"The story of two women whose families were caught up in the defense of Paris is deeply moving and suspenseful..."
Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero
"Tod is not only a good historian, but also an accomplished writer … a gripping, well-limned picture of a time and a place that provide universal lessons." Kirkus Reviews
Delights of a Research Trip to Paris
By M.K. Tod
Paris In Ruins is set during the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Paris Commune. I arrived at these momentous events not by design but by calculating when two characters from an earlier novel, Lies Told In Silence, would be roughly twenty years old. I had imagined a novel about friendship between these very different women with a dash of romance and perhaps some tangled family dynamics. However, when I discovered a war, a siege, and a bloody insurrection, the plot took on much more drama.
Three earlier novels dealt with World War I, an era recent enough that I knew people (my grandparents) who had lived through it, and once augmented with sound research, could imagine their lives and how that war had affected them. But 1870 Paris required a different approach to make the time and place come alive. What did Paris look like? What were the norms and expectations for young women of the upper class? Where did they live and shop? What entertainment was available? How did they travel? What clothing styles were prevalent? What did they talk about? Where did they get their news? Layered on top of that were questions about politics and government, military matters, life under siege, and the origins of unrest and rebellion.
During the early months of 1870, Prussia engineered a crisis that threatened the security of France. By the middle of July, the two countries were at war. The Prussian army had superior numbers, leadership, and technology, and on September 2nd, Napoleon III surrendered after huge losses at the Battle of Sedan. By September 15th, the Prussian army reached the outskirts of Paris. By the 19th, Paris was totally surrounded. The siege lasted until the end of January 1871, but the turmoil continued and two months later, radical republicans overthrew the government and established the Paris Commune. For ten weeks, the Commune carried out acts of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, until finally expiring in blood and flames.
“We have to go to Paris,” I said to my husband. “I need to walk the streets, watch the people, explore the history, and get a feel for living there.”
We’d been to Paris before, but never for more than a few days. What I was imagining was something more intense, a chance to live almost like Parisians do. Fortunately, my husband jumped at the opportunity and soon, he had rented an apartment in the 17th arrondissement for three weeks and booked our flights. By this time, I had many chapters written and a solid outline for the rest. With the story concept in hand, I created a master list of places to see and things to do and the topics I needed to further understand.
After settling in, buying groceries, wine and other important items, and exploring our local neighborhood, we began to tackle my list. Armed with a map, a slim guidebook, and our cameras, each day we walked for miles, taking pictures at what seemed like every street corner. We visited museums and beautifully restored grand homes. We went to Versailles. We climbed the hill to Montmartre and walked its narrow streets. We went to the top of the Pantheon and the Arc de Triomphe. We visited a fan museum. While browsing in a used bookstore on the Left Bank, I found and purchased a book titled Fashion Design: 1850-1895. Another prize from that trip is a map of Paris 1871 which was on sale at one of the museums and now hangs in a lovely frame beside my desk. I used the map regularly to understand the city’s layout as well as the existence of certain streets during the time of Paris in Ruins.
|Arc de Triomphe|
|Ivory fan at the Fan Museum|
For a look at military matters, we wandered through a museum in Montmartre that featured scenes from the Paris Commune and visited Musée De l’Armée, the National Military Museum, where a display featuring women who participated in the Commune gave me the idea of having a woman become a soldier in the National Guard.
We sat in cafés and watched the comings and goings of Parisians, the way they talked, their gestures and body language. We had lunch at Restaurant Polidor, a wood-paneled place with thick beams holding up the ceiling and a cluttered bar at the back and simple tables and chairs. Le Polidor dates from 1845 and just might have been the place where radicals gathered to plot an attempted coup in October 1871. We admired a display at the Louvre that featured gowns, suits, accessories, furniture, and photographs from the 1870s. We walked in and out of shops that had been built before 1870. We climbed to the top of the Pantheon where Camille and Mariele went to watch one of the battles and the Arc De Triomphe where Camille watched the conflagration and wondered whether Andre would survive. We stood where the Tuileries Palace once was and tried to imagine its splendor before it was burned by the Commune, never to be rebuilt.
We walked the wide boulevards and the narrow side streets of almost every arrondissement. We strolled along the Seine and saw the chestnut trees with their conical white or pink blossoms and walked through the Luxembourg gardens where the Medici Fountain glistened in the sun. On one sublime afternoon, we listened to a concert while sitting amid the sparkle of the stunning stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle.
Of particular interest were the hotel particuliers – grand homes – we visited: Musée Cognacq-Jay, Musée Jacquemart-Andre, Musée Carnavalet, and Musée Nissim de Camondo. I wanted to understand how my two main characters, both from wealthy Parisian families, might have lived including the layout of such homes, the décor, the furnishings, the paintings and other accoutrements of their lives. The splendour and luxury were astonishing and although these home inspired only a few brief descriptions in the novel, they gave me images that I carried around in my head as I wrote.
