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La Fantôme Grise


A short piece of fiction to mark ANZAC Day:

The Grey Girl from Kojonup

 

They called her “La Fantôme grise”. One of the first acts of the new French government in 1946 was to award her France’s highest honour, la Croix d’or, the golden cross.

Emily Louise Brown was born at Katanning in 1918 and grew up near Kojonup in Western Australia. She attended the one-teacher school at Brokerup. If you visit there today, you will see only a few acres fenced off and a plaque. The little school was Emily Brown’s window onto the wide world beyond her father’s farm.

Her reading developed early, and by age 10, she was enjoying Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. The worlds depicted in Oliver Twist drew her imagination. Not only did she want to see the vast, teeming cities of old Europe and the mother country, but she wanted to change the world. She knew that living on their tranquil farm, with plenty to eat, safety from violence and freedom to dream and choose was a privilege, and she wanted every child to enjoy the same abundance that she experienced.

In 1928, Mr Trevelyan, a Cornish veteran, arrived at Brokerup to teach in the one-teacher school. He boarded with the Browns and guided young Emily’s reading, telling her a heady mix of stories of Cornwall and King Arthur and Celtic mystics.  At her parents’ church, Father O’Reilly woke in her a sense of mystery, and introduced her to the concept of God’s care for the poor.

The only high schools were in Perth. Perth Modern awarded her a scholarship, and Emily excelled in her studies. Perth Modern was probably the only school in Perth in the 1930s that took seriously the teaching of languages, and Emily loved Monsieur Roland, the old eccentric Frenchman who taught her French and Latin. On the netball and tennis courts she showed a fierce determination.

Three years at The University of Western Australia followed. The University’s motto is ‘Seek Wisdom’ and its message seemed to be as engraved on Emily’s heart as it was on the stone near the Reflection Pond. Emily graduated with a degree in French and Modern History. Young women in 1936 could then become a monitor in a school for a year before returning to the Teachers’ College in Claremont to complete their training.

Emily, strong-minded as ever, had another plan. Her parents did their best to dissuade her from setting off for Europe on her own, but she got her way, as she usually did, and her parents supported her financially. After the war she learned how much they grieved when the steamer left Fremantle. On the wharf that day they had a premonition that Emily was going into a war-ready continent to her death.

Paris delighted her, but she wanted to see where the real poor people of France were, so she set off south to Marseille. She stayed with a welcoming Catholic family, the Germains, from where she devoted part of her time, like a missionary, to helping the poor.

Emily was only eighteen. The vibrant night-life in Marseille drew her to clubs and parties. Older men introduced her to the private dance clubs which only the very rich could afford. Her life became a contradiction: by day, devout Catholic volunteering in soup-kitchens; at night, the wild, out of control socialite. It couldn’t go on.

One night, in the Club de Danse de Marseille, Jean-Laurent Renoir asked the young Australian girl to dance. Renoir was 28 at the time, absolutely wealthy, but a steady and thoughtful man. He liked what he saw.

Emily fell in love with Jean-Laurent, just as she had fallen in love with the Marseille‘s poor. Emily and Jean-Laurent married in August 1938, just before the Germans turned their greedy tanks towards Paris.

Emily’s French by this time was excellent. She spoke with the twang of Marseille, called herself Emilie-Louise, but could easily switch to the deep tones of Paris and then to the rolled r’s of the Riviera. She was, in short, a linguistic chameleon.

Jean-Laurent’s house had always been a centre for parties. Emilie-Louise had a talent as a hostess, and all Marseille rhapsodised about the glittering soirées at the Villa Renoir and the sparking Mme Renoir at its heart.

Jean-Laurent and Emily both watched with horror the events in Europe in 1939 and 1940. The Renoir family had deep roots in the Midi, and Emily had come to love the French people, especially the poor she had met in her role as a Catholic volunteer. When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, this young couple were ready to resist however they could.

The Germans occupied only the northern part of France, and so in Marseille, they were in Free France. They seized opportunities for resistance knowing that they would be different from those trapped in Maréchal Pétain’s Nazi-controlled France.

The Renoirs’ war began with channelled large sums of money to the displaced and hungry in occupied France through Catholic Aid agencies.  Then, as intelligence about incipient Resistance groups in Paris arrived at the Villa Renoir, they began financing them.

A Tract Society in Marseille called La Société Catholique de la Vérité distributed devotional tracts through the south of France. Emilie contributed to these, especially those with cleverly disguised addresses of safe houses. What would Pope Leo XIII have thought of a footnote in a small devotional tract referring the reader to “Section 10, paragraphe 12, vers 42” of his encyclical on Unity, if he knew that the numbers combined to give 10-12-42, the phone number of Villa Renoir!

Inevitably, Emily’s role became more personal and more dangerous.

Escape routes like that through the Château de Chenconceaux across the Loire River began to deliver downed airmen to Marseille. Shortages meant that these aircrew would arrive in the south exhausted and famished.

Most of them were determined to return to England. The port at Marseille was blockaded, and the Germans controlled all the Atlantic coast of France. Their only escape route was over the Pyrenees into Spain and onto neutral Portugal. Their lack of condition meant that they would never make the journey. Emilie-Louise took them in and fed them.

This became more and more dangerous as German officers searched houses regularly. Emilie-Louise decided that the best way to hide them was in plain sight. She invited the Germans to lavish parties, encouraging them to drink the best wines and liqueurs. They obliged by dampening any suspicions they may have had of the taciturn waiters.

On one occasion, an RAF pilot dressed in the Renoir livery was serving drinks. A bellicose German was demanding more whisky. It was clear that the “waiter” didn’t understand the officer’s accented French, and the demands became more insistent. The attentive hostess noticed that the pilot’s hands were shaking with fear, so she pushed past, sending the tray flying, and apologising profusely in the ensuing embarrassment all round. She saved the pilot.

The Germans ferreted out the large sums of money coming to the Resistance. They began to suspect Jean-Laurent and began watching his movements. A series of betrayals brought tragedy to Emily’s door. In the local parish church, one of the priests had been helping channel some funds to Paris; another had begun collaborating with the Germans. To his shame, he was identifying to the SS Jewish families from the area. Jean-Laurent realised that there was a blockage in getting the money out of Marseille, so he chose to test the possibility of carrying the cash himself.

He and Emily said their emotional farewells at home. He caught the Paris train.  When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon Jean-Laurent was found alone in his first-class compartment with his throat slit. The French police found a huge number of francs secreted in his overcoat and suit.

News got back quickly to Marseille to Emily. Her life in danger, she searched for a way out.

One of the RAF pilots was due to make the crossing to neutral Portugal across the Pyrenees. Emilie persuaded her resistance colleagues to let her take on the tough role of guide. Three months later, London was briefing her for a mission with the Special Operations Executive. Emilie’s perilous journeys into occupied Paris as a clandestine wireless operator are now well-documented, as is her escape from Paris after she seduced a suspicious German officer, and then shot him.

La Fantôme grise was not able to return to Paris until after the war, but for the remainder of 1944 and 1945, her voice on the wireless from London steadied many S.O.E. operatives and saved many lives.

Emily Louise Brown stands alongside Nancy Wake, “the little white mouse” as a great Australian war hero. She claimed that she only did what she had to, and followed the values she had learned on a farm near Kojonup in Western Australia. We call her bravery stupendous.

 

  • Ted Witham

 

 

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