Home > 1900, 1910, 20th Century, French Literature, History of France, Non Fiction, Winock Michel > La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

October 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914.  by Michel Winock. 2002. 387 pages. Not translated into English.

I’m not a great reader of non-fiction; somehow I just have difficulties to concentrate on non-literary books. I hesitated before buying La Belle Epoque, wondering if I’d manage to read it. I’m happy I gave it a try, it’s a wonderful book, full of useful information about the society, the political forces and culture in La Belle Epoque. Most of all, it gave the right level of information to me: it’s detailed enough to teach me many things I didn’t know or to help me pull together pieces of knowledge I had grasped through literature but not too detailed. And, last but not least, Michel Winock often illustrates his speech with literary examples and compares France to other European countries, mostly England and Germany. It’s a gold mine for me, always in search of bridges between history and literature.

Michel Winock considers that La Belle Epoque corresponds to the years between 1900 and 1914. It had to be after the Dreyfus Affair and before WWI. He often needs to come back to the preceding decades to explain the events of these years, which is even more interesting. The book is divided in four major parts: the economy, the society, the politics and culture. I’m not going to summarize everything. Although I found the parts about economy and politics really interesting and enlightening regarding the roots of French unions and the DNA of our political parties, I’ll skip on these ones here. I’d rather share social and cultural elements because I thought they might be useful to you too, reader of French literature. I’ll need two posts and this one will be a hodgepodge of facts I gathered about the mores.

Marriage / Adultery / Divorce / Babies.

Marriage is seen as a financial and social decision. Love has nothing to do with it and love life is often outside of marriage. So is sex, especially for men who go to brothels; it sounds very common when you read In Search of Lost Time, as if it were a part of a boy’s education. The basis of Civil Law in France lays in the Code Civil, which dates back to Napoleon. The law punished differently adultery for men and women. A woman risked from 3 months to 2 years in prison when a man risked a fine from 100 to 2000 francs. Divorce wasn’t possible under Napoleon, it was restored by the Third Republic in 1884. These juridical elements might explain why writers drew so many portraits of miserable marriages and doomed destinies of people attached to the wrong person.

The husbands keep the money from dowries. Women can’t work without their husband’s consent. 38% of married women had a full time job, when we consider all social classes.

France’s birth rate was low compared to other European countries. People had already started to have fewer children to give them better chances  to climb the social ladder. There’s a sort of concentration of financial means. Looking back on history, France was ahead of its time but it wasn’t analyzed that way at the time. The contemporaries were afraid of a “degeneration of the race”. Zola himself wrote a novel about it, Fécondité. The idea of decadence is also in Huysmans’s books. You can imagine all the stinking ideas that can stem from such disputable concepts.

We don’t know what kind of birth control was used, probably abstinence and coitus interruptus. As a consequence of political concern – without immigration, the population declines in numbers, which is not good for the Revanche, i.e. the next war with Germany that will erase the shame of the debacle of 1870 – the State strengthens the repression of abortion and puts into trial the “faiseuses d’anges”.


I had gathered from different books (Like Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Une Vie by Maupassant, Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac) that girls from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were educated in convents, with disastrous results. Michel Winock confirms my impression. The Third Republic changes that as it starts offering another alternative to convents. As a result, women’s education will be more republican and separated from religion.

Winock explains that the model for a woman is to be a stay-at-home mother. In the good society, girls are kept at home and don’t have a lot of freedom. It confirms my impression of Albertine in Proust: she’s far too free to be considered as a good match.

Some lesbians stand out, have famous literary salons and try to promote the feminist cause. The period offered small victories to women (1907: the right to keep their wages and spend it without their husband’s consent) but they’ll have to wait until 1945 for the right to vote. Indeed, in these years, women were considered as an ally to the Catholic church. After the separation between the State and the Church in 1905, the fight was hard between the clerical and anti-clerical sides. It didn’t help the feminists that the députés feared that women would support the clerical candidates.

Death / illness / doctors.

In these years, the attitude towards death shifted. On the one hand, dead people are worshipped and on the other hand, cremation was authorized in 1889. In 1907, the Préfet Lépine closed the morgue to visitors: it’s no longer a Sunday promenade. Death becomes hidden.

The government took seriously tuberculosis, syphilis and suicides. The tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1905. Health and hygiene campaigns were launched, it was a time of progress for medicine. At the end of the 19thC, there were still weird prescriptions, such as “spend the rest of your life on a steam boat commuting on the Rhône between Lyon and Avignon and eat in time with the orchestra” to heal …stomach cancer. Unbelievable. Monsieur Diafoirus and Monsieur Purgon had an offspring.

Syphilis was a great fear and a political concern as a proof of that “degeneration” I mentioned earlier and because, like AIDS, it passes from mother to child during pregnancy. If baby boys die or are in poor health, who’s going to fight the Germans? Humanism has sometimes twisted roots. According to estimations, 13 to 15% of adult males in Paris had syphilis. It seems a high percentage to me.

Suicide was a hot topic in that period, following a series of suicides among students and Durkheim’s work on suicide, which was published in 1897 and was much discussed.

