My Tuesday Talk Guest - Jan Harvey
I was brought up in Puritan household, straight-laced doesn’t come close to describing it. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to me to be writing about the nefarious activities of a brothel and its 'ladies' in occupied Paris during World War II for my debut novel, The Seven Letters.
Estimates suggest that almost a hundred thousand Parisian women turned to prostitution when their men-folk were interned in work camps in Germany. An occupying force of soldiers, who had left wives and girlfriends behind, besieged the city and it was therefore inevitable that women, who desperately needed to feed their children, would meet the demand for sex.
The Nazi High Command, however, had other ideas. Not for them a dirty street corner on a foggy night, they took over the finest of the Maison Closes, some twenty well-known Parisian brothels, and made them exclusive for their own use.
Before the invasion French dignitaries, actors (some the most famous names in Hollywood) and top civil servants frequented the houses. They were luxurious places boasting rooms so opulent they could have been in Versailles or the Palaces of India. The women were exquisite and highly paid for their work and, funded by Nazi money, they had everything they desired. It would often take a whole week’s salary for a night with one of the women, but the German officers were insatiable.
When I wrote The Seven Letters, I knew I wanted to feature The French Resistance, but I was unsure where in France to set it. Finding out about the most famous of the Maison Closes, The Chabanais, gave me my starting point. I decided to place my heroine, Claudette Bourvil, inside the brothel where she would be spying on the patrons. I also reasoned that she must be an innocent to experience the shock of what she was encountering. In those days a girl from the country would have found it very hard to handle the situation, which made for tension.
The book had to be researched of course and so I made trips to Paris to experience the relevant settings and learn more about the city at that time. I found the original Chabanais, now a faceless office building, and wondered if those people working inside had any idea of what went on in there in times gone by.
My husband and I ended up in the Musée de l'Érotisme near the Moulin Rouge and I assure you that what we saw in there would have had my Puritan aunts spinning in their graves. It is not a venue for innocents and it was quite unsettling in places! The very helpful curator told us where to find what we were looking for, so we made our way up to the fourth floor where we were able to study photographs of the brothels and prostitutes and, of course, the Madams who ran them.
I had pulled on a little known thread of history and now the whole book was coming together in my mind and the characters were introducing themselves to me one by one. After two years of thinking I needed to get writing and, actually, I sat down and finished the whole book in six weeks. It just came out, line after line and, because I had so deeply researched the subject, I found I could insert the historical aspects of the Occupation and Liberation in the relevant places. I saw them as pegs on a washing line securing the chapters into place.
I would not claim to be an historian, but I am an author who loves social history and I really enjoyed digging deep into the work of the Resistance and the Special Operations Executive in France during the war, not particularly for the military aspects of that time, but more to understand the social history and the impact of living under the rule of an alien and hostile force. How would we cope today, how much would we collaborate to survive? I often wonder that.
Of course, those who have read The Seven Letters know that it does not end well for Claudette. Her dreadful treatment at the hands of her own people is heartbreaking, but then no one has ever said that war is pretty. Her downfall comes from another set of images, which have been burnt into my soul. They show, in terrible detail, man’s inhumanity to woman and yet these things still go on today in many places right across the globe.
I hope that anyone reading Claudette’s story will mull over the hardships and horrors that women like her, together with their male comrades, suffered to free France and maybe further understand why protecting our freedom at all costs is absolutely essential.
“When Claudette Bourvil is recruited to the French Resistance the last thing she expects is that she will be sent to work in the heart of Paris to spy on senior Nazi officers.
Claudette learns how to survive in a city ravaged by war, where the citizens are murdered on the whim of the occupying force. Constantly under threat of discovery, and in danger of losing her life, Claudette risks everything when she falls in love with the wrong man, the worst kind of man.
Over seventy years later, in rural Oxfordshire, Connie Webber discovers seven letters linked to a famous playwright, Freddy March. The letters will eventually lead her to Paris where she discovers the horrific reason behind Freddy’s lifelong depression. As his mother’s story unfolds Connie uncovers a dark past that the city has tried to erase from history.”
The Seven Letters is a debut novel by Jan Harvey.
It received a Discovering Diamonds Review here: Seven Letters Review
It is available on Amazon, on-line, from all retail outlets and signed copies can be ordered from http://www.janharveyauthor.com you can email Jan through the site too.
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