Paris, a backdrop for 19th century fiction

The City of Light in the minds of playwrights and novelists

By Sylvain Ledda 29 September 2020

© adoc-photos

La rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin Paris (France), c. 1890

Paris, a backdrop for 19th century fiction

In Simon Stone’s production of La Traviata, the numerous references to Parisian nightlife remind us that the French capital was a source of inspiration for numerous 9th century playwrights and novelists. With Hugo, Musset or Balzac, who made it the setting for La Comédie humaine, Paris was regarded as a venue and metaphor for major fictional social movements.

In the 19th century, Paris was a city undergoing dramatic change: the “improvements” of the Ancien Régime were followed by major urbanisation projects which, even before those of Baron Haussmann, altered the capital and gave it the appearance that we have come to know. This Paris, caught between the past and modernity, was a source of inspiration for the arts, particularly literature. Novels, drama and poetry used it as a backdrop for captivating intrigues. Balzac’s La Comédie humaine is emblematic of this use of the capital. Heaven or Hell, Paris attracts the ambitious but also crushes those unable to master it. Between the last page of Balzac’s Père Goriot where Rastignac admires “Paris tortuously lying along both banks of the Seine where the lights were beginning to shine” and the muddied Seine into which Javert plunges at the end of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Paris offers a contrasting and often violent setting. The “buzzing hive” described by Balzac often has a metaphorical function and an ideological meaning in fiction: it reflects progress, individual revolts and collective anxieties.

Old Paris

The passion of 19th century writers for history goes some way to explain why fiction was keen to portray what was then known as“old Paris”. In June 1832, audiences at Alexandre Dumas’ La Tour de Nesle were astonished to discover the famous tower destroyed in the 16th century. In Dumas’ drama, it acts as both a setting and a character, but it also conveys many fantasies—legend has it that Marguerite of Burgundy consumed her lovers there before having their throats cut. In his romanesque and theatrical work, Dumas depicts highly charged arenas of action: Montfaucon, with its gibbets and hanged men, the murky banks of the Seine, and the Place de Grève, the venue for public executions until 1832. The three novels that comprise Dumas’ Valois Trilogy also offer a guided tour of Paris during the time of the French Wars of Religion. From the Palais du Louvre to the old gates of Paris, the Parisian backdrop is frequently transformed into a deadly trap and the town houses of La Dame de Monsoreau (1846) become scenes of espionage and mystery. 

Vigny also portrays the violence of history through the symbolic power of Parisian locations: in the final act of La Maréchale d’Ancre (1831), he depicts the Rue de la Ferronnerie and the marker stone where Henri IV was stabbed to death by Ravaillac. In the same vein, Notre-Dame Cathedral is far more than a religious monument in Hugo’s novel: it embodies the century of Louis XI and the Paris of the late Middle Ages. It is again the old Paris which Hugo portrays in Le roi s’amuse (1832): “A deserted shore on the edge of the Seine beneath Saint-Germain” as outlined in the stage directions in Act IV. Triboulet draws on the grim burden of a case of mistaken identity in this gloomy setting. Here, dramatic power combines with a curiosity for the vestiges of a city on the verge of vanishing. For traces of the “old Paris” still existed on the eve of the city’s “Haussmanisation” and writers hastened to make a record of these symbols of the past. 

Referring to Nerval’s suicide in the rue de La Vieille Lanterne in January 1855, a contemporary noted that “the alley had vanished under the hammers of the demolition men; nothing remained of its steep and sombre steps, nothing of the window bars to which the poet attached himself by the neck, nothing of the wall that he struck with his feet in the agonizing throes of death…1” And Baudelaire concludes in the famous verses of La Cygne (The Swan) :

Old Paris is no more (A city’s shape, alas, changes faster than the human heart).

L'hôtel de Nevers, la Tour de Nesle et le Louvre vus du Pont-Neuf, 1853
L'hôtel de Nevers, la Tour de Nesle et le Louvre vus du Pont-Neuf, 1853 © Bianchetti/Leemage

Right Bank, Left Bank

If fiction paints disappearing places and turns them into striking backdrops, it also appropriates the urban realities of the modern capital. Nineteenth century Paris was the setting for works of a contemporary nature. Yet this Paris is often represented in a Manichean way in the face-off between the Right Bank and the Left Bank. The rapidly developing Right Bank served as a backdrop for key scenes of La Comédie humaine. This was where the bourgeoisie lived with their new-found wealth acquired through commerce and banking. The Right Bank also played host to a large artistic population. The area known as Nouvelle Athènes, created in the early 1820s, and the neighbourhood around Notre-Dame de Lorette became the setting for numerous novels and profiles depicting the life of artists, courtesans, and kept women. It is also in the Rue d’Antin where Marguerite Gautier dies in La Dame aux camélias. 

At the beginning of the 19th century, one spoke of “the boulevard” in the singular to designate the wide tree-lined thoroughfare stretching from the Bastille to the Place de la Madeleine. A popular strolling place for Parisians, the boulevard forms the inevitable backdrop for novels with a contemporary plot narrative. In his Nouvelles, Musset describes this fashionable thoroughfare, the prominent cafés where the wealthy and fashionable young frittered away their time, and where the dandies of Paris gathered. Numerous theatres—the ultimate backdrop for the 19th century novel—were built there: the opening pages of Zola’s Nana are set at the Théâtre des Variétés. Balzac is undoubtedly the novelist who, for today’s reader best captures the contrast between the Left and Right Banks. La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin) offers a remarkable illustration of the two contrasting settings. In his novel published in 1831, money grows on the Right Bank; bankers, lawyers, but also the gambling dens of the Palais-Royal prospered there, as did the life of an artist. 

The heart of the hero Raphaël de Valentin beats on the Right Bank: indeed, he first sets eyes on Pauline and falls madly in love with her at the Comédie-Italienne’s Salle Favart. The Left Bank on the other hand, sends the reader back into the past. It is also on the Left Bank, on the Quai Voltaire, where de Valentin discovers the famous skin of sorrow at an antique dealer's. The old aristocracy, which populated the Xth and XIth arrondissements (currently the 6th and 7th arrondissements) lived on the Left Bank. Here stood the fine mansions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain which Balzac and Maupassant would describe later in the century. Fortunes there may have been less ostentatious than on the Right Bank, but the titles of nobility were older and more prestigious. From one bank to the other, the reader can discover a social and political reality.

Modern Paris, violent Paris

Contemporary Paris, as fiction depicts it, is often tainted with violence. The barricades erected throughout the century thus form the backdrop for symbolic scenes. It is near the barricades on the Rue de la Chanvrerie that Gavroche dies in Les Misérables during the republican riots of the spring of 1832. The 1848 barricades also serve as the backdrop for several chapters of Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale (1869). If it was difficult to present the barricades at the theatre for reasons both material and political—the censors kept a watchful eye—the street was often a menacing arena, whose violent outbursts could erupt on stage. 

Such violence, linked to the political crises which arose between the Reign of Terror and the Paris Commune, materialised in the context of the street. The predilection for this type of arena is linked to a phenomenon which preoccupied contemporaries and which is noted in fiction: the rise in crime and the emergence of potentially dangerous places such as the slums, the sewers, the shady neighbourhoods, and the gates of Paris, the precursor to the disaffected suburbs. Eugène Sue, for example, exploits this fear to create the backdrop for Les Mystères de Paris. From the first lines of the novel, the overriding role of the setting is explained: “A Tapis-franc, in the slang of theft and murder, signifies a drinking shop of the lowest kind.” These places marked by crime and villainy fascinated the reader and the theatregoer. The abominable Gorbeau hovel, located “in that unknown region of Salpêtrière” allowed Hugo to depict the development of the outlying neighbourhoods of Paris and to draw lessons on the relationship between men and the area in which they live:

Wherever it is placed on the outskirts of a capital, a railway station is the death of a suburb and the birth of a city. It seems as though around these great centres of people's movements, at the rumble of these powerful machines, at the breath of these monstrous horses of civilisation which devour coal and vomit fire, the earth full of germs, trembles and yawns to engulf the ancient dwellings of men to allow new ones to spring forth. Old houses crumble and new ones rise. (Les Misérables, Book 4, I).

This Paris which spread and branched out offered new backdrops for fiction. Between the fine mansions of Balzac’s La Maison Nucingen (The Firm of Nucingen), the cut-throat alleyways and the forerunners to our suburbs, Paris constitutes the ideal setting for dramatisations and fantasy.

1 Les Faucheurs de Nuit, Paris, Librairie Nouvelle, 1860, p. 2.

Related articles

Subscribe to the magazine

Sign up to receive news from
Octave Magazine by email.


Back to top