Madeleine Blaess (1918-2003)

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Madeleine Blaess. Portrait taken in Paris 1940-44.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Phil Morris.

Madeleine Blaess (1918-2003) obtained a post as lecturer in the French Department at the University of Sheffield in 1948. A specialist of Medieval literature she researched and taught at the University until her retirement in 1983. When she died, she left her papers to the University of Sheffield. In amongst them was a wartime diary she had written as a student. Born in France but raised in York, Blaess graduated with a first class degree from the University of Leeds in 1939. She was determined to carry on studying in the hope that one day she might emulate female role models in her field who had obtained university teaching posts in the wake of the Great War. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Sorbonne, suffering a penury of male students, had encouraged women from Great Britain, United States and Australia to study at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Although still very much in a minority, Blaess was one of a number of British women to head out to France in 1939 to study for a postgraduate degree. Not dissuaded by the threat of war Blaess caught the boat-train from Folkestone in November 1939. It is, of course, common knowledge that the French were complacently of the belief that German aggression could be competently and swiftly repelled. The attitude of Parisians (particularly that of the Great War veterans who were now the teaching majority at the Sorbonne) was similarly confident and persuaded students to stay in Paris to continue their courses. Only in the final week before invasion, did anglophone students begin to flee en masse for the ports and, even then, many amongst them regarded their departure as temporary pending a successful Allied defence of French territory. Blaess, who had been preoccupied with souvenir shopping just days before the Germans arrived in Paris, had been unable to obtain the necessary visas from both the French and British embassies in time to catch the last train to St Malo. She was trapped by the German advance and joined the panicked Parisians fleeing south. She finally returned to Paris towards the end of July 1940. On October 1 1940, in an apartment she shares with fellow postgraduate student Ruth Camp, she begins her diary. She chooses the date because it coincides with the start of the new term at the Sorbonne and, of course, a return to a semblance of normality and to the purpose of her being in Paris. She also addresses the diary to her parents by way of compensation for the weekly letters she can no longer send to York:

I am writing this for you because I can no longer send you letters. What I am writing here is a replacement. The first of October, the date classes begin again, is a suitable date to start but I have been wanting to do this for a long time because it is a way to feel closer to you”.

The epistolary form and purpose is not sustained throughout a diary which Blaess keeps on a daily basis between October 1 1940 and September 17 1944. Rather, the diary switches in and out of a range of established journal types and in so doing provides a fascinating record not only of everyday life as a student under the Occupation but of a young woman striving to achieve a dream of an academic career in defiance of familial expectation and societal convention.

The photograph is the view as it would have been from Madeleine Blaess’s window in Paris in the winter of 1942. It was taken from the studio flat in which she wrote her diary entries on the 8th floor of 320 Rue St Jacques

Madeleine is now on Twitter, telling it how it is in Paris in 1942….@MadeleineBlaess