That was the elements I thought relevent to better understand books regarding mores. In the next post, I’ll write briefly about social classes, the founding of a republican identity and a little about culture. I’m afraid my style is really clumsy, I lack the English words for that kind of posts. I did my best.

  1. October 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks for the review I was looking forward to it. I like non-fiction, often more than fiction but always end up starting new books that’s why I finish not that many and don’t review a lot. This is a book that would interest me too. I’m sure it was fascinating because you read Proust.
    13 to 15 % had syphilis…indeed a very high number. It’s hard to imagine now how wide spread Tuberculosis was but it’s a frequent topic in books as well.
    I’ve never heard of that Zola novel before.


    • October 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm

      Yes it was a great read while reading Proust. Now I’m reading Anatole France, it’s a logical outcome too.
      It’s also fascinating to understand today’s France particularly the history of unions and political parties.
      About syphilis, it’s only an estimate, they had no precise figures. Turberculosis was a terrible disease in those times. I didn’t know “phtisie” was the former word for it.

      I’ve never heard of that Zola either. It was a militant book and probably not his best.


  2. October 17, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I have that Zola novel. In my translation it’s called Fruitfulness.

    I didn’t used to read non fiction much, but now for some reason, I really enjoy a good non fiction read. I’ll be posting on Balzac’s Omelette soon–a non fiction ride through food in the Comedy Humaine.
    The book gave me some new insights. Fascinating.

    The mention of the morgue connected me to Therese Raquin–remember the descriptions of Laurent’s visit to the morgue as he looks for the body of Camille. Zola mentions visitors who left “these performances of death” leaving feeling “disappointed” and “as if they’d been cheated.” And then on other days: “They applaud or whistle, as at the theatre,and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.”

    Must have been a throw-back to the old torture-and-execution-as-entertainment for the masses days.


    • October 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm

      There’s a summary of that Zola in the book. Really, that historian gives a lot of literary examples, it’s very interesting.

      I’m looking forward to your review on Balzac’s Omelette. Do you also want to read La canne de Monsieur de Balzac by Delphine de Girardin? I have the kindle version, I looked for it after seeing the famous cane in a exhibition.

      I didn’t remember that scene in Thérèse Raquin. I was surprised to read it was public, that people used to go and watch stiffs after their Sunday lunch. It sounds so creepy now. I suppose you’re right about the “throw-back to the old torture-and-execution-as-entertainment for the masses days.” It’s something I don’t understand at all.


  3. October 17, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I completely fotgot about that scene in Thérèse Raquin. I have a book like Guy’s Balzac book on Jane Austen.
    Ts… Don’t they show the executions on US TV? I thought they did and there are always people who can go and watch. Shameful.


  4. October 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    To my great surprise, the public visits to the Paris morgue is a minor part of the plot of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860).

    Villiers de l’Isle-Adam wrote a pretty good short story (in Contes Cuels) about the morgue, too.

    No they do not show executions on American TV!


    • October 17, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      Maybe that was something that was under discussion. I’m glad to hear it does not happen. It was in the newpapers here.


    • October 17, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      What do they do during these visits? I can’t see the draw, really. Do they go there to watch any corpse or famous ones?


      • October 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm

        In the Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Zola stories: any corpse. Whatever interesting variations happen to have come in: “Although it made him feel sick with repugnance and occasionally sent shivers down his spine, he went there regularly…” (TR, Ch. XIII)

        Zola lovingly emphasizes the men gazing on the nude bodies of young women who committed suicide: “Laurent looked at her for a long time, running his eyes all over her body, absorbed in a kind of fearful lust.”


        • October 17, 2011 at 9:17 pm

          Oh dear, that’s disgusting. Strange that I don’t remember. I’ve read Thérèse Raquin. (A long time ago)
          I wonder if it was the same in other European countries.


  5. leroyhunter
    October 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Very interesting stuff Emma. I always read a fair bit of non-fiction and when you find something that hits the mark like this it’s great.
    “who’s going to fight the Germans?” – you forget how much bitterness and anger there was about 1870, and how that set the tone in France for the countdown to 1914. As an aside, there was recently published in English a much-praised biogrpahy of Bismark, which I’d like to read, but I know it’ll be years before I get to it so I haven’t bought it.

    Another cultural history that analyses matters in terms of writing, visual art etc is Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes, about Russia in the 19th & 20th centuries. I’ve always thought it’d be something Guy would like, it’s supposed to be brilliant.


    • October 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      I got another of his books : Les voix de la liberté : Les écrivains engagés au XIXe siècle. It’s about the political commitment of writers in the 19thC. That’s something I’ve always wanted to read about.

      I didn’t forget the bitterness, I meant that phrase to be ironic. A whole generation was raised in the perspective of a revenge. However, Winock says the image of young men happy to go at war in 1914 isn’t totally accurate.

