Insurrection – Paris 1870

While watching the shocking events unfold at the Capitol on Wednesday, I was struck by the parallels to another time and place – Paris in 1870 and 1871. Citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but if history is any guide, the insurrection may not be over.

At the beginning of September 1870, Prussia defeated Napoleon III’s French army. A few weeks later the Prussian army completely encircled Paris and laid siege to the city. Most Parisian believed Paris was impregnable. They were certain that the army and the National Guard would defeat the Prussians and rejected any suggestions to the contrary. Elihu Washburne was at that time America’s Minister to France and a resident of Paris.

Michael Hill, author of Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France during the Siege and Commune of Paris, writes: “On the 28th [October], in an effort to break through the Prussian lines, the French launched a sortie at the village of Le Bourget, just outside Paris. It was a success at first, but two days later the Prussians reclaimed the town. On October 31, word reach the city [Paris] that Metz, for months considered the strongest fortress of France, had fallen to the Germans and 170,000 more French soldiers had been taken prisoner. When word of these defeats reached Paris, the city broke into chaos. Radical ‘Red’ leaders stormed the Hotel de Ville and temporarily seized control of the government and its leaders.

Radical ‘red’ leaders refers to leaders of the working class who objected to the composition of the French government saying it was too monarchist in allegiance, too elite and wealthy, too influenced by the church, and unrepresentative of the real people of France.

On November 1, 1870, Elihu Washburne writes in his diary:

44th day of the siege. First, as to the events of yesterday. Voila! Another revolution … The Reds, up to this time, cowed by the force of public opinion, now saw their opportunity … I went to the Foreign Office at half past five, and on my arrival, for the first time, learned of the gravity of the situation … Trochu [President of the government of National Defense] had been dismissed, and that Favre [vice-president and Minister of Foreign Affairs] and all the members of the government of the National Defense had resigned.

Hotel de Ville – destroyed during the Commune

When within two or three squares of the Hotel [refers to the Hotel de Ville where the government presided] we found the way on foot through the dense crowd of people and soldiers and entered the building. There we found mostly soldiers, who were roaming around with their muskets reversed.

Washburne proceeds to the Hall of the Municipality [within the Hotel de Ville] where a public meeting was going on.

It was dimly lit by two oil lamps. The room was literally packed with soldiers yelling, singing, disputing and speechmaking. The side rooms were also filled with soldiers, who sat around the tables, copying lists of the new government, as they called it — the Government of the Commune. They all seemed to regard the revolution as an accomplished fact, which was only to be formally ratified at noon today by a vote of the people of Paris.

Ruins of the Ministry of Finance

Washburne was convinced that a revolution had taken place. Later that evening he received word:

that the government of the National Defense had not resigned; but that the Reds headed by Flourens, Blanqui, and others had undertaken a coup d’état, had seized all the members of the government and held them all prisoners in a room in the Hotel de Ville. Some of the people demanded that the members of the government should be sent to the prison of Vincennes; others demanded that they should be shot …

Meanwhile, members of the National Guard faithful to the government, got into the building and effected the release of Trochu and Jules Ferry [secretary of the government], who immediately took steps to release their associates.

In the late evening, Washburne finds the streets deserted and the stillness of death everywhere. What a city! One moment revolution and violence, the next the most profound calm.

On November 2nd, Washburne learns that:

The members of the government of the National Defense were outrageously abused when they were under arrest. They were most grossly insulted and loaded pistols placed at their heads with threats of instant death if they dared to stir

What happened in the months that followed? France surrendered to Prussia at the end of January. A new government formed. However, those leaders calling for the establishment of a commune continued to agitate and foster revolutionary sentiments. Author Michael Hill writes that “by the middle of March, political and social discontent among the lower classes and radical political clubs — which had simmered ominously beneath the surface since October — broke out in an orgie [sic] of crime, incendiarism, ruin, cruelty, desolation … and blood. For the next two months the streets of Paris would be filled with the most horrible events and consequences ever recorded in history.”

Soldiers firing on insurgents

By March 19th, Paris was in full revolt. The government retreated to Versailles. The insurgents were emboldened by their victory. On March 25th, Washburne wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish:

It would be difficult to convey to you an adequate idea of the condition of things existing in Paris. In some portions of the city all is quiet and orderly; but in other parts we see nothing but ‘grim-visaged war,’ barricades, regiments marching and counter marching, the beating of the rappel [call to arms], the mounting guard, the display of cannon and mitrailleuse [rapid fire rifles], and the interdiction of circulation in the streets. Then there are the numerous arrests, the mock trials, and the executions … Anarchy, assassination, and massacre hold high carnival …

Tuileries Palace destroyed during the Commune

The Commune of Paris has absolute power over the entire city and countless acts of violence stoke the terror of its citizens. Citizen pitted against citizen as the French army attacks the Communards and its National Guard. Artillery once more attack Paris. The Commune formed a bureau of denunciation “to which anyone could simply denounce another as a Versailles sympathizer resulting in the accused being immediately arrested or, in some cases, executed.

