Saturday, January 26, 2013

Les Misérables: Paris in the Early 19th Century

The new movie tries to capture the turmoil, splendor, and misery of post-revolutionary France. The government of the early 19th century was always changing. There were abdications and assassinations. In 1820 the Duc de Berry, son of the eventual Charles X of France, was stabbed to death on the steps of a Paris opera house in front of his pregnant wife.

The opera was an important place for the nobility, but was increasingly where the emerging bourgeoisie went to socialize. After the Revolution, the bourgeoisie wanted to emulate the nobility rather than take its place. They wanted to keep their ideals, but live in the same opulence as the nobles. The opera was one of the best places to do this. Patrons attended to gossip and mingle with each other.

Winter balls were also popular. And the summer balls took place in public gardens and in salons on the Champs-Élysées. There were balls for all social classes, some of which were described as “of a lower description”, while others were considered more respectable. Like the opera, the Champs-Élysées was where Parisians could socialize, as they strolled past theaters, restaurants, and shops.

Madame Récamier by François Gérard

The early 19th century salons of Paris were a gathering place for intellectuals who wanted to discuss politics, society, and culture. Socialite Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier was renowned for her beauty; some male patrons reportedly visited her salon to be in her company, instead of for the usual debates and conversations. Juliette, as she was called, was also admired for her charm and kindness. Actresses, artists, and composers flocked to her salon. Women’s magazines gossiped about her style. Wearing white gowns with pearls was her signature fashion statement. She had a love of the arts could play the harp, piano, and organ. A rival, Madame de Krudener, persuaded a friend to beg Madame Récamier:

"I acquit myself with a little embarrassment of a commission which Mme. de Krudener has just given me. She begs you to come as little beautiful as you can. She says that you dazzle all the world, and that consequently every soul is troubled and attention is impossible. You cannot lay aside your charms, but do not add to them." 

She was the toast of Paris, but she was not without scandal. She married a banker in 1793 at 15, and there were rumors that her husband, Jacques might have been her father. Perhaps he married her so that she could be his heir and keep her inheritance. In any event, she and her husband lost their fortunes in 1805. Prince Augustus of Prussia wanted to marry her, and though her husband seemed to open to a divorce, she declined his offer – she didn’t want to deal with the inevitable scandal. Napoleon attempted to bring her to his court, and he asked her to be lady in waiting to his wife, Joséphine. Madame Récamier refused, and he would come to see everyone who visited her salon as a threat. He later exiled her from Paris.

 Prince Augustus of Prussia in front of a painting of Madame Récamier

 Life was of course, a different matter for the poor in Paris. Children worked alongside adults in workshops under appalling working conditions. Many children were deserted or placed in unsuitable homes.

Impoverished women often had no choice but to turn to prostitution or theft. Women turned to prostitution if they were unemployed or had family members to take care of. Child prostitution wasn’t uncommon. Girls were forced to sell themselves for sometimes a mere franc. Girls usually worked on certain streets, in back alleys, or under bridges. These unregistered prostitutes had to watch out for the police who constantly looked for prostitutes working without a permit. There were dangers to prostitution, rape and assault especially.

But the poor tried to shape their own lives.  As difficult as life was, they organized and demonstrated against the government over the treatment of the country’s least fortunate.

You can read a travel article in the Telegraph about Paris landmarks associated with the movie.  There are some spoilers. 

Childhood in Nineteenth Century France by Colin Heywood
France in the Age of Les Misérables 
Galignani's New Paris Guide, 1830
Juliette Récamier, the darling of Europe
The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Ruth Gere Mason

Further Reading
Paris: Capital of the 19th Century by Dana Goldstein


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