Interview with Anne Sebba

OT: Tell us a little about your career: how have you reached your current position as author, critic and journalist?

AS: I started my career with a holiday job at the BBC World Service (the Arabic Department), which was obviously just enough to persuade Reuters to take me on their graduate trainee scheme… the first woman they had taken. I spoke French, German and Russian, so they sent me to Italy under the impression that a woman would find it easier in Rome to get access to stories. I think they never thought that I would last as a foreign correspondent, so when I got pregnant in 1978 they asked me to leave! I contemplated fighting the decision, but we then moved to New York and I decided I lacked the stomach for a legal battle and started out as a freelance journalist from the Big Apple. I got my first book contract that year too. I loved my six years at Reuters and learned a lot about being a journalist: the importance of truth and accuracy, and having two sources are still vitally important in my career as a biographer. But the insistence on brevity, pyramid style of writing and lack of emotion I have been trying to unlearn ever since. Lack of bias and objectivity may be good, but sometimes you have to take sides. Moral equivalence is not always fine.


OT: Your books focus on fascinating and influential women, or women who have lived through extraordinary moments of history (such as Les Parisiennes). Why do you place such an emphasis on ‘female histories’ in your work?

AS: I could be flippant and say because men have had their day, but, while the tone of that phrase sounds angry, it nonetheless contains an element of truth.  Historically, it is men who have wielded power: thus, history books traditionally have been about kings and military leaders etc., yet women existed. So what was their role as wives and mothers and, literally in some cases, powers behind the throne? Jennie Churchill and Wallis Simpson are the most obvious examples of wives, or (in Jennie’s case) mothers, being influential, but Laura Ashley was as influential as Bernard in building the company. And Mother Teresa, mother to millions, wielded huge power, yet tried to maintain that it was not her influence but God’s. Even Enid Bagnold understood the position of women clearly and wrote a successful play, The Chalk Garden, which is entirely about women running the household where all decisions are taken.

In some cases, women — and, again, I speak historically and am fully aware of the dangers of generalising — have often had more interesting lives because of this inner tension: a desire to fulfill their intellectual capacity and at the same time a desire to nurture. Only very recently have women been educated (in large enough numbers) to the same level as their male counterparts and allowed to exert power or to perform artistically (other than as an actor), or to report on war. I wrote Battling for News (a history of women reporters) partly because I could not believe that women at the time of World War II were actually forbidden to report from the front line: they could not get accreditation to go there. In the case of Les Parisiennes, I was similarly shocked to discover that women in France did not have the vote until 1946 and so throughout the war played a far more active role in resisting and maintaining stability at home and in deciding how to respond to German occupying soldiers on a daily basis than formally their status in law allowed them. They could not have a bank account nor take on a job without permission of husbands or fathers.


OT: How do you feel about ‘women’s history’ arguably being treated very much as a sub-set or offshoot of main historical writing?

AS: Obviously it is inaccurate, ahistorical and prejudiced. Let’s take my most recent book, Les Parisiennes —  as far as I am concerned this is not ‘wimmin’s history’: it is mainstream history showing the effect of the blitzkrieg and military defeat on the city of Paris. But it is not how military historians have seen it because it is history without the battles. Yet the battles were fought on an ad hoc basis every day; battles to get enough food to feed your extended family, battles to survive and perhaps print a political leaflet telling the story of how the war was progressing; battles to stuff your bicycle tyre with straw when rubber was no longer available to deliver food to a Jewish man in hiding.  Once you recognise that almost two million men were taken as prisoner of war in 1940 and hundreds of others joined de Gaulle and the Free French in London, then it becomes clear that it was the women in the city who were responsible for deciding how to respond to the Nazi occupier, and there was a range of possibilities. Women were able to distract Germans by engaging in conversation or even flirting in order to deliver political tracts and to escort downed airman from one safe house to another, and myriad other small acts which cumulatively had a major effect on morale and cementing opposition to the Germans. Yet relatively very few were recognised by de Gaulle and his government after the war with awards as they had probably carried out these acts in an ad hoc way, without being formally registered to a resistance group and thus were not designated ‘combattants’. I think there is a very interesting parallel in literature where novels written by women are often deemed domestic or small scale — a term of insult — yet, in fact, there is nothing more important than how children are brought up or conditioned in the home.


OT: What role do you think that the internet and social media can play in giving platforms to previously unheard voices? What effect does that have on the writing of history?

AS: Blogs can be written by anyone, and consequently books can be reviewed by anyone. This is both good and bad. This new, uncurated space opens up possibilities for the young who do not have a track record, and in this way prevents reviews being given to a small circle of reviewers, many of whom know the author about whom they are writing. On balance, I think it is good, but it may mean that some reviewers tackle subjects about which he or she knows little.


OT: What relationship does a woman in the public sphere have with social media? With regards to Mary Beard and Lucy Worsley receiving abuse online, do you think that the internet is merely a reflection of society’s prejudices and norms? Is it a tool that privileges the already privileged voice?

AS: I think it was interesting this summer to watch the role of social media when the storm blew up around Chalke Valley History Festival for giving so little speaking time to BAME and female writers. In some ways, this was unfair as Chalke Valley was focusing on battles and most of the participants in these a hundred years ago were men. Also, Chalke Valley does great outreach work with schools, but that was precisely the problem: kids were absorbing that it was white men who made history. In fact, the debate on social media about Chalke Valley was relatively restrained and will probably have a positive outcome, since publishers will now rush to commission more books about the role of Black and Asian people in British history. TV and radio programmes are aware not only of the need to discuss the issues but of the huge audience eager to read and learn a more balanced version of British history.

