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The orphan story of British women in occupied France: History, memory, legacy

Sene, Ayshka 2018. The orphan story of British women in occupied France: History, memory, legacy. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Abstract

This thesis examines the ‘orphan story’ of British women in occupied France. It focuses in particular on the experiences of British women interned in Besançon and Vittel, two internment camps in Eastern France, during the Second World War. It contextualises such stories of incarceration within the broader experiences and narratives of British women in wartime France, and it questions why these experiences of internment have been overlooked until now. Existing work on British women in France has tended to focus on the exploits of young women who served as Special Operations Executive agents (Pattinson 2007), contributing to a highlighting of the heroic and glamorous aspects of resistance. This reflects a small proportion of the British women in Occupied France when compared with the 3900 internees in Besançon in December 1940, and does not account for the everyday experiences of British women from different generations and social backgrounds. Drawing on biographies published between 2007 and 2014 about British women interned in Besançon and Vittel, and a significant corpus of archival material (unpublished diaries, correspondence, oral history recordings, foreign office reports, photographs, and drawings related to their experiences), this thesis interrogates such current understandings and stereotypes about British women during the Second World War in France. Since wartime is a ‘particularly fertile time at which to see the nation at work’ (Purcell 2007, p.7), it does so by highlighting how notions of ‘Britishness’ and national identity influenced these women. Indeed, this study reveals the importance of national identity in shaping British women’s experiences between 1939 and 1944. Until December 1940, despite the increasing Nazi threat, women with the strongest sense of belonging to France were the most likely to remain, undeterred by strong recommendations from the British government to leave. Categories such as ‘enemy alien’ meant that British women who had ‘belonged’ in France for decades were ostracised by some French people, as Britain was labelled an enemy and a traitor in Vichy and Nazi propaganda. This thesis reveals the slippage between national identities experienced by these women and demonstrates that many internees discovered or reawakened their sense of Britishness during this period. Some actively chose to ‘flag’ (Billig 1995), their British nationality over other identities to survive. Finally, using biographies written by relatives of these women, it evaluates the inter-generational transmission of these wartime experiences. It argues that their life stories have remained peripheral in popular memories of the war. These are ‘orphan stories’ as such life experiences sat in-between national narratives in Britain and France, and, even today, do not align with depictions of the British national self as ‘triumphant’ or ‘tragically defeated’ (Daase 2010, p.19).

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Submission
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Modern Languages
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 17 January 2019
Last Modified: 18 Jan 2019 10:03
URI: http://orca-mwe.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/118498

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