Shadowbox: What Immortal Hand Or Eye?

In 1832 there were no Dickens classics.

Dumas had yet to invent The Three Musketeers, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask – and much of his own mythology into the bargain. Victor Hugo was a journalist, Gaston Leroux not yet born, Jules Verne a mere stripling with no thought of fantastic voyages.Mysteries of London, a Penny Dreadful

Even the Penny Dreadful (such as The Mysteries of London) was yet to slouch into existence.

But literature in 1832 was more than the preserve of just a few well-heeled individuals.

A trade had arisen during the 17th century of chapbooks, hand-printed paperbacks sold from ass-back by travelling pedlars. The rise of the industrialised working class also led to a basic education being delivered to the workers.

And once you learn to read, you want more books.

Comedies of manners; tragedies, based on those who had something to lose; exposure of injustices; tracts against slavery; political attacks; sales pitches; journeys of exploration.

Hand coloured print, about 1830.  © Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonDiscovering the rest of the planet’s multitude of people didn’t stop us from cataloguing their differences, quaint ways and funny customs. All this was entertainment, and the unwritten works of countless theatres, magic-lantern showmen, circus troupes and travelling players must have thrilled with tales of pirates and Hottentots, Egyptian pharaohs and the like (if the stories we have from the High Middle Ages are anything to go by).

Sir Walter Scott died in 1832. Jane Austen had already passed on, and Émile Zola had yet to be born. Victor Hugo had just published Notre Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“Usually, the murmur that rises up from Paris by day is the city talking; in the night it is the city breathing; but here it is the city singing.
Listen, then, to this chorus of bell-towers – diffuse over the whole the murmur of half a million people – the eternal lament of the river – the endless sighing of the wind – the grave and distant quartet of the four forests placed upon the hills, in the distance, like immense organ-pipes – extinguish to a half light all in the central chime that would otherwise be too harsh or too shrill; and then say whether you know of anything in the world more rich, more joyous, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes – this furnace of music – these thousands of brazen voices, all singing together in flutes of stone three hundred feet high, than this city which is but one orchestra – this symphony which roars like a tempest.” ― Victor Hugo

But common reference works were fewer. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare (sonnets and all), hymns sung in church and often learned by rote because you’d not be taught how to read, nor write.

Few people in western Europe would have read the Koran, the Mahabharata, or the Art of War – not even those gilded few who went to school or university. You’d have studied Latin, or Greek, reading Homer’s Iliad and the plays of Aristophanes. You’d read Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and Coleridge.

British Library Chaucer ManuscriptSo what of literature in 1832?

What would Louis Beauregard remember by rote, as he lies in his bed in Paris, sleepless with remorse?

…Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death…
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Grief

Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin…
– Robert Browning, Prospice

Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear:
And one to me are shame and fame.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma

Chatterton, oil on canvas by Henry Wallis, 1856 (c) Tate Gallery


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Dreadful Symmetry.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email.

Shadowbox: Paris in 1832

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;

“…Paris was illuminated by a splendour possessed by no other places.” – Isak Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914-1931

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.

Marché aux fleurs (1832) by Canella, via wikimedia

Marché aux fleurs (1832) by Canella, via wikimedia

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.

PARIS.

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.)

 Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

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

Le Cholera, from Le Petit Journal, Paris

Cholera, from Le Petit Journal (via art.com)

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.

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

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

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (France, Paris, 1755-1832), via Wikimedia Commons

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (Paris, 1755-1832)

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.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.