      Meanwhile, in Moselle, some city names were changed for German ones (it was the case of my home town), Wilhelm II had his face added on the cathedral in Metz and a whole neighbourhood was added to the city. (The architecture is massive, you can’t miss the German part of the town, just the train station is huge)
      The consequences still exist in everyday life as two major laws were passed during that time in France (1905: separation church and state / 1901: law on Associations) These laws still don’t exist in Alsace-Moselle. And the social security is different, it comes from the German one.


      • leroyhunter
        October 18, 2011 at 10:16 pm

        That’s incredible about Alsace-Lorraine, I didn’t realise the legacy was so tangible. The names I could understand.

        Sorry, I meant “you” as “one” – in the sense of “one forgets how much bitterness”, not that you yourself had forgotten! Badly expressed by me.


        • October 18, 2011 at 10:32 pm

          Other “details” remain: In France, you have Tribunaux de Commerce (for trials that involve business and companies), you don’t have that in Alsace-Moselle. These matters are judged by a civil court with professional judges. Other example, you can be bankrupt as a person but not in the rest of France. I have other juridical details in mind but I don’t know the words in English.

          Not badly expressed, badly understood by me too. Sometimes French is easier than English (“on” is useful and I also miss the feminine for “ami” because in English you need to say girl-friend even if there’s no romantic relationship)


  6. October 19, 2011 at 9:12 am

    A very useful read for those who like me read the fiction of the time without knowing much about the background. The level of adultery in the fiction seems quite astonishing and is very different to English fiction of the time where it is rarely mentioned and then in a roundabout way. This book obviously goes a long way to explaining it. I keep planning to read this one too http://amzn.to/qFr7oV


    • October 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm

      Thanks Tom. I ordered the book Caroline recommended, I’m curious to read about England. I’m always interested in history and people’s way of life.
      About Paris, you might want to try Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke.


  7. October 19, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    This is fascinating. The who’s going to fight the Germans thing. It’s that sort of detail one misses as a modern reader.

    A great shame it’s not translated.

    Caroline, I recall the idea of broadcasting executions. It was debated in the US, but never seriously. More a debate in the sense of a fringe politician proposing it for publicity and then it being seen as a horrific idea by everyone else.

    That’s the trouble with news from other countries. Sometimes it’s quite hard to tell if something being discussed is under serious consideration or is fringe material which due to some procedural quirk of local legislative bodies or the prominence of the person who raised the point has to be discussed but has no hope of ever gaining support.

    Regarding who gets to view executions my understanding is that it’s those with a direct connection to the case. Family of the victim for example. I loathe the death penalty, but the US hasn’t turned it into entertainment.

    On the morgues though, as a law student I went to the Old Bailey to watch the criminal cases. Unlike executions criminal cases are open to the public and the galleries are filled with old people watching and enjoying. The ushers would say things like “there’s a good one in Court three” and you’d go there and it would be a rape-murder or somesuch. I ran into a couple of other students, but the vast majority of spectators were there just to enjoy the show. We haven’t changed as much as we sometimes like to think we have.


    • October 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks. See you in a few days for the second part. You’d like it it’s a good companion to Proust. (Ah ah the automatic dictionary on my webphone changes Proust into profit. How ironic.)
      I think journalists with special authorization can attend the executions.
      In France too you can watch murder trial and the like at the Cour d’Assises.


    • October 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Max: sometimes there’s just not enough on television.


  8. October 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    An infamous murder which gained international attention led to a trial held nearby. 100s waited outside every day to get in, and The Red Cross were on site with coffee and doughnuts.


    • leroyhunter
      October 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      Are coffee and doughnuts medical supplies??


      • October 19, 2011 at 10:25 pm

        Well, when you feel a little blue, they can be. 🙂


    • October 19, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      Guy, there will always be curiosity for that. In France, trials cannot be filmed unless there’s a special authorization. Like for Klaus Barbie or the “affaire d’Outreau“, something you’d be interested in. There’s a film — excellent according to the critics — L’affaire d’Outreau by Vincent Garenq, staring Philippe Torreton.

      That thing about the Red Cross! (or should I say Red Croissants for that particular day?) The Americans: always practical. You see, that echoes exactly the event I related in the review of The Road when people decide to feed the tramps to get rid of them on the next train rather than put them to jail where they’d have to feed them anyway and don’t get rid of them.


  9. October 21, 2011 at 9:43 am

    The Belle-Epoque is an era I’m especially interested in, as it contains a lot of authors I like and a really intriguing shift in cultural politics. That being said, I very much appreciate lively non-fiction that maybe has a little device to hook its information onto, rather than presenting it as a straight stream, which I can find hard to take in. I read a book a long while back whose name escapes me now, about a magazine put together in this time by women, all women who had miraculously broken through the glass ceiling – doctors and writers and researchers and so on. That was a good read, I think. I might look out for this, so thank you for the review, Emma!


    • October 21, 2011 at 10:23 am

      This one is written by a history teacher and it sounds like a text book but it’s really worth reading.
      If you’re interested in the history of France, I highly recommend the Reines de France series by Simone Bertière. It’s the history seen from the queens side. The writer is an historian, so it’s accurate and she writes in a flowing style.


  1. October 22, 2011 at 1:05 am
  2. January 19, 2012 at 11:52 pm

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