My aim here, as follows, is to offer more information about the story. This is for anyone who may be interested, and in the hope too, that for those who have read the novel and enjoyed it, there can be some increased pleasure in receiving extra details about the characters and the environment in which those characters find themselves.
Some of the main protagonists did indeed exist and it was important for me to have researched their lives and their work as well as possible, to at least know in myself, that my attempts to capture something of their essence were authentic. But it is a work of fiction and so liberties were taken for which I only feel a modicum of guilt. These lives, after all, were lived long ago in the 19th Century. And as well, some of the main characters are purely fictional. However, research was also needed for them and though as individuals they may not have actually existed, the professions and artistic styles that they pursued certainly did.
The Environment. Paris at the 'Fin de Siècle'
The main bulk of the narrative is set in Paris in the 1880s as the century nears its end - The Fin de Siècle. I have always found that phrase to be exciting and evocative, with an interesting hint of the sinister. As the 19th Century prepared to die it uneasily and suspiciously eyed its brash new successor and the responses of the collective unconscious became expressed within society and through its arts and spiritual pre-occupations. These latter two figure strongly in the narrative. The disturbance was often manifested in the visions of those artists of the time who came to be collectively known as the Symbolists. They have become less chronicled than the Impressionists, partly perhaps because their vision was far more subjective and sometimes troubling. They have an important (and I hope, provocative) presence in the narrative along with their often bizarre literary fellows, the Symbolist writers and poets. And at the same time, the certainty of religious tradition was being challenged: on the one hand, by the newly confident predictions of science, and on the other, from a vastly different source, the revival of magic and occult practice. The very darkest aspects of the occult also play a significant part in Madeleine's story.
Frantisek Kupka - 'The Black Idol (Resistance)'. 1903. ( Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France). Kupka in, his Symbolist period, moved to Paris in the 1990s.
The Salpêtrière Hospital
C.1900 Service des Archives de l'Assistance Publique - Hôpitaux de Paris
The Salpêtrière Hospital exists as a huge and rather austere building in the south east of Paris, quite close to Le Jardin des Plantes and in this modern day, Gare d'Austerlitz. It is impressive in size and architecture having been developed from a building that was originally used to make and store gunpowder. Hence the name, which is from the French for our 'saltpetre', a gunpowder ingredient. Its next use was to store human beings. Louis X1V, the so called 'Sun King', wished for there to be no more flotsam and jetsam ruining the immaculate beauty and perfection of his city and decreed in 1656 that there should be " ...an end to beggary and idleness, as being the source of all disorder". Thus, any that could possibly cause offence were rounded up; this was a collection of vagabonds, vagrants, beggars, mad people, and it would seem - par excellance, prostitutes, but with no distinction between the genuinely deprived and hapless and the genuinely wicked. So, all herded up, with the men destined for the Bicêtre, and the Salpêtrière to begin its feminine associations by housing the women. There are terrible tales of the overcrowding and the cruel suffering. Out of the total population of 400,000 who lived in Paris, 40,000, one tenth, were cleared away and imprisoned and 10,000 of these were interred into the Salpêtrière. The mad created a special problem that no one had any idea about and little wish to solve and the remedy for those truly demented was to chain them to the walls. It was said that those unfortunate enough to be passing the building could hear the screams of the captives as they were bitten by the rats.
It is an indicative fact of the time that, though the awfulness was housed within and hidden from public view, the King had commissioned the architect Libéral Bruant to create, on the site of the old factory, a fine building within which to hide it. This is the structure, expanded in 1684 which remains today. In 1669, soon after the original commission for the building, Bruant was also tasked with building its chapel, the Chapelle St-Louis-de-la-Salpêtrière. This is big, large enough for 1000 persons and it's huge, dark dome looms above as the main, central building is approached. It is impressive, both outside and in, with the high altar placed within a central octagonal rotunda, and serving as the meeting place for four equal sized wedges of naves, which could keep the inmates segregated into distinct groups. I have visited the chapel on two occasions and on both, the interior space was being prepared for art exhibitions.
