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Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City

Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City

by Jonathan Conlin

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Paris and London have long held a mutual fascination, and never more so than in the period 1750-1914, when they vied to be the world's greatest city. Each city has been the focus of many books, yet Jonathan Conlin here explores the complex relationship between them for the first time. The reach and influence of both cities was such that the story of their rivalry


Paris and London have long held a mutual fascination, and never more so than in the period 1750-1914, when they vied to be the world's greatest city. Each city has been the focus of many books, yet Jonathan Conlin here explores the complex relationship between them for the first time. The reach and influence of both cities was such that the story of their rivalry has global implications. By borrowing, imitating and learning from each other Paris and London invented the true metropolis.

Tales of Two Cities examines and compares five urban spaces—the pleasure garden, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant and the music hall—that defined urban modernity in the nineteenth century. The citizens of Paris and London first created these essential features of the modern cityscape and so defined urban living for all of us.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Miranda Seymour
Conlin's entertaining book makes no attempt to be comprehensive…Combining lively research with an airy style, Conlin seeks instead to unpick the entangled history of music hall entertainers…restaurants…and cemeteries…Full of unexpected facts…Conlin's case studies of possible cultural exchange are both concise and entertaining…the volume makes an agreeable addition to the library-size accumulation of books about the growth of two glorious cities.
Publishers Weekly
An American-born historian teaching at the University of Southampton (U.K.), Conlin (The Nation’s Mantelpiece) explores the complex rivalry between London and Paris from 1700–1914, when the two cities transformed into the world’s pre-eminent cultural centers. Conlin examines the emergence of the English and French lifestyles and how the cities’ dual ascendance played out in private and public spaces: the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the underworld, and the music hall. He covers achievements such as “making the night visible” with street lighting, the rise of apartment living, the popularity of public dancing, and the origin of restaurants. This social history adds up to a pleasant, colorful read, and though Conlin is mining territory that many able historians have visited before, his source materials reflect a serious mind at work. The book contains many captivating sketches and stories of the towns’ emergence as two great metropolises, which today remain among the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
Conlin (Civilisation, 2009, etc.) compares the two great cities and how they fed off each other's mores while they struggled toward modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries. "[T]he relationship between Paris and London was that of rivals," writes the author, "rather than that of ruler and subject, a relationship characterized by mutual fascination, not by one-sided obedience." Conlin examines a few aspects of city life to show how the different cultures of Paris and London adapted to the political and social changes of the period. First, the author looks at housing: While the Englishman required his own "castle" with a nice garden and some privacy, the Frenchman was perfectly happy in a high-rise flat with (horrors!) shared stairs. In addition, the English were slow to accept restaurants, preferring a home-cooked meal, while the French enjoyed not only a meal in a restaurant, but also the need to see and be seen. That need was served by only a few promenades where gentle people could walk; eventually, they followed the English and added pavement, street lights and gutters to enable citizens to walk safely. Thus the French flaneur, who wandered the streets absorbing impressions of his environment, copied his friend across the channel, albeit 100 years later. Conlin's chapter on dance at first seems out of place, but his delightful progression of the can-can from a masculine display to the skirt-dancing we associate with Paris perfectly shows the interaction of the two cultures. Cemeteries and suburbs make up the final chapter, as governments finally began to study urban sprawl. Anyone who loves London and/or Paris will enjoy this book. In addition, there are plenty of new French phrases and interesting English terms to add to your lexicon.
From the Publisher

'Full of unexpected facts…Conlin’s case studies of possible cultural exchange are both concise and entertaining.' — New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Palais Royal

Restaurants were named after the fare they served: restorants, or restaurants, that is, bouillons or essences of meat intended to restore the inner balance and good digestion of urban sophisticates. Finding himself unable to consume without nausea even something as plain as strips of toast dipped in a boiled egg, des Esseintes himself has recourse to such a palliative in À Rebours, sending a servant hurrying off to Paris to procure a device for making beef essence. This will, he has been promised, help ‘to control his anaemia, to arrest the decline of his health, and to conserve what little strength he still possessed’.

Restorants tackled the side effects of overconsumption as well as the ingestion of food that was too highly seasoned or interacted badly with something already eaten. In these cases the natural rhythms of digestion were interrupted, leaving undigested matter festering in the body, where it produced foul miasmas that rose in turn to the head, leading to mental imbalance. Overeating caused too much blood to be produced, requiring blood-letting in some cases. Digestive and circulatory problems such as these also overtaxed the lungs. The Latin motto outside Minet’s restaurant in the Rue de Poulies (est. 1767) promised ‘tasty sauces to titillate your bland palate; here the effete find healthy chests’.

