In Jonathan Conlin’s Tales of Two Cities the little acknowledged but hugely significant histoire croisée of two rival metropoles gets a long overdue airing. For, like it or not, London and Paris would be much duller places if neither had deemed fit to discover the other.
Oddly, up until now no historian has ever explored this fecund, though sometimes grudging, exchange of ideas and cultural mores. Perhaps it required an outsider such as Conlin (though resident in London, he originates from New York) to martial the necessary objectivity.
Previously the author of The Nation’s Mantelpiece, the first ever history of London’s National Gallery, Conlin brings an archivist’s industry and an anthropologist’s gift for cross-cultural comparison to this history of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The book is divided into six chapters — the restless house, the street, the restaurant, the dance, the underworld and the dead and buried — each devoted to one aspect of city life that emerged from, or was heavily influenced by, traffic between London and Paris.
It is a surprise to discover the debt Paris owes London for its fine dining and high-kicking nightlife in particular. The first bombshell gets dropped on page 96 where Conlin stresses ‘the English origin of pre-revolutionary Parisian restaurants,’ and notes that the fad for dining out first became widespread in London’s chop-houses and taverns at the end of the 17th century. Though Parisian master-chefs like François Vatel undoubtedly took the art of cooking to another level, English cuisine was not always so frowned upon by the French as some like to suggest. When a certain Monsieur Duclos took over the reins of the first restaurant to open in Paris, the Hôtel d’Aligre, in 1769, he did not hesitate to advertise ‘nouvelle cuisine à la mode anglaise’.
Just over a century later, the London skirt-dancing phenomenon Kate Vaughan ushered in what became known as the French can-can. The original can-can had begun in Paris as a masculine display before being taken up by female performers. The French can-can version, immortalised by Parisian artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, took off after Vaughan became the first performer to flash her lacy petticoats on stage. Conlin’s dry wit shines through as he writes: ‘Audiences were hooked not because [Vaughan]was lifting her skirt, but because she seemed to be struggling to keep it down.’
Conlin can be imperiously impervious to the more dunder-headed among us, such as when he describes Jean des Essientes — the picaresque protagonist of Huysmans’ A Rebours — as leading a life akin to ‘a belle époque version of the Book of Ecclesiastes’. Generally, though, his examination of French and English fiction writing’s cross-polllination, particularly the detective novel, is most astute. We learn, for instance, that a struggling doctor Arthur Conan Doyle did a study of French detective novels before embarking on his Sherlock Homes mysteries. Among Doyle’s pile of novels was Emile Gaboriau’s The Little Old Man of Batignolles (which had been translated into English by Henry Vizetelly). The first Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, bears a striking resemblance to this earlier work. Both feature an eccentric sleuth and his physician sidekick and as in Gaboriau’s novel Doyle has the plot hinge on the murderer writing a misleading word in the victim’s blood.
As a clever linking device Conlin has settled on the ubiquitous figure of the flâneur. He argues that this solitary, male urban walker, whose first literary appearance is often attributed to Baudelaire, was actually an early 18th-century English construct. ‘The first flâneur was not Baudelaire’s “passionate spectator”, but Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Mr Spectator,’ Conlin writes.
Given his own eye for detail and respect for thoroughness and the chronology of events, Conlin clearly admires the flâneurs of yore for their unhurried appreciation of things. An attractive fabric, for instance, could turn a spot of window-shopping into a veritable adventure of the mind:
A flâneur would be transfixed for two hours studying the design and colour [of the fabric], considering its place in the history of fashion, as well as the relationship between the manufacturer, his suppliers and retailers.
In a similar way the greatest compliment one can pay Conlin’s book is that it provides endless food for thought.