There were appalling events that occurred at the Salpêtrière on the night of the 3rd September 1792 and through the following day. The novel, though it is mainly set a hundred years after, begins with a dramatised account of those events. They were part of the 'September Massacres' that were taking place in Paris and are truly shocking. A description is also given by the fictional Jaques Lamond in a letter to his Mother (Chapter 4 of the novel). The French Revolution was three years underway and a mob descended on the Salpêtrière. The accounts that have come down to us of their intentions are somewhat contradictory with references to the mob's wish to free the prostitutes, but also their deluded purpose of weeding out inmates who might be counter to the revolution. Given the nature of the Institution it was hardly likely to house counter-revolutionaries! The next day over thirty women were put on trial and sadistically killed. In the novel I treated these events as part of a thread of evil that works its way into the lives of the story's characters nearly a century later, with Madeleine potentially, the ultimate victim.
Dr Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière. 1795. Tony Robert Fleury.
Reform began in the early 19th Century and particularly through the revolutionary work and influence of Philippe Pinel, considered by some to be the 'father of modern psychiatry'. He became chief physician of the Salpêtrière, by then described as a 'Hospice'. He is credited for striking off the chains and freeing the insane women. Pinel actually listened, took notes and observed, and instituted a method of management for the insane, referred to as 'moral treatment'. At this time, the Salpêtrière was a massive and bizarre instutution with 7000 female patients, many of them elderly, and comprised its own village, even containing a bustling market.
The next figure of great significance was Professor Jean-Martin Charcot himself, who plays such an important part in Madeleine's story and more details about him are given below in the descriptions of the novel's personnel. He was the predominant neurologist of the time and became the Director of the Hospital and famous for his investigative work in the field of Hysteria, in which hypnosis became a diagnostic and experimental tool. His public lectures, using hysterical patients and hypnotism, became cultural events that attracted the intelligensia and also sensation-seekers from around the world. They were delivered in the hospital's large lecture theatre and gave Charcot the opportunity to display his brilliance as a scientist and clinician and his undoubted skill as a charismatic performer. This is avidly and enthusiastically described by both the artist Louis Martens (Chapter 3) and the young neurologist Jacques Lamond (Chapter 4), though their main points of interest differ considerably - the artist and the scientist.
Today the L'hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière is a teaching hospital and one of the largest hospitals in Europe.
Gustave Moreau 'Song of Songs' (Cantique des Cantiques) 1893. Watercolour on paper. Ohara Museum of Art.
Perhaps a few words about 'Symbolist Art' would be useful for anyone who is not familiar with the term. It is not as well known an artistic movement as 'Impressionism', which was happening roughly at the same time, though I believe that it carries just as much importance in the history of visual art. Anyway, as will be apparent, I like it and it has been a pleasurable interest for me, one that I had the opportunity to share in the novel.
Symbolism developed out of Romanticism and added an edge to it. The image above is by Gustave Moreau, a late work by an early Symbolist who is sometimes referred to as 'the father' of the movement. The use of the imagination, in a subjective way, is perhaps this art's main ingredient and so it can suggest dream or even trance. It can be strange, spiritual, have an arcadian beauty, but can also be hellish. It often derives its subject matter from mythology or poetry. This loosely gathered movement grew throughout the second half of the 19th Century. At the time in which the novel is set, mainly 1885/6, the visual artists and their literary counterparts were just about to be given their official title as 'Symbolists' through an article in 'Paris Match'. Until then, their art had often been referred to as 'Decadent'. That term could usefully apply sometimes, but it fails to properly include the idealists and those motivated spiritually and aesthetically. It can throw more light on Symbolism if a comparison is made to the work and aims of the Impressionists. The defining difference is that the main preoccupation of the Impressionists was with what the eye sees as it observes the outside world. By contrast, the Symbolists followed the vision of the inner eye. Odilon Redon, one of the most noteable Symbolists said,
“I refused to board the Impressionist ship because I found the ceiling too low. . . .[the Impressionists] cultivated art solely on the visual field, and in a way closed it off from what goes beyond that and what can give the humblest sketches, even the shadows, the light of spirituality. I mean a kind of emanation that takes hold of our spirit and escapes all analysis.”
