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Anthem Press
Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire

Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire

by Anne Green


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The French Second Empire (1852-70) was a time of exceptionally rapid social, industrial and technological change. Guidebooks and manuals were produced in large numbers to help readers negotiate new cultural phenomena, and their concerns - including image-making, diet, stress, lack of time, and the frustrations of public transport - betray contemporary political tensions and social anxieties alongside the practical advice offered. French literature also underwent fundamental changes during this period, as writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Gautier, Hugo and Zola embraced 'modernity' and incorporated new technologies, fashions and inventions into their work. Focusing on cultural areas such as exhibitions, transport, food, dress and photography, 'Changing France' shows how apparently trivial aspects of modern life provided Second Empire writers with a versatile means of thinking about deeper issues. This volume brings literature and material culture together to reveal how writing itself changed as writers recognised the extraordinarily rich possibilities of expression opened up to them by the changing material world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857287779
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Edition description: First
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anne Green is Professor of French at King’s College London, UK.

Read an Excerpt

Changing France

Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire

By Anne Green

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Anne Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-777-9



This is a book about writing and change – about changes affecting everyday life in Second Empire France, about the extraordinarily diverse and creative responses of writers to those changes, and about ways in which writing itself evolved during this period. It raises questions about how the material world impinges upon literature, and how writers, in turn, use that world as a way of negotiating change.

France had been rocked by momentous changes for more than half a century before the Second Empire came into being in December 1852. After the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, the country had gone through a series of revolutions, lurching from Republic to Empire to Monarchy and back to Republic again with the revolution of 1848, when the monarchy was finally abolished. But the failure of that short-lived Second Republic was seen by many as a particular betrayal. On 2 December 1851 Parisians woke to find that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the Second Republic, had dissolved the Legislative Assembly and proclaimed martial law. Over the next few days several hundred protestors and a number of innocent bystanders were killed by troops, and many thousands were subsequently deported to North Africa or exiled elsewhere. Although a plebiscite indicated that a majority of Frenchmen approved the move, for many the violence of Louis Napoleon's coup d'état and his overthrow of the 1848 constitution he had sworn to uphold was to be a long-lasting and bitter source of resentment. The following year, the Second Empire was officially proclaimed on the anniversary of the coup d'état, the imperial eagle was restored to the French flag, and Louis Napoleon took the title of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. But the shock of his coup d'état and the repressive manner in which the Empire was established were not readily forgotten.

For many writers, the coup d'état and its aftermath marked a watershed. Those who had been drawn into the political debate during the events surrounding the 1848 revolution turned away from political engagement in disgust, and their reluctance to involve themselves in political commentary was reinforced by the new regime's strict censorship laws and close control of the press. As Charles Baudelaire famously put it, 'the 2nd of December physically depoliticised me'. Maxime Du Camp, at that time editor of the Revue de Paris, noted in his memoirs that many minor writers who had made their living by writing for newspapers and journals were ruined when the administration suppressed these outlets, and he recalled that Gérard de Nerval had abandoned a plan to write about Hassan-ibn-Sabbah, the legendary eleventh-century founder of the Assassin sect, for fear that people would see allusions to the Emperor in it.

Such reactions explain a recurrent image in Second Empire literature – that of a room with windows or shutters closed to shut out a raging tempest, while the writer sits inside, creating a world of his own in his imagination and apparently oblivious to the turmoil outside. This is the central image of both Théophile Gautier's 'Préface', where the poet composes his poems '[p]aying no attention to the hurricane/ That lashed against my closed windows', and of Baudelaire's 'Paysage', where the poet refuses to be distracted by '[t]he Riot raging in vain at my window', instead shutting out the outside world in order to conjure up images of his own.

