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. Among them were letters she had written home during the Phoney War and a wartime diary she had written as a student.

Born in France but raised in York, Blaess had graduated in 1939 with a first class degree from the University of Leeds. Set on an academic career she was determined to continue her studies. Women students were still small in number in universities in the inter-war but the Sorbonne had robustly encouraged undergraduates and postgraduates from American, Australia  and Britain to replace the male casualties of the Great War and Madeleine was one of a number of women from overseas who had registered for higher degrees in 1939.  The threat of war meant that many of the women who registered at the Sorbonne in 1938 and 1939 did not stay. Blaess went out to Paris regardless, sharing the confidence of relatives and university staff that German aggression could be competently and swiftly repelled. She stayed at the lodging house, Les Marronniers, 78 rue d’Assas. The lodging house is still open to long-term and short-term tenants and visitors to Paris just as it was in the inter-war and the 1940s. See its web site  Les Marronniers and for a feature about it and its owner, Marie, see Marie et sa pension de famille

Indeed, this confidence in the ability of France and its allies to repel any German attack was generalised among the mainly male university staff represented, almost without exception, by Great War veterans standing in for conscripted younger academics.  Most overseas students waited until the final weeks of May before fleeing for the ports. Blaess and, even then, many amongst them regarded their departure as temporary pending a successful Allied defence of French territory. Blaess had not been unduly concerned about leaving. Organised, she had obtained the two visas she needed to leave and had bought the boat-train tickets, was due to depart Paris on Wednesday 12th June and busied herself shopping for souvenirs and presents for her family in the days prior to her planned departure.  Unfortunately for Madeleine, the rapid advance across France of of the German army meant that her route to the ports was cut off. Two days after she should have been leaving Paris for Britain, on the 14th June,  the Germans were marching into Paris.

She joined her extended family – Aunt and cousin – in the mass flight south of panicked Parisians which has subsequently come to be known as the exode. 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 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

Below are photographs of the facade of 320 rue St Jacques and the view from Madeleine Blaess’s studio flat in Paris on the 8th floor:

Madeleine is on Twitter: @MadeleineBlaess