Paris, in 1832, is more than just the setting for SHADOWBOX. A great cosmopolitan city teeming with riches cheek-by-jowl with poverty and a sense of injustice that sparked into insurrection at the drop of a sou;
Learning more about the city was essential so I could paint a suitable picture, in words, of the circumstances into which I was jettisoning my characters.
I asked myself: what do I need to learn about Paris in 1832?
And the answer came back in overwhelming detail (as a simple stream-of-consciousness brain dump, this is it):
Parishes, the Seine, political situation, newspapers, curfew, citizens, police, royalty, Revolution, colonies, clothes, religion, immigrants, trade.
It isn’t just London with French people.
Further inland, so it isn’t coastal. What bridges were in place? What format were they? Stone, or wooden, or a combination? Did they have houses along the sides? They didn’t have the Great Fire like London did, so what might have stayed?
Check Gaston Leroux/Victor Hugo for that. Look at maps online, and photos/paintings from shortly thereafter.
Why did the city arise in the first place? What special geographic features other than the Seine make it attractive to settlement?
I assume that the Seine was navigable up to the city at least until Mediaeval times, but at what point do ships cease to be a viable option? If not, where does Paris get its supplies? What port? How close? How are goods transported between those places? What infrastructure links Paris to the rest of the country, and the Empire? Which parts of Europe and the Med and Africa did it (still) own? Dukes of Savoy, of Lombardy, etc.
Politics of Paris 1832 – who was in charge? French Revolution over, Napoleon Bonaparte dead, a series of smaller rejiggings? Democracy or not as thorough? Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité – how far did this penetrate the social structure?
I owe a lot of my knowledge to a Yuletide gift from my partner: The Invention Of Paris by Eric Hazan. A love story in geography and history and literature bringing the city of Paris alive in your hands. The author obviously has a love for all the quartiers of Paris, rich and poor, ugly as well as beautiful, which comes across on the page with the most wonderful enthusiasm.
(I highly recommend it if you’re looking to fall in love with the city. If you have the opportunity to follow his written journeys on foot, don’t let my envy stop you.)
Within the pages of The Invention of Paris I found a city sparkling with lights, ringed with market gardens, humming with intelligence and culture.
I saw the high walls of the Farmers-General encircle the city’s faubourgs for tax purposes, and the cobbles prised out of the streets of Montmartre to be thrown through the bright window-glass of the bourgeoisie’s favourite shops.
Eric Hazan led me down alleyways where the streetlamps burned all day, to show me forgotten squares between the houses where someone hung chrysanthemums from their balcony and caged birds sung overhead.
“Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history…with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself.
All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafés, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower.
Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.” ― Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire
In 1832, Paris was ravaged by a cholera epidemic that affected mostly the poorer quartiers of the city. The wealthy citizens fled the plague to their country mansions and waited for the ill wind to blow over. By the time SHADOWBOX takes place most of the damage had been done, and the city was in recovery, having spent the summer in riots and uproar.
In social terms, the June Rebellion sought to replace the new King with another Republic, and I’ll not challenge Victor Hugo for the right to describe that in more detail. Needless to say, Les Miserables shoved its way onto my reading list faster than the musical, or the film, would have persuaded me otherwise.
But the politics of France in 1832 has only a slight bearing on my story. SHADOWBOX describes the procession of an Englishman through Paris, and he doesn’t need to get involved with the imbroglios of Blanqui or Barbès.
However, it would have been folly to let Louis Beauregard swagger through Paris as if the city’s culture didn’t exist. He’s a character with an appetite for life, robust and challenging, and imposing his desires upon a place as fractious as Paris in 1832 without taking note of the city’s troubles would be doing both parties a disservice.
“Night came on, the lamps were lighted, the tables near him found occupants, and Paris began to wear that peculiar evening look of hers which seems to say, in the flare of windows and theatre-doors, and the muffled rumble of swift-rolling carriages, that this is no world for you unless you have your pockets lined and your scruples drugged.” ― Henry James, Madame de Mauves
So Louis encounters suspicious gendarmes taking note of every newcomer to the city. He takes his pleasure in the bourgeois quartiers where the minor aristocracy keep mistresses and he takes liberties as much as any other young man of his age.
He visits boutiques and cathedrals.
In well-lit salons he and his companions play cards and drink rough wine.
But the political situation was more fraught than the events in SHADOWBOX make explicit.
After the cholera epidemic, the June Rebellion solved nothing. Parisians were still disgruntled when the fictional Louis Beauregard strolls along its boulevards looking for adventure. Social injustices which the 1789 Revolution were meant to address had not been taken care of.
The people were easily sparked.
My story is not about Paris, however much I fell in love with the spirit of the city through literature. I chose Paris because of its attraction, because of its links with the mythology of the Cuckoo Club and the Lady (see THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN for more on this), and because of its marvellous history.
I’ll leave you with the thoughts of a writer who, for me, captures the soul of Paris in all of his writings, a man who lived through the June Rebellion in 1832 and wrote his greatest novel about those events:
“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” ― Victor Hugo
The next post in the SHADOWBOX series: London in 1832, in which we explore a very different city altogether.
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