But while writers may have used such images to dramatise their unwillingness to engage directly with current affairs, they were not oblivious to the wider changes taking place around them. After the turbulence of the first half-century, the country was changing on all fronts – not only politically, but socially, economically and physically. An energetic foreign policy meant that French armies once again ranged widely, dominating Algeria, fighting against Russia in the Crimea, and against Austria in support of Italian unification – a war whose peace terms gave Nice and Savoy to France. Further afield, there were ambitious French military campaigns in West Africa, Indochina, Syria, New Caledonia and, disastrously, Mexico. This was also the period of the greatest developments of the steam age: the country's infant rail industry grew into a massive programme of railway construction that carved its way across France, opening up links with neighbouring countries and giving access to trade with North Africa and the Near East. Manufacturing industries were transformed by new industrial processes; cities expanded rapidly as workers moved in from the countryside; and as fortunes were made and lost, social hierarchies loosened and changed. Recently developed technologies such as photography offered new ways of seeing the world, and ambitions and expectations shifted as the Second Empire forged a new identity for itself.

Modern readers' perceptions of this period tend to be coloured by Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels which vividly trace the fortunes of one extended family during the Second Empire. Zola, however, was writing after the event, looking back over that extraordinary eighteen-year period in full knowledge of the Empire's sudden and ignominious end in September 1870 when Napoleon III surrendered at Sedan after a series of humiliating defeats in the war against Prussia. The writers discussed in this book, however, were writing during the Second Empire itself, unsure of how events would unfold, yet acutely sensitive to the changes going on around them. The picture of Second Empire France that emerges from their work does so obliquely, for perhaps without their realising it, their hugely diverse responses to the here-and-now of existence reveal much about that time.

As writers embraced 'modernity' and incorporated new technologies, inventions and fashions into their work, French literature itself underwent a fundamental change. Writers frequently complained that art was becoming industrialised and commodified, yet they found ways of appropriating the industrial and transforming it into art as they incorporated commodities into their writing and breathed new life into literary forms. In the chapters that follow, it will become clear that the new literary focus on the material world was not the simple 'realist' reflection of external reality that critics often assume. Rather, Second Empire writers recognised that depicting apparently innocent little details of modern life could be a subtle and versatile means of thinking about deeper issues in the wider world. Embedded in the trivial and unregarded details which bring their work to life are ideas and associations that add a richness of meaning often lost to a modern reader.

One of the ways in which this book tries to identify these associations is by examining some of the myriad non-literary texts, now largely forgotten, that explored the modern world – contemporary practical guides, commentaries and manuals which purported to help readers negotiate aspects of new cultural phenomena such as train travel, photography or fashion. Many of their concerns seem strikingly modern – there are worries about image, diet, stress, lack of time, and the frustrations of public transport – but as these texts turn the outside world into language and interpret it for readers, they often reveal more than expected. Although the guides and manuals claim simply to offer practical advice to readers, in doing so they betray contemporary political tensions and social anxieties. Beneath their descriptions and recommendations lie barely expressible attitudes to the nature of change and to the new social order. In some cases reactions that could not be expressed openly for fear of censorship bubble to the surface; in others, attitudes and ideas that are still half-formed seem to emerge unconsciously from the practical text. Read in conjunction with these guides and manuals, literary works reveal unexpected new resonances and meanings: sometimes what critics have taken to be an original feature will turn out to be a contemporary commonplace, or, conversely, an apparently unremarkable detail will be revealed as having special import.

The aim of this book is neither to discuss aspects of the material world in order to decide whether literary descriptions of them were factually accurate, nor to plunder literary texts in order to elucidate some aspect of the material world or to bolster a social or historical analysis. Rather, it attempts to bring literary and non-literary texts together with key areas of material culture, to show how writing itself changed as writers recognised the extraordinarily rich possibilities of expression opened up to them by the changing material world. It does not try to be comprehensive. Other areas such as medicine were undergoing changes quite as momentous as those examined here. The many original sources referred to are only a sample of the vast body of guides, manuals and commentaries published during the period, and the literary texts discussed are a small selection of the examples that might have been chosen. If certain authors appear to dominate – and Flaubert's presence is particularly obvious – it is because they seem exceptionally sensitive to the tremors of the time, and more aware of the complexities of changing circumstance. But if, like all great artists, Flaubert has his finger on the pulse of the age in a way that lesser writers did not, their simpler, more wooden responses can often be just as revealing. By reading these works in context, by weaving between different types of text and attempting to tease out layers of meaning whose significance is no longer evident to a modern reader, the chapters that follow show how literature itself changed during the Second Empire as it responded to a changing France.



