Anne Sebba and The Woman with No Name

Posted on 14th June 2017 by Martha Greengrass
Anne Sebba has long focused her writing on the lives of truly iconic women, including 2011’s That Woman, the life of Wallis Simpson. Les Parisiennes casts her net more widely, picking up on the hidden heroism of the women who fought to undermine the Nazi occupation of Paris during wartime and their lives following the city’s liberation. Here, the author offers a living example of that spirited existence.

I’ve been called many names in my life but declencheur (meaning unblocker, generally used of a plumber. I don’t think there is a feminine version of the word) was a new one. And it was meant as a compliment. 

It happened like this. 

Early on in my research I was introduced to a wonderful woman who, although born into an upper middle class French family, had married an Englishman and lived for all her married life in England. When her husband died she had moved back to Paris and lived in the same flat, in the same large house where her parents, aunts and grandparents had all lived.

I loved visiting her for a variety of reasons. The fact that she spoke such good English - no risk of misunderstanding - was only one of them. Another was that she served me delicious lunches but this too was not the key ingredient either. I loved chatting to her because she did not want to be named in my book. Of course, this might be a sign that the individual had something to hide. But not in this case. The Occupation is a period many French would prefer not to discuss because of the shame and humiliation of the German defeat and the compromises inevitably made by the remaining population in order to survive. This woman wanted to remain anonymous because she insisted she had done nothing especially courageous and therefore should not be named as so many she knew had done so much more. Yet she offered me a real window into ordinary middle class society during the Nazi Occupation, sometimes referred to as Les Années Noires

After a couple of years getting to know her story, the time came for her to downsize from this magnificent family home, built in the mid-19th century with typical Parisian courtyard. And when her children came over to Paris to help her move they discovered three items that showed she had indeed undertaken risks during the Occupation. The items included tissue paper thin ‘tractes’ or political pamphlets produced by the Catholic resistance organisation, Témoignage Chrétien, that she had delivered to people she hoped would be receptive to them. She housed downed allied airman on their way to a safe house and I saw the thank you letters from the pilots written to her in the sixties and she worked briefly for the Red Cross as I saw her uniform.

They were what she described as little things …‘des petits actes.’ Yet, cumulatively, these actions by my friend and women like her made a huge difference, bolstering the spirit of resistance and harrying the Germans. And, if discovered, she would have faced imprisonment and possibly torture or deportation. This woman’s attitude was typical of so many women during these dark days in Paris that they had done nothing and therefore, after the War, wanted to return to normality and get on with their lives. Moving forward, protecting children was more important. 

Yet, now, pressed by grandchildren and sometimes writers like me, several are ready to tell their story, calmly, like this woman who even without her name being in my book, is emblematic of so many who did what they could in unimaginable, difficult times. With or without a name her courage, I hope, shines through and it’s important that we in England try and understand. So when she wrote to me recently and told me that my book had been eagerly read by many of her friends and head earned me the nickname of ‘Anne the Declencheur’ how could I not be thrilled.

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Sebba collects testimonies from a wide range of Parisiennes who were forced to choose between resistance and collaboration during the Nazi occupation of the French capital. Illuminating and adroitly structured, Les Parisiennes shines a light on women’s roles in wartime and the quiet heroism of female strength.
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