Find Articles in:
Home & Garden

Content from our trusted partner BNET
Get your own CNET Networks Widget. » GET IT NOW

Content provided in partnership with

On 23 May 1944, two weeks before D-Day, a taxi arrived in Downing Street. Two young French soldiers, a man and a woman, emerged and knocked on the door of No 10.

They wanted to get married the next day. They intended to ask Winston Churchill, then planning the greatest military invasion in history, to help them. They were shown into the Prime Minister's residence. (There was almost no security in May 1944.) Five minutes later, Churchill's wife, Clementine, came to speak to them.

The next day the two soldiers were married at the Our Lady of Victories church in Kensington. Two baskets of hydrangeas arrived with a letter of congratulations from Mr and Mrs Churchill. One of those young soldiers, Georges Torres, was killed in action in eastern France five months later. The other was Tereska Szwarc, a member of the women's section of Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces in London. As Tereska Torres, she went on to become a celebrated French writer.

Her frank, moving and funny diaries of life in wartime London, recently republished in paperback, are among the finest first-hand accounts of Britain in the Blitz. They are also one of the few descriptions of London in wartime to be written from the point of view of a woman soldier of any nationality. Inexplicably, they have never been published in English.

In 1950, Mme Torres published another, fictionalised, account of her experiences in London and the extraordinary tangle of fugitive love affairs between men and women - and women and women - in uniform. Translated into English and 13 other languages, the book became an international best-seller. It sold 2 million copies in the US alone.

Strange as it may seem, that book - Women's Barracks - has never been published in French, the language in which it was written. Never, that is, until now.

Early next year, the novel will be published in French for the first time, under a different title. After refusing point-blank for more than half a century, Torres, 86, has agreed that the most "successful" of her books should finally be published in her own language.

Why the long delay? Torres is not ashamed of Women's Barracks, even though she says that she "does not like it very much". She is, however, exasperated by its steamy reputation and its iconic status. The novel was printed directly in paperback in the US in December 1950. A lurid cover illustration showed young women soldiers half in and half out of their uniforms. In 2003, the Feminist Press in New York republished the book with the same cover. A new blurb acclaimed it as "the first lesbian pulp novel", a book which had inspired a whole new genre of lesbian and feminist writing in the US.

"Do you know, I now hate to look up Google and type in my own name?" Torres said. "The first thing that always comes up is Women's Barracks. As far as Google is concerned, Tereska Torres is a 'lesbian writer', a 'lesbian icon', who has written one of the 'lesbian classics'. But I do not consider myself, or the book, to be any of these things. If you look at Women's Barracks, there are five main characters. Only one and a half of them can be considered lesbian. I don't see why it's considered a lesbian classic. I find it maddening."

There is, however, another reason why Tereska Torres refused to allow Women's Barracks to be published in French. " I feared that it would be misunderstood," she said. "It would have been found shocking.

"After all, we were part of General de Gaulle's army. We were supposed to be in London to liberate our country and defend the Free World. A book which concentrated on the romantic lives of the French women soldiers would have been misinterpreted. 'So that is what you were doing in London all that time', people would have said. And of course, part of the time, that is what we were doing. Everyone was. Not just the French. What can you expect? We were young people thrown together. We became adults very quickly. We had a sense of constant danger but also a sense of constant excitement. That's how I best remember London in wartime. The constant feeling of excitement."

Torres remains an extraordinarily youthful woman. She has published 14 books. She writes and travels. She is involved in several projects apart from the forthcoming French edition of Women's Barracks (to be called Jeunes Femmes en Uniforme). She still keeps her diary, which she began when she was nine years old. Her diary notebooks, old and new, are now preserved by the University of Boston, as part of its collection of the papers of her second husband, the American writer, Meyer Levin (who died in 1981).

Only one section of her 77 years of diary-writing has ever been published - as Une Francaise Libre, now available again from Phebus in paperback at [euro]9 ([pound]6). It covers the Second World War from its outbreak on 3 September 1939 to a devastating description of the "sweating, red-faced, breathless" crowds of "drunken girls" and "men wearing lipstick" who celebrated European victory on the streets of London on 8 May 1945. There is much overlap between Torres's wartime diary and Women's Barracks.

1 -  2 -  3 -  4 -  5 -  Next