—Artist Odilon Redon, To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, trans. Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman (New York: George Brazillier, 1986), 110.
Odilon Redon 'Reflection'. Pastel on paper. Private Collection
And the great Symbolist, Paul Gauguin referred to the great Impressionist, Claude Monet as... "just an eye", though he aptly qualified this by continuing, "but God, what an eye!"
This art of the Symbolists, with its new and fresh emphases on subjectivity and imagination was part of a remarkable change in the arts. It was a marker of a time when the exploration of the inner world was becoming not only a feature of the arts, but also of science - as Charcot explored the symptoms of the hysteric and his student Freud discovered that those symptoms derived from the mind and not the body.
Some are fictional. Some certainly existed, but of course their lives have been appropriated for the sake of a story. I have tried not to do any of them too great an injustice. Their lives were very interesting and significant anyway, before I got to them. I thoroughly enjoyed my research, which still goes on.
I owe it to Madeleine that I should not try to describe or define anything about her that is apart from the story as a whole. So I must leave it there. With the others it is easier! -
They are in no particular order - please just scroll down.
Father Pierre Lambert
A fictional character who is Chaplain to the Salpêtrière Hospital in the years 1874-1886. His base is the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière, the large hospital church that is described above in the Salpêtrière section. There would certainly have been a priest resident at the chapel and the hospital at that time.
Lambert is a deeply religious character who plays a substantial part in Madeleine's story. Driven by his love of Madeleine, his intense feelings about good and evil, with a crusader like hatred of the latter, his own destiny becomes an additional feature of the story.
A fictional character. Louis is a very enthusiastic and aspiring young artist in the Symbolist mould who, like significant others of the time, gravitated to Paris from Belgium. He haunts the cafés, bars and theatres looking for stimulation, excitement, and for inclusion into the artistic and intellectual élite, the special groups and soirées that held court in the cultural environment of the city. I think he tends to feel a little superior to his artist friend Marcel who he corresponds with and who lives in the country and paints landscapes. He of course becomes utterly smitten with Madeleine, before he even knows her, and is overwhelmed by his need for her as his muse. It is in the fabled tradition of the romanticism of the artist. It makes me think of the Pre-Raphaelite and early English Symbolist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti who, I sometimes think, died from a surfeit of the muse.
Louis is drawn, against his will, to the more macabre elements of Symbolism and their associations with magic. He actually declares that, for him, it is the more ideal and arcadian visions that appeal, particularly the art of Puvis de Chavannes.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 'Summer' or 'The Harvest'. 1873. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
A fictional character. Lamond is a young neurologist studying with Charcot who is very idealistic and excited by his work and new discoveries. He too becomes fascinated by Madeleine, but in a very different way to Louis, and, with a struggle, keeps things in perspective. Charcot sees his potential and allows him to be a young member of his circle. Eventually he entrusts him with the treatment of Madeleine, which, at that early stage of its development, was a rudimentary psychoanalysis. Jacques is studying with Charcot at the same time as another aspiring youngish neurologist, Sigmund Freud, and is fortunate enough to strike up an acqaintance!
Jean Martin Charcot
1825-1893. A famed and heralded neurologist, clinician and pathologist who plays a fundamental role in Madeleine's story. She is a patient at his Salpêtrière at a time when he was truly the 'Napoleon of the Neurosis' and when his public lectures were a 'must see' amongst, not just the scientifically curious, but the cultural élite of France and beyond. Charcot settled in the Salpêtrière institution in 1862 and ultimately became its Director until his death. In 1882 he established the neurological clinic there and he is best known to the lay public for his researches into the malady, oft diagnosed at the time, of Hysteria and for using hypnotism as its investigative tool. In fact this was not by any means his only interest, and amongst other achievements he was pioneering in his research into multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.
