Paris: the city of light, of romance, of culture. The fashion capital of the world. We’ve all heard these phrases (or similar) in relation to France’s capital city but I’ve got another one for you: Paris – the city of intrigue, deception and valiant women who refused to give in to society’s expectations.
“The word ‘Parisienne’ may summon up to many the image of a chic, slim woman who wears fashionably elegant clothes and is appealing to men … But while admitting that the glamourous description fits some women in this book – women who wore designer suits while delivering vital information, women who believed that wearing an outrageously large hat was a form of resistance – I am giving it a wider meaning.”
These are the words we are greeted with upon opening Anne Sebba’s “Les Parisiennes: How Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s” and this is the Paris she is referring to. The story of an underground operation led by women who, just like their male counterparts, were willing to risk their lives for their beloved country, freedom and peace for all countrymen. It’s the tale of how women such as Coco Chanel, Irene Nemirovsky, Margaret Kelly, Arletty and many other brave women who took it upon themselves to carry vital information, explosive devices on behalf of their country, and generally put their lives at risk every day.
Written by a well-known British biographer, author and journalist of such high repute as Anne Sebba, there was no denying that this book was going to be thoroughly researched and accurate, but the stumbling block would be how to make such complicated information accessible to the public. Sebba, happily, does this with a finesse that only comes from years of practise and “Les Parisiennes” goes beyond the façade of a flourishing fashion capital, elegant and seemingly ignorant of war to speak of those that time forgot and still displays such information in a way that is palatable for most readers.
Certainly, there are times throughout this book that things get a little complicated, but then again, this isn’t a book one would really expect to get through quickly, as they would chick-lit or the latest crime thriller. It’s in-depth and comprehensive, detailed yet engaging from start to finish. There’s shocking tragedy, such as that of the women who suffered in Ravensbruk, and moments of lightness that counteract the harsh reality of the book’s harder moments.
But overall, it’s a haunting, historical account of actual events and their importance in world history, offering a complete and somewhat unique overview of France’s involvement in World War II. For history buffs, it’s a must read, but even those who find themselves intrigued by the nation itself will find something of interest here.