Originally published in 1950, this account of life among female Free French soldiers in a London barracks during World War II sold four million copies in the United States alone and many more millions worldwide.
The novel is based on the real-life experiences of the author, Tereska Torres, who escaped from occupied France. She arrived as a refugee in London and joined other exiles enlisting in Charles de Gaulle’s army, then stationed in Britain awaiting an invasion of their homeland by Allied forces. But Women’s Barracks is no ordinary war story. The grim world of an urban military barracks became the setting for one of the steamiest novels of its time. Leaving “normal” civilian life behind, the women enter an all-female realm, where passionate attachments soon formbetween older, experienced women and young innocents, between butch officer types and their femmes subordinates. And for those with more traditional leanings, there was a city full of soldiers to be had sometimes two or three at a time.
As the Blitz rains down over London, taboos are broken, affairs start and stop and hearts are won and lost. Torres dutifully relates the erotic adventures of her comrades with an equal sympathy toward straight and gay relationships that was unusual for its time.
Despite a tone that is frank rather than lurid, Women’s Barracks was banned for obscenity in several states. It was also denounced by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials in 1952 as an example of how the paperback industry was “promoting moral degeneracy.” But in spite of such effortsor perhaps, in part, because of themthe novel became a record-breaking bestseller and inspired a whole new genre: lesbian pulp.
Femmes Fatales restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century. From mystery to hard-boiled noir to taboo lesbian romance, these rediscovered queens of pulp offer subversive perspectives on a turbulent era. Enjoy the series: Bedelia; The Blackbirder; Bunny Lake Is Missing; By Cecile; The G-String Murders; The Girls in 3-B; In a Lonely Place; Laura; Mother Finds a Body; Now, Voyager; Skyscraper; Stranger on Lesbos; Women's Barracks.
About the Author
Tereska Torres (1923-2012) escaped Nazi-occupied France in 1940 and became a secretary to Free French leader Charles DeGaulle in London. Over her long career, she wrote some 20 books (novels and memoirs), with translations published here by Knopf, Dell, Simon and Schuster. Torres married the American literary figure Meyer Levin during the war; he would later translate many of her novels. Torres continued to live and write in France until her death at age 92.
Read an Excerpt
WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, I WAS IN MY LAST YEAR OF school at the convent of St. Celestine. I was seventeen and unobtrusive, though not really plain. I had never even gone out with a boy. I had been raised in the warm family seclusion that is characteristic of respectable French families. My mother's parents lived with us in our small house near Orléans.
My father was a sculptor, and most of the friends of our family were, I suppose, middle-class people — university professors, some minor government officials, writers, and other artists. My own school friends were a rather serious-minded set of little girls. Though we did our share of giggling, we discussed such grave problems as the emancipation of the Frenchwoman; for at that time, women in France still did not have the vote. And though we knew nothing of men, we had long discussions about the number of children we would have. I was an only child, and was therefore ambitious to become the mother of a large brood.
Then the war was upon us. Papa enlisted. During the long winter of the "phony war" we felt secure. Then the war began in earnest. Papa was at the front, and we were sure France would win.
When the Germans reached Liége, Mother said we would have to leave Paris. I said she was out of her mind. I said the Germans would never get as close to Paris as they did in the last war. A week later the Germans were at the Meuse, and my mother and my grandparents insisted that we should prepare to leave.
And so one day in May I took off the navy blue uniform dress of my convent school, and with my mother and my grandparents I left Paris. We were in danger, my mother said, because of our origins — her parents, who had come from Poland, were Jewish.
We had heard nothing from my father for several weeks. Then there was the news of the disaster at Dunkirk. Perhaps my father was there, helping the English.
Everyone was leaving Paris — all the prominent people, and all the people in government circles, including some of our friends, and everyone who had a car. We had no car. We left on a train that was crowded like a subway. We were going to St. Jean de Luz, where we could stay with my father's cousins.
We were certain we would be back soon; so certain that my mother left the family silver and all our other possessions unlocked in the house, simply telling the concierge to keep an eye on things. And I left my Teddy bear sitting on my bed. He was just exactly my own age, and he had slept with me all his life. It was for him that I wept when I thought of the Germans taking possession of our house.
