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Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends Hardcover – June 16, 2011


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Editorial Reviews

Review

[In her] splendid . . . work, Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe strikingly evoked the three flourishing decades of culture that followed France’s humiliation by Germany and the never-to-be-forgotten crowning, in 1871, of a German emperor at Versailles. (New York Times)

Rising from the ashes of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the tumultuous Third Republic's early years from 1870 to 1900, known as the Belle Epoque, was an era in which groundbreaking artists flourished: Monet, Eiffel, Rodin, Debussy, and other one-name legends. McAuliffe chronicles the story of Paris's rebirth, capturing the artistic freedom of impressionism in painting and music, and new ideas in sculpture and on the stage even as Republican secularists, lingering Communards, and the royalist Catholic hierarchy fought for political and popular control, a struggle wonderfully illustrated through the construction in this era of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and the Basilique du Sacré Coeur. [McAuliffe offers] fascinating glimpses into the lives of each significant figure . . . including Sarah Bernhardt's, whose self-marketing could well have served as a blueprint for Lady Gaga. The author doesn't overlook the Dreyfus affair and economic hard times, but the relationships and creative output of the era's innovators create a marvelous vision of Paris at its heady, uncertain best. (Publishers Weekly)

In Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe—who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and wrote for Paris Notes—tells the intriguing story of how Paris came alive again after that black period of French history. . . . To tell this incredibly complicated story, Ms. McAuliffe uses an interesting technique, one that might be identified more with fiction than nonfiction. Arranged chronologically into 28 chapters year by year from 1871 to 1900, the book consists of short scene-like vignettes featuring key historical figures and their actions during the year in question. Thus Dawn of the Belle Epoque reads more like a novel than an academic history. . . . Rich with the flavor of words taken from primary sources, the book provides an intimate look at the very human side of history. An extensive bibliography including French sources and 24 pages of endnotes allow for much further reading investigation. . . . Today's Paris rose from war and ashes, as Mary McAuliffe's Dawn of the Belle Epoque so eloquently proves. (The New York Journal of Books)

Today, Paris retains its allure as a mecca for lovers of art, fashion, and high culture. To an extent, that allure is a legacy of the Belle Epoque, an age from roughly the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the onset of WWI in 1914. McAuliffe examines the earliest phase of the period, up to the turn of the century. As the term indicates, this was an era of wonderful cultural flowering. In literature, giants like Zola and Hugo were active. The list of painters and sculptors who emerged seems endless, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, and Rodin. McAuliffe tracks, on a year-by-year basis, this explosion of artistic expression. She does not ignore the seamy underside of this glittering picture. She pays ample attention to the political turmoil, beginning with the horrors of the Paris Commune and ending with the disgrace of the Dreyfus Affair, which virtually dominated French political discourse for years. This is an excellent and honest portrayal of an exciting and vital era in European history. (Booklist)

It is within this psychologically damaged milieu that McAuliffe deftly explores the inner lives of the artists and those who surrounded them, and in the process humanizes these larger-than-life characters. For McAuliffe, these demigods of the art world were ordinary people who fell in love, mourned the loss of loved ones and worried increasingly about their financial security and their legacy. In examining the impact of the death of Hugo, the revolutionary career of Louise Michel and the passionate love affair between Rodin and Camille Claudel, McAuliffe has added a truly remarkable degree of insight into both the lives of the participants and the turbulent world they inhabited. McAuliffe paints with broad, majestic strokes a world that has been lost to us or perhaps never was. (Washington Independent Review of Books)

What a story [Mary McAuliffe] has to tell! In a world of breathtaking achievement in art, music, drama, dance, sculpture, literature, and occasionally even politics, the 'to-ings and fro-ings' of those synonymous with the period—Zola, Bernhardt, Clemenceau, Eiffel, Debussy, Rodin—are set against the perpetual high drama that was the Third Republic. This gossipy soufflé . . . will entertain those who love the arts, French history, or Paris. . . . A fun read for all. Highly recommended. (CHOICE)