But it is the Hysteria connection which is the one for the novel. And for Madeleine, who becomes a special patient of his and a subject for his public demonstrations with hypnotism. There were in fact such patients who became favoured subjects, and well known to the crowds that frequented the Salpêtrière Friday public lectures.
Charcot enjoyed the arts and was known to be a gifted draughtsman himself, something that, in the story, puts the artist, young Louis Martens, into a position of favour. Charcot's gifts of observation in his drawings can probably be linked to his celebrated brilliance when observing his patients and diagnosing their symptoms.
He and his wife were also known and desired for their Tuesday evening soirées at their sumptuous residence in the Boulevard St Germain and their guest list included those at the height of their fields in all areas of society. He was also adored by many of his students including Sigmund Freud who forever kept a print of Charcot on his consulting room wall and who recalled that Charcot had taught him that,
"...theories, no matter how pertinent they are, cannot eradicate the existence of facts".
Portrait of Félicien Rops. Engraving by François-Eugene Burney. 1887. Gift of Michael. G. Wilson. LACMA.
1833-1898. Of Belgian nationality, Rops, originally a satirical illustrator, moved to Paris and became one of the best known and sometimes infamous of the artists known first as Decadents, and later as Symbolists. Decadent could often be applied to his subject matter, but as my novel has the writer Mallarmé says at his soirée of 'Mardistes' in Chapter 12, though Rops would often trawl through the lower reaches of Parisian society for his female subjects, he did so ..."with a disdain for any society that can so easily accept such misfortune". Nevertheless, the subject matter for Rops was often strongly sexual and increasingly admixed with the macabre and the devilish so, along with his reputation as a skilled lover, it was easy to imagine him liaising with the Countess de Bolvoir.
He is best known for his print making and illustrative work. He designed the cover illustration for the Symbolist novel, 'Le vice suprème', written by the equally elaborate personage of the Sâr Joséphin Péladan, who is referred to in the novel and who also makes a 'cameo' appearance, (Chapter 15).
Rops was known for his charm, his sexual attractiveness, his ability as a raconteur and his capacity for memorising a vast amount of facts. His marriage suffered considerably and he spent much of the later period of his life in a 'ménage à trois' with two sisters.
Félicien Rops. 'La tentation de Saint Antoine'. 1878. Pastel. Bibliotèque royale de Belgique.
The Countess de Bolvoir
A fictional character. Could someone such as she really exist? Well, perhaps - just. Many of the Symbolist artists and writers were anxiously in thrall to the 'femme fatale'. And the occult revival was on, with its darker side. In that way she exists as a creature of the time.
'Herodias' (The mother of Salome). Etching C.1880 by Leopold Flameng. After the oil painting by Benjamin Constant 'Queen Herodiade'.
Portrait of Joris-Karl Huysmans by Jean-Louis Forain C1878. Versailles, châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
1848-1907. Huysmans originally wrote in the 'realist' manner influenced by Emil Zola, but his novel 'À rebours' (Against Nature) was a spectacular departure from Zola's 'naturalism' and became the 'Decadent' or 'Symbolist' novel par excellence. Several references are made to it in Madeleine's story and also to Huysman's central character, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes. This character is often equated with a celebrated dandy of the time, Robert, Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, but is surely a projection of Huysman's own pre-occupations and fantasies. Des Esseintes lives in an obsessive world of aesthetics, all exquisitely refined and independent of the course of ordinary life and of nature. It is against the natural processes of things, and has an intense subjectivity and an enforced refinement of aesthetic sensibilities that leaves little room for anything, or indeed anyone, else. Unsurprisingly Des Esseintes lives alone, apart from an ill-fated attempt at having a pet tortoise with a gold painted, jewel encrusted, shell. The life-style defies normal relations and engagement with the world and consequently, Des Essientes suffers from neurotic symptoms, 'neurasthenia', hypochondria and, one can ascertain, depression. His disgust for the natural processes of nature and his consequent perversity is well exemplified by his preference in creating a real flower that can be mistaken for an artificial one.