After three almost unbearable days of crowding and confusion, of trains that stopped running and trains that changed destination, we all arrived at St. Jean de Luz, where the sun shone, and there was a beautiful beach, and there was the sea. The war seemed very far away.
I was sent back to my studies, to prepare for my graduation examination, which I should have taken that year in Paris. I passed it at last, at Bayonne, and was qualified to enter college. The day of my graduation was the day when France signed her armistice of defeat.
I was only a girl, scarcely out of my childhood; I didn't understand what was happening at all, but I was shocked beyond comprehension. We had been promised victory, and we were being handed defeat. There was still no news of my father. My mother wept all day long. And the Germans were coming, everybody said, even to the south.
It was on one of those days that I met one of my mother's friends in the street, and she talked to me about General de Gaulle and his proclamation from London, asking for volunteers for his Free French army. In that moment it became clear to me that the one possible answer to the chaos in which we had been plunged was De Gaulle.
It was then that I began to beg my mother to leave. Day and night I insisted that we had to leave France. Our lives, and the lives of her parents, were in danger. And slowly she began to be persuaded.
Our fashionable little town was filling with refugees. Some of them were refugees de luxe in their big cars, but there were also bewildered remnants of troops in the streets, unshaven, distraught men — our own, and also many soldiers from a Polish regiment that had been enlisted in France. The Poles were fleeing for their lives, and no one could understand them or help them until they found us. I remember that one day we succeeded in finding civilian clothes for half a dozen Polish soldiers who wanted to try to escape into Spain.
On the twenty-fifth of June, 1940, I went with my mother to Biarritz, where there was a Portuguese consulate. We applied for visas for ourselves and my grandparents, and we were among the very last to receive them. That very night there were notices posted in St. Jean de Luz announcing that German troops would be in town the next day. In the morning all the shops were shuttered. I saw a troop carrier move through the street, and turned my face away. That same day, I hitchhiked to Hendaye, to secure transit visas through Spain. That night we packed our bags and rucksacks; even my grandparents were loaded with all they could carry.
The next day we took the train to Hendaye. We got out and approached the customs station on our side of the international bridge. We could see the Spanish flag floating across the bridge, but on our side there was no flag; our tricolor had already been taken down. But at least there was still no swastika. As the customs man stamped our passports, he said, "Les salauds, they won't remain here long."
We walked across the bridge, managing to lug all of our baggage. After the formalities on the other side, we took a taxi to the railway station at Irún. On the way the driver stopped at a check post, and while our papers were being examined, a carful of German soldiers drove up. Our driver gave the Hitler salute. I shuddered. But the Germans did not question us, and we drove on.
At Figueira da Foz, in Portugal, we found ourselves in a luxurious vacation center with the elite of France and Belgium: diamond merchants, movie stars, famous authors and statesmen, who sunned themselves on the golden beach, or strolled along the palm-shaded walks, or amused themselves in the cafés. We were refugees together with Danielle Darrieux, Dalio, Maurice Chevalier. We passed our days in endless gossipy discussions — should we leave for Chile, Argentina, or Brazil? Some said the United States was sending a ship for us all. Others said we would leave in a week for Canada. There were bullfights in the afternoons, movies in the evenings, and I attended my first ball.
It was there in Figueira da Foz that we received our first news of my father. Some French officers arrived and informed us that units of my father's division had escaped across the Channel.
We were overjoyed and frightened at the same time. There was a good chance that Father had escaped from France, but was he safe and well? Had he actually arrived in England at all? Nobody knew.
Mother could not leave her aged parents to go to England and search for Father, but I could. I had to do a good bit of persuading, but in the end it was agreed. My mother and her parents would sail for Canada, and I would go to England.
I left before they did. A British ship was taking volunteers for De Gaulle's forces, and place was found for me aboard.
After I reached London it took me only a few days to find an army comrade of my father's, and to learn that my father had been taken prisoner. He was to remain in prison throughout the war.
The Free French Forces had just announced that they would recruit women. Here was the very opportunity I had hoped for. I had arrived at the opportune moment, and presented myself on the first day of female recruiting. There, in the large barren hall, I felt that I would at last be transformed from a schoolgirl to a woman with a purpose.
