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During the Second Empire (1860-1871), Eug?nie R. follows the man she loves to Paris but is soon marooned, pregnant, and penniless. Forced to abandon her daughter, she takes to the streets, navigating her way up from ruin and charting the treacherous waters of sexual commerce.
During the Second Empire (1860-1871), Eugénie R. follows the man she loves to Paris but is soon marooned, pregnant, and penniless. Forced to abandon her daughter, she takes to the streets, navigating her way up from ruin and charting the treacherous waters of sexual commerce.
"A sweeping, fascinating epic full of drama and beauty."—Publishers Weekly
"The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is as much a personal meditation on women’s emotional and professional tradeoffs as it is a sweeping saga of the decadent Paris that spawned Madame Bovary. … Don’t read this fiercely intelligent novel if you simply want a good love story dressed up in period clothes. Read it for the complex sexual politics, lush language, and mirror onto our own excessive, heedless times."—Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger
"The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is an arresting tale of what it meant to survive as a woman in 19th-century France. With spare, powerful prose Carole DeSanti's debut novel paints an unflinching portrait of love and loss against a landscape of Parisian decadence." — Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches
"Epic times make for epic books. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is both sweeping in scope and painstaking in detail. Eugénie R.'s story, from naive goosegirl to resilient survivor, makes for wonderful, suspenseful reading, but tumultuous Paris is equally compelling, laid out here by DeSanti in all her grisly or gorgeous glory." — Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"Against a carefully recreated landscape of France and the City of Lights during the 1860s, with the Prussian army heading for Paris, DeSanti brings a 21st-century sensitivity for the plight and passions of women in her rendering of Eugénie and the women and men she comes to travel (and drink) among." —Mireille Guiliano, internationally best-selling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat
"Reading The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is like entering a lush dream filled with beauty and brutality. This astonishing debut is a panoramic story of war and peace, love and betrayal, innocence and hard-won wisdom, told through the eyes of a compelling woman who kept me at her side through it all." —Lauren Belfer, author of A Fierce Radiance
"So richly and sensuously drawn one can almost feel it . . . Perhaps if [Eugénie's] contemporary, Emma Bovary, had possessed the ingenuity, wit, and tenacity of Eugénie R., Madame B. wouldn’t have had to take that arsenic." — Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day
"Lord! This is a great piece of work. How beautifully this is written. How rare that is to discover on the page." — Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out Of Carolina
"A magnificent novel in scope and achievement, powerfully written yet delicately evocative." — Fay Weldon
To Paris, 1861
The train, nearly empty when I boarded, had filled. La Loupe, Chartres, Rambouillet, Versailles—each station a fresh roar of voices, a jostling of shoulders and parcels and luggage. The car smelled of damp wool and iron; musky sweat and sour bodies, windows grimy with soot and dusk. In the seat next to me, empty an hour ago, was a stranger wearing the crumbs of his dinner—bread and Camembert. Once inside the Porte Maillot the carriage halted suddenly, went black for an instant of silence, a gasping intake of breath: “Next, Saint-Lazare!” We shuddered forward. I squeezed shut my eyes, wishing it all away? And abruptly smacked my head against the rail on the seat ahead, bone against iron; a wave of dizziness and emotion
—Wait, turn back the clock, is it all a terrible mistake? A charred, acrid odor.
“They’ll be unloading us directly from the station to the hospital wards soon enough,” muttered the stranger, brushing crumbs off his waistcoat. “Just drop us off at La Salpêtrière!”
Paris. My aching brow. The bump was already beginning to swell into an egg.
“ . . . A hat, you goose—gloves,” Stephan had said, thrusting into my hands these unfamiliar items, companions to the soft silk of the dress I was wearing. “You can’t go about Paris bare-fisted and naked above the neck!” Now the veil’s decorative flecks swarmed before my eyes, an irritating nest of spots.
In the cab, scents of horse and leather, musky cologne in the chilly air; my breath misting the window. Sharp, rolling turn down an ancient alley with walls close enough to touch. A stairway too steep to climb, cut into stone; rusted iron loops for handholds and strips of cloth on a blackened beam for a door. I hung hard to a strap as the cab took a steep, winding descent.
“Passage Tivoli, rue Saint-Lazare!” came the shout, and I reached for my handbag. Fat, stuffed to bursting, the flimsy thing, but I counted out every last sou of the fare. The driver threw a curse behind me; I flushed hot under my veil. In my limited experience of travel, Stephan had paid, and undoubtedly tipped, the cabmen. Before that, it was the rutted market road to Mirande on the back of a mule, or we traveled on foot, and not very far.
Dusk had fallen. A double archway led to an arcade divided from the road by a gutter; suspended lanterns swayed above, with illuminated letters: HÔTELS: TIVOLI, NO. 1; LISIEUX, NO. 2; VAUCLUSE, NO. 3. Every surface was plastered with placards and signs—generations of ruined broadsheets and framed notices for SALONS. CHAMBRES. CABINETS. Gaslit signs, lozenge-shaped, glowed above the hotel entrances, and a dubious gust scattered debris into a corner. Stephan had said that rooms in Paris were in short supply.
