If you read last week’s post, you’ll know that once I came across the story of Lee Miller in my research, I wanted to write a character inspired by her. So, Jessica May, the main character in The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan, is a model for Vogue at the start of the book, like Miller was and, like Miller, has to stop modelling once her image is used in an advertisement for Kotex.
It’s almost impossible to believe that having one’s image associated with an advertisement for sanitary products could be so taboo that advertisers would refuse to place their advertisements in the same magazine as the one the “Kotex girl” was appearing in, but that’s what happened. Menstruation was the eighth deadly sin, and it caused Miller’s modelling career to come to an abrupt end.
It turns out to be a good thing for Jessica May, my main character, in the same way that it turned Miller’s attention to an alternative and very successful, albeit difficult, career.
A War Photographer
Miller learned photography from Man Ray (if you’re interested in this part of her life, the recent novel, The Age of Light, covers this in some detail). Similarly in my book, Jessica May’s French photographer lover helps her improve her photography skills.
These skills allow Jess, as they did for Lee Miller, to be assigned to cover WWII as a photojournalist. Miller either took or was the subject of some iconic photographs during the war, such as a very well known one of her in Hitler’s bathtub at his Munich apartment (I borrow this photograph in my book and gift it to my main character), and she was one of the first to photograph the horror of Dachau.
After the War
Seeing such things took its toll on Miller. She became very depressed after the war and suffered from post-traumatic stress. She was assigned to take photographs of celebrities at Saint Moritz during the winter season, and to contribute recipes to Vogue. How that must have felt, after all that she had done during the war.
The stress affected her so badly that she no longer took photographs. She put away all of her equipment and her negatives and images and correspondence. So successful was she at erasing this part of her history that her son grew up having no idea that his mother had once been a celebrated war photojournalist.
After Miller’s Death
After Miller’s death, her son’s wife stumbled across Miller’s collection of negatives and prints and articles and correspondence with her editor at Vogue. Her son realised that this archive of work was incredible and deserved more notice than being shut up in an attic.
He resurrected Lee Miller, bringing her work back to the attention of the world, and ensuring she is now widely regarded as one of the war’s preeminent photojournalists. Many exhibitions of MIller’s work have since been held and there are dozens of books about her remarkable life.
The Forgotten Woman
It was the tragedy of her being forgotten, and of her wanting to forget, that is at the heart of the contemporary narrative thread of The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan. It seemed so terribly sad and I wanted to examine what that might be like, and what one’s reasons could be for wanting such drastic erasure.
So the contemporary strand of my novel takes place in a chateau in France’s Champagne region, where D’Arcy Hallworth, an art handler, is sent to manage a collection of photographs. But she finds a very different set of photographs, and thus the mystery at the heart of the book begins to unravel.
I hope you enjoyed that sneak peek into the book. Next week I’ll be back to talk a little more about my research process – including the terrible job I had of staying in a French chateau in the Champagne region to make sure my book was authentic!