If you were a woman of some means in Paris in 1897, the place to be was where the countesses, duchesses, princesses and other aristocratic ladies gathered, at the annual charity event called “Bazar de la Charité”.
Well-to-do women aspired to be accepted at the parties of the Catholic and conservative aristocracy. In this rarefied milieu, women were a status symbol of choice. Brought up in closed religious institutions, they needed to be pure and beautiful and rich to win at the matchmaking game. Love was just an option. After the wedding the wife could show herself at parties, have the obligatory children and needed to be seen doing charitable work, the only honorable choice, but the impact of these charities on poor people wasn’t really a criteria, instead the presence of a royalty gave credit to the enterprise. The mere shadow of a doubt cast on a reputation was enough to expel you out off these gilded circles, and honor disputes were still settled between gentlemen in duels with guns or swords.
In May 1897 women who mattered all attended the bazaar, and most notably the Duchess of Alençon, sister of the famous Austrian Empress Sisi. One of the attraction was the moving pictures invented by the brothers Lumière, presented amidst fancy decors made of cardboard and wood. Unfortunately the equipment took fire and disaster ensued, because of the crowd, the poor safety regulations and the inflammable materials. Most of the 126 victims were aristocrat women, among which the Duchess of Alençon. The incident had considerable coverage in the press.
This true story provided the background inspiration for this novel full of dramatic scenes (the fire scenes are nothing short of gore, don’t read before meal times!). The common theme is oppressed women, psychologically, socially or even physically abused. The pressure to marry and follow social conventions is huge, and for those who step outside, the shunning is terrible. Those who don’t conform are pushed away, put into convents, into psychiatric wards, accused of being hysterical for speaking out inconvenient truths.
Yet the book left me a bit cold. Characters were too black-and-white for my taste, I didn’t care for them. Only the Duchess of Alençon had some depth and ambiguity. The heroines were so nice and pure that I didn’t quite believe in them.
Besides, the exclusive focus on the aristocracy and their adoring servants made me slightly uncomfortable. After all, in 1897 France had been a Republic for almost three decades, surely the aristocracy did not reflect the entire upper-class of the country? The Dreyfus affair that split France in two just got a passing mention, yet the people at the Bazaar that day must have been pro-Army, pro-clergy and antisemitic in their large majority. Didn’t anyone feel the qualms of the turn of the century? The same year as the fire at the Bazar, Munch painted the Kiss, Monet his Giverny landscapes, Pissaro painted a city full of people busy with business and pleasure on the Boulevard, and Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?“, a very modern and abstract fresco. These paintings provide me with some visual clues that not everything was so inhibited and breathless as the novel suggests.
PS. What sold me the book first was the cover painting: it’s by Jean Béraud, “After the misdeed”, currently at the Tate.