In 1944, in preparation for the Normandy landings, the Political Warfare Executive produced a pamphlet entitled "Instructions for British Servicemen in France". Recently republished by the Bodleian Library, this fascinating work outlined the finer points of French culture to our troops, along with the debilitating circumstances the population had endured under occupation. "Each year," it states, "at least 5,000 Frenchmen have been shot for active resistance – one every two hours." In Agnes Humbert's remarkable memoir, we are told the tragic stories of several of that number.
At the outset of the Second World War, Humbert was a highly respected middle-aged curator at the Paris Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires. By the time jackboots clopped on to the Place de la Concorde she was already a well-travelled polymath, divorcee and mother of two grown-up sons. One might imagine that was enough. She was hardly a viable recruit for a revolutionary unit. Nor were the members of her rarefied circle: Boris Vildé (linguist and ethnographer), Anatole Lewitzky (head of the European-Asiatic department), Pierre Walter (society photographer), Yvonne Oddon (chief librarian) and Jean Cassou (art critic and poet). Yet they were to become the "Cercle Alain-Fournier", a fledgling cell named after the author of Le Grand Meaulnes, in whose publisher's building the conspirators meet.
The group make good use of their talents, first circulating 33 Conseils à l'occupé (33 Hints to the Occupied) before publishing their own tract, Résistance. Gaullist propaganda aside, they were also heavily involved with the hiding of allied airmen and enemies of the Vichy regime. "There are other people who think like us, who are suffering and organising the struggle," believes Humbert. "Soon a network will cover the whole of France, and our little group will be just one link in a mighty chain." It was, of course, not meant to be. Eventually, the grinding down of conscience and the slow dilution of resolve resulted in betrayal.
The group were rounded up by the Gestapo. A farcical trial and the subsequent executions of many of the male members of the circle make for sober reading. A few pages earlier Humbert had described their cheery dinner, discussing recipes in a "delightful little Left Bank restaurant, warm and cosy". Such is the whim of war. Humbert is sentenced to five years in prison and deported to a Nazi labour camp in Germany. This section of the book is a register of abuse, disease and suicide. Remembering her first night in captivity, Humbert notes: "There is a part of me – all that is romantic, gentle or kind in me – that died that day. I shall never be the same again." Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth. Her prose is visceral, immediate and yet extraordinarily positive.
This is both a historically important document and a fine literary achievement. The unbearable becomes bearable through Humbert's words. Her mantra, which frequently sustains the morale of her fellow prisoners, is that each degradation inflicted upon them is a humiliation of the captor's soul not theirs. As a lifelong art lover she has a painterly eye for sanguine detail. At one moment she finds solace in the plaintive notes of a Russian accordion, in another a simple, covert squeeze of the hand becomes joyous. However, Humbert remains a pragmatist, a woman of action. "Civilisation has to use the weapons of barbarism to prevail," she states. "That is the great tragedy".
Although published in French in 1946, this is the first time Résistance has been translated into English, no doubt due to the success of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Francaise. Barbara Mellor has done a wonderful job as translator, retaining the precision of Humbert's voice and adding much of value in her notes on the text. They hint at a real labour of love. She and Bloomsbury have done their author proud. The name of Agnes Humbert should now join the ranks of Lucie Aubrac and Violette Szabo, women whose bravery and dignity during the occupation deserves to be remembered for many generations to come.