter-productive?... Sebba concludes surviving in occupied Paris did demand some sort of decision about how best to live alongside the Germans. 'It is not for the rest of us to judge, but, with imagination, we can understand,' she says. Her sweeping, nuanced account makes it easier for us to do just that' -- Dani Garavelli SUNDAY HERALD 'This account of the women of Paris living under the dark shadow of the Nazi occupation is a must-read' -- Sarra Manning RED ONLINE 'Les Parisiennes is the story of the famous and glamorous: Coco Chanel, jewelry designer Suzanne Belperron, novelist Irene Nemirovsky, actress Simone Signoret and the daughters of the Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels, and de Rothschild families. The book also features a cast of ordinary women - Ravensbruck survivors, Resistance fighters and collaborators - doing their best to muddle through, keep up their physical appearances and their famous French allure during the country's darkest of days ... The book, hard to put down, yet difficult to read in parts, is also the story of a city at its most vulnerable, and [an] intriguing insight into the importance of fashion to national self-esteem' WOMEN'S WEAR DAILY 'Paris in the 1940s was a war-torn time of fear, power, deprivation, secrets and as ever in the French capital, glamour. Les Parisiennes explores how these years impacted on the women of the city, with character accounts from war collaborators and resisters to actresses and writers, together portraying a fascinating account of how the women of Paris lived, loved and died under the Nazi Occupation' LIVING FRANCE magazine 'In World War II, the women of occupied Paris had to decide how to respond - should they resist? And if so, how? Sebba's compassionate, open-minded book tells some of their stories' HISTORY REVEALED 'This is a flowing account of women's lives in extraordinary circumstances' FAMILY TREE MAGAZINE 'Meticulously researched' -- Nicky Haslam SPECTATOR Books of the Year This fascinating account of women during the Second World War tells hard-lived stories from housewives to Resistance fighters, shop girls to celebrities. It's a brilliantly researched, untold history that asks a fundamental question: how do people make choices in war? Collaborate, resist, do the right thing at great personal risk-or just survive? -- Antonia Byatt THE TIMES An enthralling narrative of women's reactions to German Occupation as Paris became a place of 'power, fear, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets' . Some chose to maintain glamour no matter what, others to resist; most just coped as best they could, and this is a sympathetic look at the choices they made -- Mary S. Lovell, author of THE MITFORD GIRLS THE WEEK 'Anne Sebba, author of a biography of Wallis Simpson, has written this vivid account, subtitled How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s. This was after the German invasion, which brought out the best and worst in the women of Paris. A few, like Violette Szabo, killed at Ravensbruck, became heroines of the Resistance. Others hid Jews at great risk to themselves. Some collaborated with the Germans, to be imprisoned and ostracised after the war' CATHOLIC HERALD One of the best researched, least rabid accounts of the Vichy era -- Edmund White TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT Anne Sebba's fabulous book, Les Parisiennes, sets out to show in a remarkably non-judgmental way, how the women of Paris acted when faced with German occupation in the Second World War, and perhaps even more interestingly, how they behaved in the years immediately following ... The Spinoff's choice not just as the best book of non-fiction of 2016 but as the best book of any kind -- Linda Burgess THE SPINOFF (NEW ZEALAND) [M]ost enticingly, in addition to uncovering some little-known stories and accounts, Sebba has contributed original research in the form of interviews with surviving participants. These bring valuable testimony from women who survived roundups, deportation and camps, resisted in various ways, witnessed arrests, battles and head-shavings, experienced privations and face complex ethical choices. Sebba approaches difficult subject matter with tact and respect, seeking to understand the decisions and motivations of women on all sides. FRENCH HISTORY

Anne Sebba read History at King's College London then joined Reuters as a foreign correspondent based in London and Rome. She has written eight works of non-fiction, mostly about iconic women, presented BBC radio documentaries, and is an accredited NADFAS (National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies) lecturer.

General Fields

  • : 9781780226613
  • : Orion Publishing Group, Limited
  • : Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • : June 2017
  • : 198mm X 129mm
  • : United Kingdom
  • : April 2017
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : 496
  • : 817
  • : Paperback