The Tivoli was nearest, and from behind the desk, Madame evaluated the scrap of black velvet on my head and its drag of veil; ran her eye over my smooth, strangled fingers clutching the strings of my handbag. Her shawl had a fringe of jet beads that clicked like a patter of rain, or Maman’s rosary when she tackled her penitence after months of neglect.
Silently, the required envelope crossed the counter, white against the pitted mahogany. Its edge was firm, unsullied as fresh linen; the seal, red wax like a drop of blood, once hot and now congealed. I had laughed, the afternoon Stephan dipped his pen, finished, and dusted the page. We weren’t drinking champagne then, but tingling bubbles were still in our noses. “You’ll see how things are done in Paris!”
Madame slipped a knife under the wax and, with great and slow deliberation, unfolded the document inside, a thick, milky sheet. Her eyes narrowed and her gaze slipped over the page; then from the page to me and back again—cataloguing qualities unknown, the way my cousin cast his eye over the beam of a measuring scale as he slit open the bellies of the ducks and geese to weigh their livers for foie de canard, foie d’oie. Now, Madame’s eyes narrowed again with an opinion, the kind that is a known truth to the rest of the world. I had an impulse to turn and flee—but where?
“Haussmann is nearly on our doorstep with the tear-down boys,” she said finally, with a solicitude purchased, perhaps, by Stephan’s pen. “There’s not a room left on the Passage, but you’re lucky tonight, Mademoiselle Rigault. Yes? Very well then.” She slid the envelope back across the desk; now it showed a pinkish stain where the wax had been. “Ladies’ curfew at seven, sharp. No gentlemen above stairs. We have no improprieties here.” She gave me another beakish, penetrating look. “Candles twenty sous, gas is not piped all the way up.” Outside, from the bar à vin across the Passage, came shouts and drunken, echoing laughter.
My throat ached; the lump on my brow throbbed; my belly gave a hollow stab and a rush of heat rose behind my eyes . . . Paris. City of light, center of the World. Of civilization; of art. It took several matches, cheap and smoldering, to ignite a taper that revealed the attributes of room 12 atop an interminable stair: a scrap of carpet worn down to the threads, walls spidered with cracks, and a sagging mattress on an iron bedstead. A wooden chair, a candle stand. Freezing, dusty with neglect; the very walls closing in with a reproach.
I wedged the back of the chair under the knob. Then after a while, lay stiffly on top of the bedcovers in my street clothes and under my cloak, listening to my heart pound and the blood surge in my ears; crashes and yelps from the alley below. Cold seeped up through the floorboards.
Of all the damp gloom and dusky shades I had so far encountered, the void next to me was the most disconcerting and lonely of all. But Stephan would know, as well as I, this gaping emptiness; my lover would be feeling my absence just as I felt his. Yes, I had gambled; exchanged all that had defined me in the world—a rustic life in a distant province (where anyone who had ever been to the capital at all was called a Parisien for life)—the rutted road and antique habits of church and village, the goose pens, the obligations of a daughter—for Stephan’s kisses and his promises, murmured like silk to my neck and imprinted on every part of me, stamped into the wax of my being. Yes, I had contoured my life to his since Saint Martin’s Day last November, with not much to show for it but a promise and some borrowed finery against the January winds—but still.
“Don’t doubt me, Eugénie,” he had said. “Doubt, you know, is contagious.”
The last echo before I drifted under seemed to be the voice of my mother, Berthe, mocking behind my ear . . . You think your eggs are on the fire when only the shells are left . . . ! An old country saying, never-turn-your-back. Maman felt closer, in that instant, than Stephan, though I had left her farther behind. And in the moment of collision between what I had imagined and the clamoring consequences of my real actions came the ache of foreknowledge, like the bump on my head, and the simultaneous etherizing of it deep within.
I woke to the sound of church bells; insistent, unstopping, pulling me from the shallow marooning shoals of a dream. Dirty light filtered in through the window; a wafer of ice lay on top of the water in the pitcher. Paris. Blackened stub of wick in a pool of wax; an aching head and skirts pulled up and rumpled as though I had been ravished by something unseen in the night. I reached up gingerly, felt the bump above my eyebrow, glanced toward the door. The chair was in place. Splash of icy water, skirts pressed smooth with the palms of my hands. No maid, no Léonie; no iron nor fire to warm it; certainly no pot on a silver tray outside the door of number 12.
From below, the dim clink and clatter of crockery held out the promise of hot coffee, at least, so I followed the sounds down to a dull, high-windowed room. Four men in coats and cravats pushed back their chairs; and a kitchen door exhaled a cloud of steam and the odor of spent coffee grounds. A sullen boy scraped down pink tablecloths, steering around bud vases containing flowers—fabric flowers, with stems stickily coiled with green tape. Madame had said nothing about breakfast. Was it included with the price of a room?
