One Woman’s Tragic Destiny in War-torn France
Two sisters, two different destinies. In Final Transgression, 85-year-old Caroline Aubry tells the tale of the tragic wartime destiny of her beloved younger sister, Séverine. From their humble beginnings in a hamlet in the southwest of France to a château where Séverine becomes the protegée of the beautiful countess who employs their parents, their trajectories differ. After they move to Paris, the pragmatic Caroline becomes a successful designer and the high-spirited Severine marries a rich jeweler. When WW2 breaks out and her collaborationist husband betrays her, the headstrong Séverine flees to the chateau and the countess –– in spite of warnings about the risk of traveling to an area that is a fierce battleground for rival groups of résistants, Nazis and collaborators. Severine is beautiful, intelligent but obstinate – and it is that obstinacy that will ultimately seal her fate. The end of the war in France was a time for settling scores. Séverine, an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times, unwittingly hands the hangman’s noose to her enemies in one egregious act—her final transgression.
Conversation with Harriet
Below, U.S.-based writer and editor Lucy Sieger interviews Harriet about her latest book, Final Transgression. Additional questions and answers will be added as they arise. Perhaps you have a question that hasn’t been brought up here? Don’t hesitate to write, using the Contact form on this site.
What inspired you to write this story?
I was inspired to write this because I married a Frenchman and his family often talked about the war. They told many stories about life in WW2 but one that was not told, but only hinted at, was about a relative who, near the end of the War, met her fate in a tragic way. I only learned the barebones of that story but it fueled my imagination. It also fueled my curiosity about the political situation in the southwest of France where rival groups of résistants fought not only the Nazis but their own countrymen basically over who would take power after the war. I knew nothing about this aspect of WW2 in France and it astounded me and inspired me to plunge into the history of those times and events. The characters and places are fictional but the historical events of both pre-War France and France during the War are true and have been thoroughly researched.
Do French people today still talk about World War 2? How close is it to them?
It is very close indeed to the older generation, less so to the younger. I remember how, as a young bride, I followed my mother-in-law into the kitchen where I began peeling potatoes. She watched silently for a minute, then admonished me kindly: “Ah, ma petite fille, je vois que vous n’avez pas connue la guerre” (Honey, I see that you didn’t live during the War”). She proceeded to pluck the potato from my hands and demonstrate how to peel it without taking off huge chunks of skin. During the War, she told me, it was important to conserve every single bit. Almost every conversation with my French in-laws was peppered with reminiscences of the War – how the family was under curfew and would sneak out in pitch dark to go to a next door neighbor’s house to play cards, how my husband, only 2 at the time, was fascinated by the blond American soldier who offered him chewing gum, something he had never seen before, how an American plane was shot down and landed right in the cemetery of the village church and how my husband’s grandmother grabbed a sheet and ran to cover the dead pilot’s body. The stories flowed. I now wish I had written every single one down.
Why is the fate of Severine so dependent upon three men? And, why would a woman choose to have a child during such a tumultuous, uncertain time?
Séverine is less independent that she would like to think she is. She has always been cossetted and coddled, first by her parents and her sister Caroline, then by the lady of the castle who has taken her under her wing. Her childhood friend Paul loves her unconditionally and even Luc ignores his unrequited love and can’t bring himself not to love her. As far as having a child during such a tumultuous time is concerned, Séverine has only one goal: to ignore her husband’s political leanings and concentrate on getting him to make her a baby. The “baby” of her own family, her only strong desire in life is to have a child of her own to coddle and cajole and love the way she has been coddled and cajoled and loved – war or no war.
Why did the protagonist return to such a dangerous and risky place at such a dangerous time?
Séverine is beautiful, intelligent, saucy and headstrong. She generally does what she wants and doesn’t listen to other people. She puts her urgent need to get away from her cheating husband before any considerations of safety. For her, living with a man who lied to her was untenable. Next to the comfort and solace she will find in the castle with the countess, the question of whether the area is dangerous or risky seems to be superfluous.
Why do you defend, or at least seem to defend, a woman who has (supposedly) betrayed her country by collaborating with the Nazis?
One thing I wanted to illustrate in this book is that during the War not all was black and white. There were many, many gray areas. I could write more about a “defense” of Séverine and her stupid actions but I don’t want to give away the plot to those who have not read the book!
Why did Luc finally put political considerations before personal ones?
Again, I don’t want to “give away” Luc’s reasons but a simple answer would be that Séverine pushed him too far one time too many.
You never talk about the Jews and the Holocaust in the book. Why?
First of all, never say never! I have a Jewish character, Madame Hertzberg, whose shop is taken over by an Aryan owner. But, remember: Séverine grew up in a small town in the provinces where she didn’t know any Jews because there weren’t any. To answer the larger question, this book was intentionally written to reflect the life of an ordinary non-Jewish French woman in extraordinary times. There is an idea that all the French were anti-Semitic which is not true. You will see different stances through the different characters in the novel. There were dreadful anti-Semites in France, just as there were Christians and people of all faiths who hid and helped the Jews. Again, I try to highlight the fact that during the war not all was black and white.
What did you discover about the daily life of French people under the German occupation that you didn’t know?
As I mentioned above, I discovered, and I hope my readers will discover, the vicious rivalries between groups of Résistants. I thought that the Resistance was a monolithic bloc and discovered that there were many different groups of resisters, formed on the basis of their politics (communist, Gaullist, etc.). I discovered that food rations were dire and that this accounts for the bad teeth of many in that generation. (It also accounts for the French love for, emphasis on and appreciation of good food!). I discovered the obligation of business owners to go back several generations to prove their Aryan ancestry. My father-in-law, a business owner, was obliged to do this. I discovered many, many things I did not know which is why I placed a short bibliography, glossary and timeline at the end of the book.
For more about Final Transgression: http://www.understandfrance.org/Books/Transgression.html