Unique and insightful. . . . In each chapter we are introduced to the key personalities and events of the era, often through excerpts from letters or diaries. I felt like I was a part of the personal lives of everyone, and by the time I finished the book I had a deeper understanding of the (real life) characters, even those I already knew a lot about. Mary brilliantly juxtaposes the groundbreaking works in painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, architecture, and music with the collapse of the Second Empire, the Paris Commune, the Panama Canal scandal, turbulent clashes between the Republic and the Church, economic woes, nasty anti-Semitism, and the Dreyfus Affair. The struggles and events of these years have continued to influence French politics and society right up to the present day. (The Collected Traveller)

Mary McAuliffe’s book is a charming and detailed meander through the lives of the writers and artists who lived and worked in Paris between 1871 and 1900. Each chapter describes a year in the life of the French capital, during which the author depicts the major Parisian events and provides a fascinating variety of anecdotes, little-known facts, and background detail that any connoisseur of the city will relish. . . . The result is an informative and evocative guide to late nineteenth-century Paris that would be an ideal accompaniment to a stay in the capital. . . . A most entertaining and readable account of a fascinating era and will be useful to both students of Paris and visitors alike. (French Studies)

This book explores the private and public lives of well-known artists, composers, architects, poets, novelists, sculptors, playwrights, actresses, dancers, entrepreneurs, and politicians in the last third of the nineteenth century. McAuliffe’s deep research in both primary and secondary sources, combined with her skilled reconstruction of social and professional networks, results in a wealth of fascinating, roughly interwoven biographies and historical events....[I]t is an evocative and pleasurable read. (French History)

This book explores the private and public lives of well-known artists, composers, architects, poets, novelists, sculptors, playwrights, actresses, dancers, entrepreneurs, and politicians in the last third of the nineteenth century. McAuliffe’s deep research in both primary and secondary sources, combined with her skilled reconstruction of social and professional networks, results in a wealth of fascinating, roughly interwoven biographies and historical events. . . . [I]t is an evocative and pleasurable read. (Contemporary French Civilization)

Mary McAuliffe takes us on an engaging tour of Paris at a turbulent moment in its history. From the disastrous Franco-Prussian War to the hopeful turn of the twentieth century, year by year she chronicles in wonderful detail the highs and lows faced by the city’s high-powered political leaders and its creative men and women. Along the way, her beautiful storytelling reveals the triumphs, challenges, and scandals of an age that brought one century to an end and launched another. Anyone who loves Paris will enjoy this delightful book. (Jeffrey H. Jackson, author of Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910)

Composers, scientists, engineers, architects, politicians, painters, sculptors, novelists, poets, hoteliers, restauranteurs, journalists, actors, dancers, courtesans, merchants, patrons. . . . Somehow, someway, Mary McAuliffe, in Dawn of the Belle Epoque, manages to unwrap the essences of all of their lives and to uncover their almost unbelievable interconnectivity during an astonishing inflection point in Paris―indeed, world―history. Out of hundreds, this is simply the most enjoyable Paris book I have ever read. (Mark Eversman, editor, Paris Notes)

The Federation of Alliances Françaises is pleased to suggest Mary McAuliffe's wonderful new book. Once again this historic period comes to life as the Paris of 1871 recovers to greet the 'full flower' of the Belle Epoque. A great read for your book clubs. (Mimi Gregory, president, the Federation of Alliances Françaises)

I love Dawn of the Belle Epoque. It gave me a whole new layer of Paris to appreciate, and I truly savored every insight. (Jane Robert, president, Renaissance Française - USA)