Over the coming days, I would learn that the help spoke no French; nor did most of the guests. As unaccompanied ladies never set foot there, my appearance on that morning set off a ripple of glances that sent me slinking out to a street cart, an old woman with a coffee urn, and a tin ladle meant for workmen. She too looked fisheyed at my gloves and hat as the wind luffed up. A strangled giggle rose in my nose and I tossed back the bitter stuff. If Stephan were here, it would all be a terrific joke—all of this unfamiliarity would disappear in a puff of smoke. Meanwhile, I must make the best of it. With the black brew in my hollow guts, I fished out my Nouveau Plan de la Ville de Paris 1860, with its indigo-marbled covers. My key to the capital.
By hard frost of that year—now past—the goose-girl from a tiny village hugging the Pyrenees had tasted defiance, and with it what she found she preferred: afternoons in a library sprawled on a carpet thick with Turkish flowers; a stack of leather-bound volumes pulled from the shelves. Cream with chocolate, yolks of eggs; the meat of the bird and a lover’s attentions. Instead of hoarding coals in a brazier and poking the ashes on a frigid morning, as the goose-girl had once done, a maid (Léonie) now laid the fires. All of it an extravagant taste of what had, in sixteen years of living, been skimmed off the top, plucked and gathered, measured and weighed; priced and packed and sold off down to the bones and renderings. My new life fit like a tailored bodice, a dressmaker’s creation tossed my way after the original wearer had cast it off. Indeed, there were corsets dug out of the chests and armoires; petticoats, bonnets, and stockings; past-fashion dresses belonging to absent relatives. In short order I learned to delight in foie d’oie rather than sell it; and soon greeted the rural folk at the Saturday market, the flower girl and the bread man, and chattered of our domestic affairs to Léonie, who uttered only murmurs of assent.
My seventeenth birthday had passed just after the New Year. We had celebrated it in Stephan’s bed—or rather his uncle’s bed, to which we had made profound claim—dining on brandy plums, foie d’oie, roast chicken; market cheeses, crusty white bread. The carpets were littered with corks and bones and plum stones and Bovary, its binding splayed over a mound past due for the wash. Stephan had tossed it there.
“In Paris, you know, girls your age are not allowed to read Bovary.”
“What do they read?”
“Works of moral improvement that encourage them to uphold the social order!”
He laughed and threw back the bedclothes. Drowsy and effervescent, I slipped into the warm furrow his body had left. The windows were fogged from the heat of the fire; Stephan shed his robe. Water slapped gently against the sides of the bath as he stepped in. The taste of foie d’oie and the musk of his flesh lingered on my tongue, a touch of salt; champagne tingled through my veins. Our sprig of Saint Nicholas mistletoe still dangled on the bedpost, its white berries now dried to husks. Outside, the gardens lay under a glittering sheen of frost, the last of the roses long gone; the lush foliage of the borders stripped of color. The day’s diminishing light fell through the diamond panes of mullioned glass.
“Little goose, wake up! It’s nearly nighttime.” My lover parted the bed curtain and stood clothed. He picked up Bovary, passing his fingertips along the spine. Emma, as I had left her, was bankrupt with dresses, running from lover to lover. I slipped beneath the sea of linen, awash in a strange irritation. Stephan lounged on the edge of the bed, picked up a knife from the litter on the carpet, and began peeling a winter apple. That knife drew a line between us, as he ran the blade across the fruit’s surface, flaying it of its rosy skin. Then he told me a story, better than Bovary because it was our own. It was set in Paris and there were parties, dances—masked balls in gardens. Ice skating on frozen lakes inside the city; fires with crackling wood and hot drinks with rum. Horse carriages along the streets, with bottles of champagne. We would fool them all, delight and convince them—who?—I did not ask.
He dropped the paring, an unbroken spiral, to the floor. Cut a thin, perfect slice to the core, a sliver like a new moon. An owl hooted, a gentle but worrying hoo-hoo, very near. Toast crumbs from our bed feast pressed uncomfortably into my flesh.
“So, we will be—married?” I ventured. We had discussed it on our long flight from my home province to the chateau—it was not so much a promise as simply an understanding, clear as the sky was blue, which it was, once we left the southwest’s clouds and smoke.
“But we must avoid Bovary at all costs, don’t you think? A stifling life, both of us miserable and bored.”
I giggled. “It wouldn’t be; you are nothing like Charles Bovary. A dull doctor.”
“I’d rather not find out if marriage transforms me, then.” Stephan assured me that Paris was nothing like a tiny, convention-bound provincial village; the capital was a law unto itself. I hesitated—never having considered Tillac, the place I was born, in that light. I did not miss the odor of the goose pens, though.
“Why can’t we just stay here? The days will lengthen soon. The ice will melt and we can plant a kitchen garden.” Fingers in the dark soil newborn from the frost, sieving it to breadcrumb size, nestling tiny seeds—carrots, lettuces—tucking them in a moist, well-aired bed, and watching for the first pale green shoot. “I’d like to eat something besides foie d’oie. A radish.” Its taste fresh and sharp, like a slap of spring wind . . . “And if not married we should be engaged.” Stephan pulled himself up and gazed into my eyes, and with all the earnest belief that this slate-eyed scion—heir to difficulties I could only imagine—could muster, he summoned up what he could.
“I will be your protector. It is—you know, how things are arranged. In Paris.” And then the heavy beat of wings and a flustered scuffling above our heads, and another wavering cry.