A few score women were already on hand. I wondered just what sort of girls were to become my companions, for surely they would not be representative of the average, typical Frenchwoman. To be in London at all during the war, they had to be drawn from special groups.
There was always a certain number of students from France, but French families are extremely closely knit, and in times of stress, these students would most likely have been drawn home, so that the only ones to have remained in England would be the children of disturbed or broken families — divorced parents, disoriented homes. And then there would be some girls from the working classes — French maidservants and the French prostitutes of Soho. Another category of women were the adventuresses, emancipated women, and career women who for one reason or another had no family life.
In the end, there were to be some five hundred of us in this service during the war, and more than as many again in an ambulance and nursing corps that was formed later for service in France. Our own group was like the WACS or the ATS. We were to replace men in all sorts of jobs, so that they might be released for combat.
From that first day, we were to be united by one act — our act of volunteering. For whether we had come from Paris or the provinces, whether we had already been in London when the war broke out or had made our way there from abroad, whether we joined in 1940 or reached London in 1944, all of us were impelled by the same ideal. All of us, workers, students, servants, divorcees, secretaries, the younger and the older, volunteered with the sincere hope of giving ourselves to France — the France beloved of every Frenchwoman, the France for whom every one of us was certainly ready, on that first day in the recruiting station, to die.
FROM THE RECRUITING desk I passed into a huge, cold, gloomy room where a dozen young women stood shivering, naked, waiting their turns for the medical examination. The first one with whom I became acquainted was Mickey, for, with her easy, impulsive way, she was never slow to greet a stranger. A rather tall girl, with the gawkiness of a figure just out of adolescence, she commented freely and laughingly as she looked about, finding something extremely droll in the military air that we all tried to assume. As she watched the physician, hurried and coarse, examining the teeth and eyes of the girls while keeping up a stream of questionable pleasantries, Mickey remarked that it was funny to be getting acquainted with the bodies of our future comrades before we even knew their names.
Mickey said she had just escaped from France, where she had been spending her summer holiday with her aunt and uncle. Mickey's parents were in Scotland, where her father taught French in a small college. He was French and her mother was English. They had married late in life and she was a "December child," somewhat pampered, as we were to learn, impulsive, and avid for excitement, since she had been brought up as an only child in the muted household of an aging couple. Her father was a typical absentminded, gentle old professor, and Mickey rattled on, telling everyone within earshot about him, as we waited for our medical examination. She simply adored him, she said, slurring the accent in "adore" with a quaint tinge of English inflection. Because of her father, Mickey considered herself French rather than English. She had spent much of her young life with her father's family in France, and now she had returned on a fishing vessel to enlist in the Free French Forces.
Mickey prattled on, seemingly quite at ease in her nudity — perhaps because she knew that she was pretty. One could see that Mickey felt sure of herself in her body, as though she were wearing a Paris dress that no one could help admiring. Hers was a slim, boyish, somewhat gawky figure in perfect modern style, marred only by a few pimples on her shoulders, a temporary blemish.
"What you need is to make love. That'll get rid of those pimples for you," said a slightly older woman, winking at Mickey confidentially.
Mickey laughed, almost as though the whole thing were agreed upon; after all, she was eighteen, and the day was coming when she would "make love." The expression was obviously exciting to her, touching as it did upon something that was still mysterious and forbidden.
In a corner a little girl awaited her turn, seated on a chair. She had pulled up her slender legs and hugged them close, so that all one could see of her was her head of glossy chestnut hair, cut in a page-boy bob, falling straight and thick on both sides of her face. Her legs hid her body, while her forehead rested on her narrow, boyish knees. Trembling with cold, she hugged her legs closer to her body. The older woman's advice to Mickey and the coarseness of the woman's laughter seemed to strike the little girl, for she reacted as from a muddy-handed slap. This was Ursula.
