Was La Belle Epoque Really So Great?

TL;DR version: Everything’s relative. If you’ve just come out of a century of foreign war and internal revolutions and you’re just about to plunge into the horrors of the First World War, of course a brief respite would be very welcome. But, no, it was certainly not as belle as those rosy glasses of yours would lead you to believe.


Today’s doodle celebrates the 150 year anniversary of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s birth. His paintings and posters of the glitz and glamour of the Moulin Rouge are iconic. You only have to take a wander up the rue Steinkerque (that steep, narrow road, full of tourist shops, which leads from Anvers métro to the foot of the Sacré-Cœur) to realise this. A great artist he was, but like many others of his generation, he was disabled from birth as a result of aristocratic in-breeding, he was an alcoholic for most of his adult years and utimately was to die of syphillis at just 36 years old. The Belle Epoque? Really?

It still astounds me how we believe blindly in a romanticised version of French history without knowing the facts. Ask a budding French fan when the Revolution was and they’ll reply “1789” without even the barest acknoledgement of the other uprisings that happened all the way through the 19th century. We have idolised French gastronomy to such a crazy extent without realising that, less than 150 years ago, amongst the beseiged Parisians, the rich were eating cats, dogs and rats. The poor had nothing.

Recent generations of francophiles entertain fantasies of the Belle Epoque, whatever that may mean. Let’s consult Wikipedia for a definiton:

Bernhardt,_Sarah_di_Giovanni_BoldiniThe Belle Époque was a period in French and Belgian history that is conventionally dated as starting in 1871 and ending when World War I began in 1914. Occurring during the era of the French Third Republic, it was a period characterized by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries. The peace and prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition.

Ok, so let’s just whizz through a timeline from 1789 and the run up to 1870.

Everyone knows about the storming of the Bastille (1789), the decapitation of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (1793) and the eventual rise of Napoleon (1799) after almost ten years of bitter in-fighting and hot and heavy guillotine action.

Napoleon. High point: 1805 Austerlitz. Low point: 1812 Russia.

For the next fifty years, there’s a game of political tennis between the Royal House of Louis and the Napoleonic Upstarts. Look left, right, left, right… 1814. 1815. (It certainly doesn’t do the French spirit any favours when the English put in their tuppence at the Battle of Waterloo. Double fault.)

In 1830, there’s a revolution. In 1831 too. And 1832 as well. (Anyone read Les Miserables? Yes? That’s the one.) There’s another revolt in 1834, just for good measure.

In 1848, the workers from 1831 and 1834 have got their act together and with some extra support, there’s a bloody revolution. Again. King Louis abdicates and flees. Exit stage left. Enter Napoleon III.

During the 1850s, France and England (plus the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia) are allied against Russia in the Crimean War. There are heavy losses on all sides before it ends in a disappointing stalemate.

The 1860s are not too bad. Haussmann is rebuilding Paris with the stylish architecture and boulevards that will soon become emblematic. While the scale of the project is surely unnerving to the city’s inhabitants, it provides jobs. In 1869, one fifth of Paris’ working population is in construction.

1870 is disasterous. Outmanned and outgunned, the army has surrended to the invading Prussians after heavy fighting in the east of France. Napoleon III is captured and sent to exile. With no one left to defend it, this beautiful new city of Paris is under siege; a siege which will last for five months. The city is completely cut off. There’s no food. Parisian restaurants are serving horse, cat, dog, rat, even the kangaroo and two elephants from the Paris Zoo.


1871. In the absence of any real leadership, the group now known as the Paris Commune come to power. There are still foreign soldiers based in Paris; and they’ve just marched victoriously under the Arc de Triomphe to rub salt further into the wound. In the peace deal (Jan/Feb) the Prussians gain control of Alsace and Lorraine, two large industrial areas in the east of France. National pride has hit rock bottom. That’s until it reaches another level during “La Semaine Sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) in May. Tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in what can best be called a civil war for Paris.

It’s with all this as a backdrop that the Belle Epoque is supposed to take place.

