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BOUND TO PLEASE / Historian gives voice to women of wartime Paris

The Japan News

By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterLes Parisiennes

By Anne Sebba

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 451pp

Anne Sebba’s account of Parisian women under occupation in World War II begins about a year before the fall of Paris, with an extravagant circus-themed ball given in July 1939 by the American-born interior designer Elsie de Wolfe. By the final page, Sebba has taken us into the lives of an Indian princess who became a spy, a cross-dressing athlete shunned by French society, a Rothschild baroness and an Irish dancer.

Were this a novel, these four alone could surely fill its pages, yet they represent only a sliver of the women who come to life in Sebba’s history. She needs six pages just for a list of the main women who appear, and more than 11 for her bibliography. The reader’s reward for this prodigious feat of research is a dense but enthralling page-turner, filled with vibrant detail.

Wherever possible, Sebba presents the women’s stories in their words, including interviews with those still alive to give them. There are tales of great courage, of collaboration and of cold indifference after the war, as female deportees return from the camps to a city with little empathy or understanding for their suffering. One returnee is so weak she is allowed to jump the line for rationed food. She recalled a man complaining: “‘They know how to queue in concentration camps, don’t they?’ I hit him.”

Women found many ways to fight, and many ways to protect themselves. Courier Maureen O’Sullivan has a transmitter strapped to the back of her bicycle one day when a Gestapo officer in an adjacent car asks what’s in her suitcase. Smiling bright, she tells him the truth: “I’m going to contact London and tell them all about you.” He smiles back, says, “You’re far too pretty to risk your neck with such stupidities” and drives off.

And, of course, no book about Parisian women could exclude fashion and style. The Parisian woman’s devotion to being chic, war not withstanding, will doubtless inspire a variety of emotions, including mirth. As occupation looms, Sebba tells us, “It was not unusual to see [gas masks] in leather or satin-covered boxes or in bags made of various fabrics as women tried matching them to their outfits.” If you had 180 francs to spare, designer Jeanne Lanvin offered fetching cylindrical models, “one in green felt and the other in red, dotted with small stars.”

At the other end of the scale is profound respect. One of the book’s illustrations is a sketch of Jewish resister Odette Fabius, done by a fellow prisoner at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The image is horrifying: Fabius is a skeleton, covered with sores. Yet surely her elegant pose is no coincidence. She sits in profile with her right leg draped over the left, her chin up and eyes staring straight ahead. Take whatever else you will, she seems to say, you will not take the core of who I am.

Where to Read

In a chic sidewalk cafe

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