Principles, betrayal and resistance in the mountains of France
I have just been reading an article about men who paid for cosmetic surgery during lockdown to lengthen their legs and thus reach the six foot status guaranteed to take them to high-earning CEO territory. I thought at first this was fiction, like Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, but no, apparently this was and is A Thing.
Wanting to be taller and taking steps to achieve it – is this limited to men? Is it easier for a woman to be tiny? At 5ft nothing myself I’ve often wanted to grow, but I’m not sure I’d pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars and months if not years of agony to achieve more height. And I’m not sure that it would really change my fortunes.
Small women are often underestimated, especially while young. This was the case for Annette Beaumanoir, who was born in Brittany in 1923 to unmarried parents, and who, at the age of nineteen, rescued two Jewish children from deportation to the concentration camps despite knowing her communist comrades forbade such unilateral decision-making. Throughout her life she championed causes, resistance and independent thought, and was frequently underestimated.
It’s annoying to read a profile of a small person which includes phrases like ‘despite her tiny stature she is fierce/driven/passionate/has a big personality’. Annette understood from the start that stalwart faith in principles bears little relation to one’s ethnicity, gender, wealth, religion, nationality, physical stature. What she realised as she aged, though, was that values in and of themselves are intangible; you can hold them dear but you can’t hug them. She gradually lost links to many of the people she loved with and, despite a brilliant medical career, came to regret prioritising these principles over personal connections.
One way in which I’ve been luckier than Annette is that my career in publishing has resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of encounters with people, many of which have developed into lasting friendships. (Publishing sometimes feels like an act of resistance, but in the UK it doesn’t often result in a ten year prison sentence.) And the English language publication of Epic Annette has contributed to this. I heard about the book through friends in Berlin, where I was staying to welcome a new step-granddaughter; I asked my cousin Charlotte Collins for suggestions of potential translators;
and I was privileged, during the launch process, to meet the author, Anne Weber, and her husband Antoine Jacottet, the translator Tess Lewis, the team at the Goethe Institute in London, colleagues from her German publishing house, and staff at the American University and Library in Paris, among others.
Annette was betrayed in 1959 by a double agent, codenamed Paul, after driving him from Montpellier to Alès. She had previously been suspicious of his behaviour in Arles, Avignon and Nîmes, but followed FLN orders nevertheless. These cities and towns are very familiar to me; the winding roads which caused pregnant Annette to stop because of her morning sickness are like tracks in my life, the beautiful Cévennes mountains the backdrop of my summers. This part of France is famous for resistance. After the revocation of the edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in the late seventeenth century, protestants were persecuted and the Wars of Religion between them and the Catholic majority were mainly waged in the south. The view from my kitchen window is called La Montée de Cavalier, after the Huguenot chief of the Camisards, Jean Cavalier, who caused a stir when he came to 18th century England as one of the Huguenot French Prophets.
During the second world war the maquis came here to regroup, constantly inspired by Jean Moulin who was born in nearby Béziers and who went to school in Montpellier. It is rugged and difficult terrain, not fashionable, poor, determined. In the most recent presidential elections my village voted for the socialist Mélenchon. Toughness runs through the mountainous landscape. Keeping human connections alive and learning who to trust has been an essential survival mechanism.
Annette has taught me that size really doesn’t matter. What counts is belief, passion and altruism, but also self-reflection, trusting one’s instincts and the grace to admit to mistakes. She was recognised by Yad Vashem as one of the righteous among nations, but wasn’t well-known as a resistance heroine in France because her championing of the Algerian independence cause was seen a treachery. I wish I’d met her in person; I’m glad to have met her on the page via Anne’s epic poem which combines politics, history, philosophy, wit and ethics in admirable, elegant brevity. No need for any lengthening operation.
About Susie Nicklin
Susie Nicklin began her career at The Bodley Head publishers and co-founded foreign rights specialist The Marsh Agency in 1993. She was Director of English PEN from 2002 – 2005, and inaugurated its translation programme (now PEN Translates). She was Director of Literature at the British Council from 2005 – 2013, creating international literary partnerships and events.
From 2015 – 2019 she was the owner of award-winning independent bookshop Dulwich Books, and she produced and directed ten literary festivals in that time. She founded The Indigo Press in 2018.