Paris Reborn

Beginning in the 1850s, Napoleon III tasked George-Eugene Haussmann, newly appointed prefect of Seine, with the rebuilding of Paris. As Stephane Kirkland said in his book Paris Reborn, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte “had a great ambition for Paris. He wanted to transform it into the most modern and functional city of the world, a city where wide, convenient boulevards suitable for modern transportation would replace narrow streets, where elegant ladies could walk without treading in filth and decay, where new neighborhoods would rise to house the swelling population; he wanted a city that would represent the principles of order and modernity of his presidency …”

View of Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysees in 19th century Paris with Arc de Triumph in the distance

Kirkland goes on: “It was a heavy-handed enterprise, which achieved its ends at tremendous human and cultural cost and wiped from the map an old, much-loved Paris … the Second Empire rebuilding of Paris was responsible for creating one of the world’s great cities.”

If you’ve been to Paris, you will have had the pleasure of walking those wide boulevards conceived by Napoleon III and admiring the Haussmann-style architecture of five- and six-storey buildings that dominate the city.

Historical accounts say that Napoleon III “installed a huge map of Paris in his office, marked with coloured lines where he wanted new boulevards to be.”

Like any large public venture, the rebuilding of Paris created winners and losers. Those with insider knowledge made fortunes. Many of those whose homes or businesses stood in the way of one of Napoleon III’s boulevards lost everything. Another consequence of this new Paris was to replace the heterogeneity of the old neighbourhoods, with new arrondissements that put “the rich with the rich and the poor with the poor.” Ile de la Cite is a good illustration. “In fewer than ten years, a veritable hive of human activity, with a complex organic structure of houses and little streets, was cleared away and replaced by large open spaces and boxlike institutional buildings.” The population of the island in the middle of the Seine fell from 15,000 to 5,000.

Along with the boulevards and new apartment buildings designed to house Paris’ growing population, Napoleon III created splendid new parks and gardens and new churches to mollify the working class. New department stores, new sewage and water systems were also built. The avenues were planted with chestnut trees.

Parc Monceau – intended for wealthy Parisians

The families of my two protagonists in Paris In Ruins, Camille and Mariele, are from the wealthy class that benefited from the rebuilding of Paris. Indeed, Camille’s father made some of his money by leveraging insider knowledge. But the seeds of unrest were sown. Seeds that would ultimately lead to the Paris Commune.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Novels are made of tiny details

I often write the broad strokes of a story first with the basics of setting, the primary actions that occur and the dialogue that moves the story along while revealing each character’s emotions and motivations.

On another pass, I add emotional reactions, inner dialogue and telling details. Like any other genre, historical fiction readers appreciate small details of setting, clothing, facial expressions and so on and, in particular, those that transport them in time and place.

I added a few such details just last week during a final pass at Paris in Ruins before sending it off for a copy edit. Below are just a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

“Bertrand turned west onto rue Faubourg Saint Honore and they fell silent. Most of the small shops were shuttered for the night, but the cafés were lively with patrons sitting both inside and out sharing laughter and boisterous conversation, consuming beer and wine and cognac, smacking their lips and eating with gusto. Here and there a ragged child lingered at the edges of these groups, holding out a hand for a coin or a crust of bread.” 

I wanted to illustrate the inequalities in Parisian society so readers can begin to understand the factors leading to the Paris Commune.

~~~

Camille watched her father drop a dollop of jam on his croissant. He seemed just as calm as usual despite the mounting crisis unfolding around them. They were in the breakfast room, which was located across the hall from the main dining room and much less formal. The room’s pale green walls, floral drapes, and tall windows that opened outward to let in the morning air reminded her of summers by the sea.

Camille is one of two main characters in the story. These details help paint the scene and provide a little background of Camille’s upbringing that was wealthy enough to include summers by the sea.

~~~

After her eighteenth birthday, and with her mother’s encouragement, Mariele had redecorated her bedroom, stripping out all but a few childhood possessions, and replacing the décor with more adult choices including a canopied bed, a new dressing table, and a chaise for reading. Mariele picked up the book of Victor Hugo’s poems that lay on the chaise and added it to her bag.

Mariele is the other main character in Paris in Ruins. The furnishings and reference to Victor Hugo are to help situate the time period. I chose to reference his poems rather than famous works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame to give an insight into her personality. Serendipity led me to Victor Hugo’s poetry – I wrote about one of those poems last week .

~~~

By Unknown author – Le Monde illustré, 17 juin 1871 (Gallica), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65283878

The gates of Paris had closed. No one allowed in or out without permission and the proper documents. Fortified by a wall thirty feet high, a moat ten feet wide, and an outer ring of forts comprising a forty-mile circumference around the city, most Parisians were convinced of their impregnability. The Prussian army, however, had gradually surrounded Paris with a fifty-mile ring of troops and was now digging in, building their own fortifications while assembling the necessary tools of siege warfare: cannons, provisions, bridges, access to water, living quarters, fuel, medical facilities, and equipment. If assessments were accurate, the siege could be long and difficult. Some would not survive.

I wanted to know just how big those walls were and thought readers would too. Their massive size contributed to the cocky attitude of Parisians. On the map below you can see the walls as well as the forts beyond the walls.

Walls and outer forts of Paris 1870

~~~

He lowered the newspaper and peered at her. “Volunteered? At a hospital run by Sarah Bernhardt? What do you know about hospitals? Or about Madame Bernhardt, for that matter? And why would I allow my daughter to do such a thing?”

Camille bristled at his words but knew not to spark a quarrel. Her mother always cautioned with an old proverb: Le miel est doux, mais l’abeille pique. Honey is sweet, but the bee stings.

An early reader recommended that I show the way young women were confined in 19th century Paris by their parents and by society’s rules. The proverb tells us something about Camille and her mother. 

~~~

“You don’t have to do this,” he [André ] said. “It could be dangerous work and I certainly wouldn’t think less of you if you declined.”

Camille squared her shoulders. “I’m doing it for Paris, for my family and friends, for France. It’s important and I want to do something important. I’m privileged, monsieur. Privileged to be part of an educated, wealthy class. With privilege comes responsibility.” Her lips formed a rueful smile. “That’s what my sister would have said, if she were still alive.”

André has asked Camille to collect information about the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, a radical group of women calling for revolution and led by Louise Michel (a real person) and report her findings to him. I wanted to add depth to her motivations for doing so.

I hope you enjoyed these few snippets. As you can imagine, there are many more!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Victor Hugo’s Sur Une Barricade

Sometimes I come across a unique bit of history while researching for one of my novels. As I’ve mentioned before, Paris in Ruins, the novel I plan to self-publish relatively soon, is set in 1870 and 1871, a time when Paris went through the horror of a destructive, deadly siege by the Prussian Army and an uprising that pitted citizen against citizen.

Victor Hugo created a poem about that uprising. Sur Une Barricade. I found it in translation on The French Desk, a blog created by Michael Partridge.

Barricades were everywhere during the siege, demolished after France capitulated to Prussia and then re-emerged when the Commune took over. Made of wood, sandbags, overturned carts, bricks and other material, such barricades blocked the forward movement of troops, while providing protection to those men and women – yes, women – who defended them.

According to Michael Partridge, “Hugo was dismayed at the wrongdoings of both the Communards and the government, writing in a diary entry, “this Commune is as idiotic as the National Assembly is ferocious. From both sides, folly.”

We’ve all heard of Hugo’s famous works such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, but he was also a renowned poet of the romantic movement.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.