The internet gives anyone a voice without filtering or controlling whether or not that person is entitled to have a voice: sometimes the effect is to give the appearance that ill-informed bullies are in the majority, when they may just have the loudest voice. Online abuse is obviously unacceptable and deeply distasteful. Even given my Reuters training — I’m always trying to think of something to balance any remark — I’m not sure I can help here, other than to point out that newspapers and satirical pamphlets have been around for a long time and have said some cruel things, but mostly about people in positions of power, not private individuals. There is a whole essay to be written on the misogyny that has been unleashed on the internet. I am appalled at the notion that anyone could think this is acceptable and not worry about the harmful consequences which go way beyond the detestable attacks on individuals.


OT: When writing Les Parisiennes, you were tackling topics of near-contemporary French history (many of those women are still alive today). Did you have to be careful in your treatment of politically-charged ideas of resistance and collaboration, with the subject matter still fresh and alive in French society?

AS: I would say only some, not many, of the women involved are still alive today. Nonetheless, that is very important, and for those who were teenage résistantes, if still alive in their 90’s they often have a very clear memory of what happened. I would include in that Jacqueline Marié (later Fleury), who as a young girl distributed political leaflets, or tractes, and after was captured and sent to a camp (Ravensbrück), where she managed to survive. She was then sent on a ‘death march’ from Ravensbrück to Germany with her mother. She now lives in Versailles, has married and has several children and grandchildren and gives talks in schools about her life experiences. When my book came out she tried to read it but speaks no English and misunderstood one sentence. As a result, she wrote to me complaining about my cover, which she felt did not portray the female resistance in France. We had a friendly correspondence, and she now recognises that my account of our conversation is accurate, and also understands that a cover can only convey part of the story. But the French version of the book will have a different cover — equally strong, I think, as it will show the Swastika flying in Paris! This is just one story, but yes, of course, it is sensitive and some women refused to meet me, worried about what I might elicit or how I, as a British woman who had never experienced occupation, could possibly understand the difficult choices they faced. ‘C’est très compliqué’ was the opening for almost every conversation I had. But I am well trained to sit and listen and not say very much, and most people in those circumstances actually want to tell their stories. I think this satisfies a deep human need not to die without revealing how you lived. I love being the receptacle, or the unblocker.


OT: How do you view the position of women in contemporary society? How would a women’s historian remember and record this period in 200 years?

AS: Enormous change … watch this space! I hate ‘what if’ questions in history but recognise they are fascinating!


OT: The representation of female historians in the public sphere and on TV remains a thorny issue. How do you view the situation, and what do you think could be done to encourage greater gender equality in a male-dominated discourse?

AS: Lots. For a start, we must accept that women come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and we must not watch them on TV simply to discuss their clothes. I have been given many instructions by TV directors about what to wear and how to do my hair, but you find elderly male TV (and radio) presenters in crumpled old suits (and crumpled old faces). Surely it is time to accept that older women have something to add in terms of experience and not expect them to be models as well, and certainly it is not necessary to dress up in fancy costumes simply to make it jokey and entertaining. What we say and the filming around us should be strong enough.


OT: Tell us about your role as Chair for the Management Committee of Britain’s Society of Authors. What were — and are —nthe greatest issues facing the contemporary author in Britain today? How about publishers?

AS: There were three main issues:

  1. Payment for authors attending festivals. You don’t expect the lighting engineer to do it for free simply because books are so important!
  2. Getting books to prisoners when the government banned all parcels. A disaster! I spent one night in prison cell to draw attention to this folly!
  3. Royalties on e-books are now paid, which was a tough battle with publishers.


OT: Tell us about your research and writing process.

AS: I love real people. So, although I recognise the need to consult documents and archives (of course), I prefer encounters with ‘the living’. It is also less lonely. Spending hours in libraries and then hours writing the book can be very lonely, so I always look for living people or descendants who can help or direct me to keep me in touch with reality. This is partly as a result of my having been a journalist, but it has paid rich dividends. Two examples: I discovered that Ernest Simpson had a son born in 1939 who was now a free-diver in Mexico, so I want to stay with him in Mexico even though he was born after his father had divorced Wallis and never met her. His mother was Wallis’s best friend from school so he filled in lots of those gaps in Wallis’s childhood for me. He spoke to me about his father having been Jewish and wanting to deny this, and explained the snobbish aspect of his father which allowed the affair to progress. Finally, he gave me 20 addresses of other relatives which resulted in my finding a cache of 15 unpublished letters and numerous documents and diaries which has totally changed the accepted version of the story. Wallis may still not be liked, but there is much greater sympathy for her these days, thanks to this discovery.  As a historian, I consider these as probably my greatest contribution to revisionism surrounding the Abdication story. By using real people, however unlikely, I discovered the documents which are the meat and drink of historical understanding. Similarly, with my book on Les Parisiennes, it is by mixing interviews with real people and recognising that while their accounts may be unreliable, by double checking with documents, journals and letters I think one arrives at a composite that can never be the whole truth, but goes some way toward being the best version of the truth we have.


OT: What advice would you give either to aspiring journalists or authors?

AS: Just do it – don’t talk about it, but don’t give up the day job yet! Keep a diary!


OT: As a former foreign correspondent, how do you interpret the ongoing decisions regarding Brexit?

AS: As a historian, I would say just look at the 70 years of peace and plenty my generation has enjoyed and ask why on earth we are now throwing away all that we have achieved. When the next generation accuses us of pulling up the ladder behind us I feel appallingly guilty and sad.


OT: How do you feel that social progress can be achieved in what seem to be politically regressive times?

AS: Keep fighting and resisting — don’t give up! It just takes one person …


Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Orion Paperback, £9.99).