Nowhere were the changes taking place in mid nineteenth-century France displayed in more concentrated form than at the two international exhibitions held in Paris in 1855 and 1867. The exhibition of 1855, announced by Napoleon III barely four months after the proclamation of the Second Empire, was seen as an opportunity for France to stamp its new identity on the world. It was to be an occasion for France to assert its superiority over other nations and to show off the achievements of the new Empire to the hordes of visitors who were confidently expected to travel from far and wide to see it and to marvel. The exhibition's aims were explicit: as Prince Napoléon, the Emperor's cousin, declared in a speech to the first meeting of the Imperial Commission, its purpose was 'to illustrate nineteenth-century France and Europe'. But what did it mean, 'to illustrate [...] France'? How was France to be presented?

From the outset, the 1855 exhibition, like its successor, was closely identified with the imperial family and the new régime. An Imperial Commission under the supervision of Prince Napoléon planned the exhibition. The Emperor set the scheme in motion and officiated at the opening ceremony, his profile was stamped on the exhibition medals, his sculpted bust presided over the main entrance, and he and the Empress made numerous public visits. Moreover, the innovatory idea of incorporating fine arts into what was originally conceived of as an exhibition of agriculture and industry was publicly attributed to the Empress, who was appointed patron of the art section. From the outset, then, the exhibition was to be a showcase for the aims of the new Empire and an expression of a new national and imperial identity – an image of Second Empire France for display to the nation and the world.

We can trace the gradual emergence of this image by examining some of the common features of the many texts written directly for or about the two exhibitions – official reports, speeches, articles, catalogues and guidebooks – and it is worth looking at them at some length, since the values and attitudes they convey form a basis for exploring the literature of the period. Most of the literature with which the present book is concerned adopts a position in relation to this emerging identity. Consciously or not, writers reinforced or challenged the values implicit in the exhibitions, for these were emblematic of a certain way of responding to a changing France.

Glossing over the dubious legitimacy of the new regime, texts surrounding the exhibitions were suffused with images of continuity and organic growth – images that implied that the exhibitions had evolved as a natural and inevitable manifestation of the essential nature of Frenchness. Even the design for the exhibition palace was portrayed as if it had emerged spontaneously from the French soil, and the exhibitions themselves, seen as 'the truest and most complete expression of the forces and trends of the new world', were presented as the culmination of a natural and inexorable process that had brought France to its present, enviable state. Inscribed within a natural, God-given order that moves inevitably towards perfection, the exhibitions were shown to exemplify that process. In the words of Prince Napoleon at the opening ceremony, the exhibition of 1855 marked 'a new step towards perfection, that law laid down by the Creator, which is the first requirement of mankind and the necessary condition for social organisation'. By wrapping the exhibitions in this discourse of inevitability and naturalness, and by presenting them as having been conceived in accordance with divine will, these writings work to legitimise the new Empire.

In the language of the exhibition texts, newness becomes an exemplary attribute. Associated with genius, creativity and wonder, newness marks a fundamental and essential break with the past. Despite these texts' emphasis on continuity, despite France's long tradition of industrial exhibitions, and despite London's hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851, the Exposition of 1855 is presented as novel, unique, exceptional and without precedent. It is the first French exposition universelle, the first ever to bring together industry and fine arts ('a combination so well-suited to our genius for innovation', says the official catalogue), the first ever to indicate the price of the exhibits ('a bold innovation that was not introduced in London'), and the items on display, of course, represent all that is most modern. The new Palace of Industry, constructed mainly of iron, is repeatedly described as unlike anything built before, while its exhibits exemplify 'the nature of this solemn celebration which is truly unique in our history.' Yet its successor, the 1867 exhibition, is also presented as unique and without precedent. The new exhibition palace is again said to be unlike anything built before. One writer even describes the 1867 exhibition site, the Champ de Mars, as a 'Parisian desert', a once-arid plain that the exhibition has transformed into a hive of activity in a lush, green setting – conveniently overlooking the fact that the 'desert' was a former swamp.