Restorants were a medical treatment for a condition to which Parisians were felt to be particularly prone, owing to the spicy nature of their meals and the way in which they were prepared and served. In the 1770s restaurants called themselves maisons de santé (‘emporia of health’). In his Parallèle, Mercier noted that in Paris food mainly consisted of soup, which thickened the blood and gave rise to indigestion. Along with ‘spicy sauces, seasoned fricassees, stews and the like’, all this liquid weakened the body, while the meat gravies served in the finer houses overheated it, again provoking severe illness. Parisian food was so succulent and so artfully prepared that it overstimulated the appetite, making people eat too much. ‘Oh, and to top it all one stuffs oneself with bread!’ Mercier complained, noting how parents encouraged children to eat it. ‘And so the child eats too much, in order to have something to eat along with its bread.’

As the warning against gravy indicates, the restorant did not consist of the juices of the meat, but its pure essence. Although detailed recipes exist for such concoctions, in works such as the Suite des dons de Comus (1742), there was a sense in which a restorant was not about simple cuisine so much as anti-cuisine. A restorant might be prepared using onions, turnips, celery, chicken, veal, beef and ham. But it was cooked so slowly, being simmered for many hours, that it served to concentrate these ingredients, enabling one to drink, in effect, a quantity of food that could not possibly be eaten in its original form. Was this an innovation, an unprecedented advance in the technology of food preparation, worthy of an age of progress? Was it a return to a simpler, older way of life? Or was it some worrying combination of the two, a sophisticated prophylactic: allowing jaded sophisticates to continue their unwholesome Parisian lifestyle of overconsumption without suffering any of the natural consequences?

Though they promised to restore the individual’s natural balance, restorants could be unsettling. The refinement they represented could smack of a decadent, self-destructive order, rather than an enlightened, healthy society. It was feared that a body used to heavily processed food might become unable to digest plain fare. There were risks, therefore, in turning what should be the simplest of skills into what de Jaucourt referred to in his Encyclopédie entry as ‘la cuisine par excellence’: an art intended to disguise foodstuffs so as to promote overconsumption. Though the degeneracy of des Esseintes’s enfeebled digestion is a century away, even in the age of Rousseau the philosophes could view the fad for restorants as a straw in the wind.8 Rousseau noted that there were Frenchmen who held that France was the only nation where people knew how to eat, but he did not view this positively: ‘I would say on the contrary that it is only the French who do not know how to eat, since so special an art is required to make dishes digestible to them.’

The first restaurant (so-called) was established in the Hôtel Aligre, on the Rue St Honoré, a house owned by a leading figure in the Paris parlement, Étienne François d’Aligre. As with many early Parisian restaurants, it was probably on the first floor, where the finest rooms of a hôtel particulier were usually to be found.10 It was opened in 1766 by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, the third son of a small landowner and merchant who came to Paris early in the 1760s, at which point he had added the aristocratic sounding ‘de’ to his name. Excited by the debate on how France had incurred its massive national debt during the Seven Years War, in 1769 Roze de Chantoiseau published his own ideas in a pamphlet. By then the administration of Louis XVI’s chief minister, Choiseul, had grown tired of a debate that it had initially encouraged. Roze de Chantoiseau ended upjoining the authors of earlier works in the prison of For-l’Évêque. Among his more successful schemes was that for a universal registry office along the lines of that established in London by John Fielding in 1750, as well as a commercial directory, the Almanach général, which appeared regularly for many years.

A concern for healthy circulation ran throughout all these projects. The Almanach duly listed Roze de Chantoiseau’s own establishment under ‘Le Restaurateur’, in the section ‘Caterers, Innkeepers and Hoteliers’. His entry promised ‘fine and delicate meals for 3-6 livres per head, in addition to the
items expected of a restaurateur’.13 In his introductory essay he promised that the directory would serve to make all Parisians more mutually serviceable by helping them locate each other and so avail themselves of the increasingly specialized goods and services to hand in the metropolis. The Almanach was a microcosm of the city, imposing order on its web of streets and enterprises.

If there was one place that came closest to being a concrete realization of this ordered city or ville policée, it was the Palais Royal, which in the 1780s also served as home to several of the city’s restaurants, including that run by Jean-Baptiste La Barrière as well as Postal’s. It housed Gendron’s patisserie, where the great chef Antonin Carême worked in the 1790s. In the early nineteenth century it was the site of Jacques Christophe Naudet’s restaurant , and of Véry’s, which moved there from the Tuileries in 1805. It also housed Le Grand Véfour, which remains there today. The palace was the home of Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc de Chartres, and had extensive gardens, which had served as a kind of public park for local residents. Such open space was hard to find in Paris.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Conlin was born in New York and later moved to Britain, where he studied history at Oxford. He went on to do graduate work at the Courtauld Institute and Cambridge, and now teaches at the University of Southampton. His books include The Nation’s Mantelpiece and Civilisation.

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