It couldn’t really have got any worse. One hundred years of international fighting and civil war, mindblowingly heavy losses, stalemates and occupation. The Battle of Austerlitz being the one notable exception.


Two of the most glorious and defining moments of the Belle Epoque are the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the opening of the Moulin Rouge – both in 1889, coinciding with the Exposition Universelle. (Just as an aside, the other two World Fairs in 1878 and 1900 were both absolute disasters!)

It is however true that this was a good period for car manufacturing and aviation. (The aviation industry advances actually came about because the Parisians had had to get inventive with hot-air balloons for any kind of communication during the siege.)

It’s also a time when lady courtesans “les cocottes” were forthcoming. Plenty of entertainment for the nouveau-riches. There was theatre, literature and art. (Art Nouveau took off, Impressionism didn’t.) There was of course lots of absinthe, but there was also abject poverty. From ~1870 until 1896, France was in economic depression.

Even momuments that history would rather let us believe were built for greatness have another story to tell. Take the Sacré-Cœur, for example. Originally it was conceived as a penance to God for the defeat to the Prussians and to expiate the crimes of the Paris Commune after what Bishop Fournier described (on the day the Third Republic was sworn in) was “a century of moral decline.”

Construction on the church started in 1875 and it was finally consecrated in 1919. Yet, given how the majority of the 19th century had been a religious seesaw between the secular republicans and Catholic loyalists, and that now finally the Communards had been quashed, this was actually a huge white fuck-off ‘we’re better than you’ symbol sitting on the top of a hill.

Not convinced? Go and visit the Sacré-Cœur for yourself and you’ll see a plaque saying:

“En présence des malheurs qui désolent la France et des malheurs plus grands peut-être qui la menacent encore.”

“In the presence of the misfortunes that afflict France and the perhaps even greater woes that still threaten us.”

Doom and gloom, much!

This Belle Epoque nonsense was simply created out of nostalgia and those rosy glasses sure are heavily tinted. Would a person at the time recognise and refer to it as glorious themselves? I suppose it depends on which way you choose to look.

There does seem to have been a wave of national pride that resurges in the 1890s and which continues until 1914. A pride in their newly rebuilt and rapidly expanding capital city. A time of prosperity after such hardship.

If you were an industrialist enjoying this new boom, you were probably entranced by the new styles of frivolous entertainment that you could now afford. If you were poor, you probably didn’t notice much change. If you were rich, you either weren’t rich anymore or you were in exile.

If you were a thinker, you were probably pre-occupied with the Dreyfus Affair. After Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason, the ensuing fall-out was a scandal that lasted 10 years and seems to have dominated public debate. For his open letter “J’accuse” (1898) Emile Zola was hauled up in the courts and eventually exiled. The whole Affair revealed a widespread anti-semitism and huge corruption at government level. Contemporary reports also speak of a bitterness which turns into full-on xenophobism against Germany after the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.

Actually, if we look further afield, we see that France has fallen far behind its neighbours in terms of social and cultural development. Vienna was experiencing a similar, and arguably more luxuriant, intellectal high-life. In England, the Industrial Revolution and the resulting growth had started with the Reform Act in 1832 – at least 40 years before than France.

"Rolla" by Henri Gervex, 1878.
“Rolla” by Henri Gervex, 1878.

In terms of women’s rights, the Suffragettes movement started in the UK in 1903. In France at this time, les cocottes were still juggling their many lovers and dancing the can-can. Women were given the vote in 1918 in the UK, but not until 1944 in France. That’s only 70 years ago. You could have a grandmother who would remember this.

Of course, when you consider that in 1914 Europe would be plunged into WW1, you can understand how the contemporaries would come to regard this period of freedom and relative stability with considerable fondness. The “Good Old Days.” However why we, several generations on, continue to propagate this further when it was just a short-lived passage between god-awful and hell-on-earth still beats me.

Comments by pigeon or balloon in the “Reply” form below. 😉

For anyone who’s interested in learning more about this period, there’s an excellent (but even longer) piece from Hugh Schofield on the BBC.

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