The incredible detail and the remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge of scientific and artistic processes displayed by Huysmans is quite staggering. For instance the minutiae of how to create a perfume - one of Des Esseintes' favourite obsessive past-times. He also enters into ecstatic descriptions of certain Symbolist artists and writers particularly Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Félicien Rops, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé. (Rops and Malarmé play significant parts in Madeleine's story). He floridly exemplifies a kind of 'fin de siècle' personality, torn between a modern world of scientific advancements with its positivism and the loss of religious certainties and more traditional values. Political and international uncertainties of the time also played their part.
Huysmans continued in the same vein with his novel La-Bas (Down There), which dealt with the late 19th Century occult revival in Paris and its darker side (as in my novel), though in later years he was to return to the Roman Catholic Church and in his novels and personal existence, deeply immerse himself in a Christian mystical life. He died of cancer in 1907 in terrible pain, which he is known to have endured with remarkable forbearance.
1842-1898. Mallarmé, though gaining a reputation in the 1880s as the most eminent poet in France, regularly endured poor health and financial worries. His financial affairs dogged his life and like J-K Huysmans, he had to endure the monotony of an 'ordinary' job to survive. For him it was teaching, a profession he was not successful at, especially given he was unwilling to do it in the first place. However from a modest dwelling, a small fourth floor flat in the Rue de Rome, he hosted one of the most sought after salons in Paris, attended by celebrated guests from the arts and society. As they were held on a Tuesday night, they were named after the French for that day 'Mardi' and the regular attendees were therefore 'Mardistes'. There, as the central attraction, his wit (he was a master of irony) and intellect could be celebrated. It was said that he held court as 'judge, jester and king'. Mallarmé was perhaps the most senior of the Symbolist writers and poets. There was frustration in respect to his own work as he had planned one special creation to encapsulate his aims and ideas. This never materialised to his own satisfaction. In 1883, Paul Verlaine wrote some articles about Mallarmé including excerpts from his poetry and included his view that the writer was at work on 'a book whose profundity will astonish people no less than its splendour will dazzle all, save the blind'. Around the same time, J-K Huysmans brought out his famous Symbolist novel 'À rebours' in which he described Mallarmé as one of the most exquisite poets of the age.
These publications created a new interest in the writer's work and a decade of ascendancy, with the soirées collecting eminent cultural names. Among the guests were: Huysmans himself, André Gide, Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Jean Moréas, Félix Fénéon, Édouard Dujardin, René Ghil, Gustave Kahn, Odilon Redon, Camille Mauclair, Henri de Régnier, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B.Yeats, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, James McNeill Whistler, Auguste Rodin - and others! To be suddenly so admired and a hero to younger poets and writers was a great incentive to Mallarmé who began producing work with a renewed verve.
In earlier years, Mallarmé counted Édouard Manet (1832-1883) as a special friend and the portrait that Manet made of him hung upon a wall in his home.
Mallarmé's poetic work is extremely difficult to translate into English. He was greatly influenced by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and to try to understand Mallarmé's work it is useful to refer to Baudelaire's concept of 'musicality', something that is central to Symbolism. Symbolism relies on 'suggestion' rather than a literary meaning. Musicality describes the experience of one expression, or means of expression, suggesting another, so that words might evoke colours or the tonality and rhythms of music. Mallarmé, in his most ambitious works, played with the sounds and ambiguities of words and also their presentation, for instance their spacing, on the printed page.
Some of Mallarmés important works were: Hérodiade (begun in 1864 - though never completed), L'après-midi d'un faune (1876) (which inspired Claude Debussy's 'Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune' (1894)), Poésies 1887, Divagations 1897, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard1897 ('A roll of the dice will never abolish chance').
Recommended reading: A Throw of the Dice, the Life of Stéphane Mallarmé by Gordon Millan. (Secker and Worburg, London 1994).
It is hardly surprising that the fictitious character in my novel, the ambitious Symbolist artist, Louis Martens, was delighted to have access to one of Mallarmé's Tuesday evenings. A chapter of the novel is devoted to that evening, with some of the main characters in Madeleine's story present.