I noticed her then, noticed how her frail body contracted at the crude words. Instinctively she passed her fingers over her face, and she turned her head away a trifle. Later, when I came to know her well, Ursula told me that this had somehow been a terrible moment for her; not that what was said was in itself so coarse, but because she had never before completely undressed in front of others, and because the ease, the very naturalness of the remark and the assumption that went with it, not only for Mickey but for all of us, gave her her first shock of reality, her first sense of what our coming life might be like. At that moment, she later told me, she felt as though a kind of dirtiness had entered her, and was sliding down her throat.
I wasn't the only one who noticed her revulsion, for a silken-looking young lady standing beside Ursula said, "I hate vulgarity, don't you? My name is Jacqueline. I'm from Grenoble. And you?"
Ursula told her name and said that she was from Paris.
"You're cold," Jacqueline said. "Take my coat. How old are you?"
Ursula seemed to hesitate. When we became friends she confessed that she was wondering, then, whether to reply with her official age, eighteen, or with her real age — just short of sixteen! She hesitated, for Ursula never learned how to lie quickly, and she ended by saying that she was seventeen. That seemed an honest compromise to little Ursula.
"You look fourteen," Jacqueline declared, with her patronizing knowingness that was to become so familiar to us. "You still look like a baby, really. Listen, I'll help you out. I'll get us assigned to the same dormitory."
Ursula thanked her. And yet, despite her frail and childlike air, she was, as we were to learn, quite a determined little person, used to living alone and managing for herself. Her parents were divorced, and she had been raised in a variety of schools and by servants, by cousins, by nurses, in the course of travel from place to place. Indeed, she showed some embarrassment at the sudden possessiveness with which Jacqueline, aristocratic even in her nudity, had taken charge of her, and she politely refused the coat Jacqueline had offered.
A door opened and a woman in uniform entered.
"All those who have completed their examinations come and get uniforms," she shouted.
Mickey led the rush to the next room, where there was a table piled with khaki garments. She was broad-shouldered, with narrow hips, long muscular legs, and diminutive pointed breasts, and she moved with a tennis-playing directness that nevertheless had a touch of the peculiarly awkward feminine charm of a girl of that age. Just after Mickey came Jacqueline, who, at the alluring call of the uniform, had momentarily deserted her new protégée. Jacqueline was, in contrast to Mickey, finely made, with delicately rounded hips and exquisite round breasts, and small altogether, as though all that was coarse in civilization had been refined away, to leave this elegant little body, a complete statement of perfection.
The corporal behind the table took our measures at a glance. "Sizes medium and large." She tossed each of us a jacket and a skirt of rough hard wool, two khaki shirts, two neckties, a pair of stockings, a rose-colored brassiere, a linen undershirt, a pair of knee-length khaki jersey panties, and shoes.
We all began to dress, emitting little cries, laughing. We tried to knot our ties, to button skirts that were too large and jackets that were too small.
The only one who seemed to know how to knot her tie properly was a strapping large girl with a boyish haircut, who looked immediately natural and in her place in uniform. When she had finished dressing she glanced around the room and called out to the corporal, "Do you want me to help you?" She had a heavy, almost masculine voice, reassuring and cheerful, and the confidence in her voice contrasted with her expression, which was a little oppressive, and predominantly sad. The oppressiveness was in her heavy chin, and there was a sadness in her very beautiful eyes, violently blue, and in her mouth with its large lips, sunken at the corners.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Women's Barracks"
Copyright © 1950 Tereska Torrès.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a surprisingly good read. Naturally, I was attracted by the title and the cover, but how was I to know that the story would be good as well? Lesbian pulp is usually one of those things that you skim to the juicy parts and then stop reading because the lesbian usually dies in the end. This book is different. It has some very realistic depictions of all of the main characters, who are all very different. I especially liked the conversation that the narrator has with Ann (the Lesbian) and the differences between women who are lesbians and those who sleep with women occasionally but do not consider themselves lebians. The book doesn't center completely around this idea of sexual identity, there is also a very strong story of the question of war. Most of the characters in the book are convinced that the end of World War II with put an end to war altogether. As the book ends, the optimism they have of post-WWII Europe has begun to wane.Women's Barracks was the first lesbian themed pulp to hit the US. It was published in 1950. It was also the first pulp fiction that made it big. It sold over 2 million copies in the first 5 years. Wow.