April 19th: All is one great shipwreck in Paris. Fortune, business, public and private credit, industry, labor are all in the ‘deep bosom of the ocean buried.’ The physiognomy of the city becomes every day more sad. All the upper part of the Champs-Elysees is completely deserted in fear of the shells. Immense barricades are going up at the Place de la Concorde. The great manufacturies and workshops are closed ..

May 2, 1871: Fighting going on all the time all about the city, but without perceptible results … there is a great fury among the insurgents now, and last night they formed a fearful committee–the Committee of Public Safety–which in the first revolution was a committee simply to legalize butchery. This new committee has full powers and the reign of terror may now commence in earnest any day.

May 11, 1871: The worse things grow, the more desperate the Commune becomes.

Government troops continued to bombard the city.

Rue de Rivoli during Paris Commune

May 19, 1871: The Commune gets every day more furious and outrageous. Today they threaten to destroy Paris and bury everybody in the ruins before they surrender.

When the army ultimately breaks into Paris, the communards adopt a “scorched earth policy”, intent on burning the city to the ground. “The Tuileries, part of the Palais-Royal, the Palais de Justice, and finally, the Hotel de Ville were all set ablaze.” Other buildings were also torched.

By May 28th, the insurrection was destroyed.

On May 31st, with fires still smouldering, Washburne writes: The reign of the Commune for ten weeks, pursuing its career of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, finally expired in blood and flame … The incredible enormities of the Commune, their massacre of the Archbishop of Paris and the other hostages, their countless murders of other persons who refused to join them in their fiendish work, their horrid and well organized plans of incendiarism intended to destroy almost the entire city and which resulted in the destruction of so many of the great monuments of Paris, are crimes which will never die.

As I said at the beginning, citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but there seem to be parallels here, and the insurrection may not be over.

By the way, my soon-to-release Paris in Ruins is set during the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

World Building – a look at geography

I found an interesting article on world building at Well-Storied, which is run by Kristen Kieffer, a fantasy fiction writer. Keiffer breaks world building into geography, cultures, social classes, history, technology, and because it’s for fantasy writers, magic. Today, I’m looking at geography.

If you’re like me, geography is something you last actively considered in high school. It was never one of my favourite subjects and I had trouble fitting the pieces together into a meaningful whole. However, writing historical fiction demands that I bring geography into my novels as part of transporting readers in time and place – in other words, as part of building that historical world.

In essence, geography is the details of the physical world of your story – landscape, terrain, weather, borders, significant landmarks such as rivers, forests, mountains and plateaus, the natural resources that support the population, the sources of water available, and the climate.

According to National Geographic, “geography is the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” It’s an examination of “how human culture interacts with the natural environment, and the way that locations and places can have an impact on people.” The people, culture, politics, settlements, plants, landforms, and other aspects of an historical world are influenced by its geography.

Source Wikipedia – 1870 Map of Paris by Eugene Deschamps

What is Paris without the serpentine sweep of the Seine and its ultimate link with the sea? What is Scotland without its rugged mountains to the north and its lowlands to the south? What is South Carolina without its shoreline of beaches and its marsh-like sea islands? What is India without its monsoons and the staggering diversity of its landscape?

The Seine plays a role in my soon-to-be-published novel Paris in Ruins as do the bridges that cross it, the children who fished along its banks, and the boats that traveled along it bringing wounded soldiers back from the battlefield. Montmartre, a hill in the northern part of Paris that was once home to a small village outside the city’s walls is also featured. Camille Noisette, one of two main characters, walks that hill to spy on a radical group calling for the overthrow of the government. It’s a long climb that culminates in cobbled streets and narrow alleyways that twist and turn to accommodate the hill’s incline.

Climate is another part of geography. Is your world temperate or seasonal? Are the winters mild or long and dark? Is the sun bright and hot at midday? Does little grow in the rock-strewn land or is there an abundance of farmland to nourish people and animals alike? Do Horse Chestnut trees flower in April or does jasmine scent the air from late spring to summer?

The places where our ancestors settled and the way they lived were strongly influenced by the elements of geography. When geography is brought subtly into an historical novel, readers will be more deeply transported to another time and place.

More on world building in another post.

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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 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.