But if one strand of discourse emphasises a rupture with the past and the sudden emergence of the original and new, another strand stresses continuity. The exhibitions do have a history: they have their origins in the French Revolution, whose values of liberty and equality they are said to exemplify. As one commentator wrote in 1855,

Their origins go back to the time when industry, for centuries bowed, oppressed and stifled by corporate control, had been newly emancipated by the laws of 1791. [...] But as soon as industry, labour and human thought had burst free of their age-old chains and been galvanised by liberty, then and only then did the idea of exhibitions come into being, for they aimed to favour and develop all the powerful instincts of the new society created by the immortal revolution of 1789.

The rupture with the past has effectively been displaced from the coup d'état that brought the Second Empire into being. Instead, the historical break has been moved back to the Revolution, allowing the Second Empire to appropriate the values of liberty, equality and fraternity as its own.

Yet these texts perform another historical displacement, and propose a second point of origin. The exhibitions may stem from the Revolution, but they also carry echoes of imperial Rome. In 1855 ancient Rome was repeatedly invoked as a point of comparison with France, and the 1867 exhibition palace was frequently likened to the Coliseum (though to one dissenting commentator it looked more like a giant gasometer). Thus we can see urgency in the construction of the new identity as it absorbed paradoxes, instabilities and contradictions, and presented them as seamlessly consistent. Exhibition rhetoric glossed over the inconsistencies: deemed to be new and without history or precedent (and therefore a phenomenon of creative genius), France was at the same time located within a historical process that originated both in ancient Rome and at the French Revolution.


Excerpted from Changing France by Anne Green. Copyright © 2013 Anne Green. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; 1. Introduction; 2. Exhibitions; 3. Transport; 4. Food; 5. Photography; 6. Costume; 7. Ruins; 8. Conclusion; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘This lively, lucid, and meticulously researched book will be a rich resource for those wishing to know more of the burgeoning material culture of Second Empire France. It breaks new ground both in its exploration of how that culture, even at its most apparently trivial, reflected larger social and political anxieties; and in its compelling account of how the literature of the period responded to and engaged with it.’ —Professor Heather Glen, University of Cambridge

‘Anne Green has applied a deep knowledge of social history to the gamut of texts produced during the Second Empire, from the works of major novelists to railway manuals and fashion magazines. The result is a brilliant and engaging tour de force of literary and cultural analysis. This book should be required reading throughout the humanities and social sciences.’ —Professor Patricia Mainardi, City University of New York

‘A brilliant account of how literature responded to a materially changing world in Second Empire France. For laptops, spaceships, and climate change, read cameras, trains, and urban redevelopment. Meticulously researched, shrewdly argued, and beautifully written, this book offers important new perspectives on the relationship between culture and our lived environment.’ —Professor Roger Pearson, University of Oxford

‘Anne Green’s innovative and observant study engages illuminatingly with the responses of writers to certain fundamental changes affecting life in Second Empire France. ‘Changing France’ will be read with profit and enjoyment by specialists and the general Francophile reader alike, while reinforcing Green’s reputation as a leading authority on Flaubert.’ —Dr Michael Tilby, University of Cambridge

‘This beautifully crafted study is essential reading for anyone interested in the cultural history of Second Empire France. With immense erudition, exemplary clarity and an eye for the telling detail, Anne Green shows us how texts of every variety reflect the social, political and industrial upheavals of the era.’ —Professor Timothy Unwin, University of Bristol

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