Bedroom at Musee Jacquemart-Andree
Musée D’Orsay never disappoints. It’s home to a superb collection of impressionist works of art. However, on this visit, I looked for paintings done in the late 1860s and early 1870s, paintings of Paris, of fashion, of homes and cafés that might spark a scene and help me imagine the lives of both rich and poor. Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Berthe Morisot, and others provided such inspiration.
Three weeks of immersion in the world of Paris was not only a spectacular trip but also a wonderful way to absorb the feel of the city, to watch the people interact, to listen to the language, to see the trees and flowers in bloom, and to let my imagination roam. A lingering sense of being there continued to guide the writing of Paris In Ruins.
A minute later, a dark-haired beauty dressed in black emerged from a doorway, and although Camille could not see her face clearly, she knew from the mass of curls and statuesque posture that she was about to meet Sarah Bernhardt.
“Yes?” Bernhardt said. “If you are an actress, the theater is closed because of the war. I cannot help you. Life is difficult for anyone in the theater. You will have to make do, just as I am, as there are more important matters at hand.” She arched her dark eyebrows and tilted her head as if expecting Camille to leave.
“My name is Camille Noisette, Madame, and I’m not an actress. However, I’ve heard you may soon open the Odéon as a hospital for our wounded, and I would like to help.”
Bernhardt frowned and moved closer to Camille. “Where did you hear such a rumor?” The tone was dismissive, but the voice was pure as crystal.
“It’s not true?” Camille asked.
“I didn’t say that. I merely asked where you heard the rumor.”
“I . . .” Was truth the right strategy? Would Sarah Bernhardt be offended if told of the gossip at Madame Lambert’s salon? The actress’s reputation held her to be impetuous and demanding, a woman of powerful connections and great willpower who was capable of daring risks to have her way. There was no point in lying. “I heard it at an evening salon. One of the gentlemen in attendance speculated that the Comte de Kératry would willingly help you.”
Bernhardt laughed—a deep, throaty sound accompanied by a toss of her head. “Yes. That’s exactly what people would say about me. And they’re right. I am planning to open a hospital here, and I saw the comte yesterday. He is being most generous.” The last sentence was accompanied by a sultry look.
“Well, I would like to help,” Camille said. “I believe you will need volunteers, and although I’m not trained to nurse, I’m sure I can be useful.”
Sarah Bernhardt tapped an index finger against her lips while surveying Camille from head to toe. “You don’t look useful. You look like a young society woman accustomed to having others wait on her. Why would I need someone like that? You’d only get in the way. And I’m having enough difficulty as it is. Both the French Society for Aid to Wounded Soldiers and the French Army medical corps are in hopeless disarray.”
It hadn’t occurred to Camille that her station in life would be a reason for refusal, and for a moment she searched for an adequate reply. “I can . . . I can read to wounded soldiers,” she said. “Or write letters. I can fetch supplies, fold linens, and spoon soup into the mouth of someone too weak to feed himself. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Hmm. You’re right. Those tasks might be useful. Do you know anyone who could provide supplies?”
“Food, medicines, fuel, coffee, clothing, blankets. The hospital will need all sorts of things if we are to treat the wounded and help them heal. The Comte de Kératry told me definitively that they are expecting thousands of casualties, possibly tens of thousands. Many will die before they can be treated, but others we will save. They will all need to eat and drink and be kept warm.”
“Tens of thousands, Madame? But how can that be? Paris is completely fortified.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “Yes, but we can’t defeat our enemy by hiding within the city walls. Our military will have to act. Casualties are inevitable. Even if we have some successes, the Prussian army has artillery that can reach greater distances than ours. Once they are ready, they will bombard our forts and, unless we surrender, the walls of the city will also be attacked.”
“Surely, our army will retaliate.”
“The comte says that General Trochu is a strategist, not a man of action. So, you see, Mademoiselle, we will need many supplies.”
Camille thought of her father. He seemed to have connections in almost every line of business. “I might be able to secure some supplies.”
“Excellent. I have meetings planned with several of my friends who have remained in Paris, but I could see you again on Wednesday, late afternoon—perhaps five o’clock—and if everything is satisfactory, we can make an agreement.”
“Thank you, Madame. Five o’clock on Wednesday.”
“Au revoir, Mademoiselle Noisette. Your visit has been most interesting.”
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M.K. (Mary) Tod’s interest in historical fiction began in her teenage years immersed in the stories of Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, and Georgette Heyer. In 2004, her husband’s career took them to Hong Kong where, with no job and few prospects, Mary began what became Unravelled, her first novel. She now has four published novels and two waiting in the wings.
Mary runs www.awriterofhistory.com, an award-winning blog focused on reading and writing historical fiction. She’s an active member of the historical fiction community and has conducted five unique reader surveys on topics from readers’ habits and preferences to favorite authors. Beyond writing, Mary loves biking and hiking holidays, visits with friends, movies, cooking with her husband, and spending time with their two small grandsons.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx