In 1871, the city of Paris was surrounded by the Prussian army after Louis Napoleon unwisely started a war with Prussia. For four months, this army tried to “starve out” the citizens of Paris which led to an uprising by the working class. Consequently, these angry, displaced citizens set up their own government, the Paris Commune, and fought against the French government which had just ironically signed an armistice with Prussia.
The Communards destroyed many monuments in Paris that were linked to the Ancien Regime including the Place Vendome’s tribute to Napoleon I, the Hotel de Ville, the Palais des Tuilleries and the Palais de Justice. The city of Paris, which had recently been rebuilt under the Second Republic of Louis Napoleon and was at the “height of architectural perfection”, was now under attack and its citizens were starving.
Mary McAuliffe’s Dawn of the Belle Époque recounts this history of Paris from the revolution in 1871 to the Belle Époque of the early 1900’s. McAuliffe concentrates mainly on the lives of the various artists Sarah Bernhardt, Claude Monet, Emile Zola, Claude Debussy; the architects Gustave Eiffel and Frederic Bartholdi; and the political advocates Victor Hugo and Georges Clemenceau by interweaving their lives through these three decades.
Dawn of the Belle Époque is divided into chronological chapters, year by year. Although occasionally prolix and repetitive with banal details that do not relate to main events in the chapter, McAuliffe’s descriptive accounts of the Statue of Liberty, Paris’ 1900 World Exhibition, the Impressionist’s seditious contribution to the world of art and the abasing travesty of the Dreyfuss Affair are quite illuminating to a dilettante of French history.
Unfortunately, one of McAuliffe’s agendas in recounting the history of Paris in Dawn of the Belle Époque relies on the narrative and diary entries of Julie Manet, daughter of Impressionist Edouard Manet. While this utilization of Manet’s eyewitness accounts of the events help provide a feeling of authenticity, at times McAuliffe’s work becomes more of a literacy novel than a historical documentary.
Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)