About the Author

Mary McAuliffe received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland and has taught at several universities and lectured at the Smithsonian Institution. For many years she was a regular contributor to Paris Notes. She has traveled extensively in France and is the author of Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light. She lives in New York City with her husband.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; First edition (June 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1442209275
  • ISBN-13: 978-1442209275
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,950 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Luigi Facotti VINE VOICE on June 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the few books that I've read in the past few months that offers a fascinating treasure trove of memorable facts, in this instance about Paris and the evolution of the Belle Epoque. In places it is excellent and in many others merely irritating - with abrupt changes in topic that are confusing with the most awkward of segues. Topic A is discussed, Topic B is then introduced with no continuity, to move to Topic C and then move back to Topic A where sometimes the relationship with Topic B is clarified and more often not. Clearly the author knows her subject backwards - however she frequently forgets the reader. For instance on page 57 in discussing the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the author notes that "she might not have the talent to become a sculptor". The reader stops to wonder whether sculptor was inserted in error as the previous pages were on Rodin. But no, this is correct - just the extremely awkward writing in the introduction to the section While the subject matter is never dull this book is is not an easy read and would have benefited from the input of a good editor.
The illustrations are of poor quality and not always relevant to the text while others are missing. An example of the latter is the major buildup to Mucha's Gismonda poster (p.251) which has the reader turning pages to see. It is absent while in the next few pages a photo of a statue of Dreyfus that is lacking in contrast gratuitously occupies space.
While Dr. McAuliffe is clearly an expert of Paris, she is not the most fluid of writers and there is just so much information shoe horned into limited space.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on June 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dr. McAuliffe would have benefited from some first class editorial assistance when this book was being prepared for publication. The author is well informed on her subject but ill served by her production crew.

The era and the city are almost automatically interesting. The people who strolled down the avenues of Paris then were truly remarkable. But too much is jammed into the short space of this book: economic scandals, love gone awry, the Statute of Liberty, Eiffel's tower, the great impressionists, Ritz of hotel fame, various striking women, Rodin, composers of music, the story behind "J'accuse", religion vs. state, etc. and etc.

One example of a blatant editing error: p67 describes Cesar Ritz "...his pampered guests quickly learned that wherever Ritz went, they would be assured of luxury, comfort, and scrupulous attention to their wants and needs, making a stay at one of "his" hotels truly a home away from home." Seventy pages later: "His guests, who summered in Lucerne and wintered in Monte Carlo, quickly learned that wherever Ritz went, they would be assured of luxury, comfort, and scrupulous attention to their wants and needs. In particular, Ritz's "following" knew that he would always remember their individual preferences and requirements, making a stay at one of "his" hotels truly a home away from home."
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Philippe Vandenbroeck VINE VOICE on March 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Sadly, I couldn't bring myself to finish this book. After about a third I threw in the towel as I was getting bored and nervous at the same time. The chief problem has already been flagged by a number of other reviewers. The narrative is built around a timeline stretching from 1870 to 1900, with a year-by-year sequence of chapters. Each chapter is then conceived as a mosaic in which a more less fixed roster of luminaries makes its appearance. The effect is, on the one hand, highly disorienting. For example, in chapter 10 the story switches in the space of just a few pages from Manet to Dumas jr to Sarah Bernardt to the Statue of Liberty to the basilica of Sacré-Coeur to the Panama Canal to Flaubert and Goncourt. And this kind of pacing is kept up for several hundreds of pages. On the other hand, the unrelenting fragmentation brings with it a curious effect of stasis, as if one is reading the same story over and over again. McAuliffe's perfunctory development of her characters is partly to blame for that too. These famous artists, political leaders and artefacts remain two dimensional creatures, frozen in cliché-laden poses: Clémenceau the agitator, Debussy the womanizer, debt-ridden Claude Monet, thoughtful Berthe Morisot, kittenish Sara Bernhardt, ...

It seems to me that McAuliffe, in effort to dramatize these postures, at times does not adhere to what is known as historical fact. That is another major defect of this book. For example, McAuliffe describes the critical reaction to the first private, `Impressionist' exhibition in 1874 as hostile across the board, "bordering on hysteria, including warnings that this art form was so inherently vile that it threatened pregnant women and the moral order." Reality appeared to have been rather different.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Judith A. Dickinson on June 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Mary McAuliffe has a wonderful and entertaining way of evoking a relatively short period of amazing creativity. Her book is full of painters, musicians, composers, sculptors, architects, authors and others who are very familiar to us and have had a great impact on our culture. I found it fascinating the way she brought their lives together to create an intimate picture of their environment and how their lives intertwined. It's a very human and inspiring story and also contemporary in many ways.
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