Monday, October 7, 2013

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

The term, "La Belle Epoque" refers to a social period in western history that is also sometimes called the Gay Nineties or the Guilded Age. Stretching from the late 1800's - possibly as early as 1870, to just prior to the start of World War I in 1914, this was an age of peace, prosperity and wealth. The wealthy lived a life of unparalleled luxury without much regard to the social conditions of the time.

The wealthy lived without consideration for the poor and the lower classes. They wanted to maintain the status quo and were obsessed with marrying into wealth. However, things in society were beginning to change rapidly. Instead of status being conferred by aristocratic birth and inheritance, the nouveau riche earned it by hard work. These new wealthy were looked down upon by the aristocratic elite as "vulgar".

This period saw a second wave of industrialization, with the advent of the combustion engine, bigger and more efficient machinery, and advances in medicine.  This was a time of peace in Europe, set between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. Workers began to organize into trade unions, the long march towards women's emancipation began, work was more plentiful, and art and music experienced many different movements. The overall era was characterized by an attitude of optimism and frivolity.

In each country La Belle Epoque was experienced in a different way. In the United States, the focus was on gaining wealth. In France, the wealthy were preoccupied with beauty, excessive refinement, couture fashion, excellent cuisine and the overall pursuit of extravagance. The construction of the Effiel Tower for the World's Fair of 1889 was undertaken in 1887. Initially the tower was considered ugly by Parisians but soon it came to represent their city.  For readers wishing to learn more about the Belle Epoque you can visit this webpage.

Eiffel Tower in 1888-89
Into this setting we have the story of  sixteen year old Maude Pichon, a poor farm girl who runs away from her home in Brittany because her father has decided to marry her off to the village butcher, Monsieur Thierry.  She has stolen some money from her father to get herself settled in Paris but everything is very expensive. Hungry and out of work, she applies to an ad looking for women to work thinking that it will be light work as a maid. Maude soon learns however that she will be working as a "repoussoir" - a term given to a plain or unattractive woman who is hired by a wealthy woman to make herself or a family member look more attractive. The repoussoir is in effect working as a beauty foil to draw more attention to the wealthy woman.

Maude is horrified that women are used in this manner and abruptly leaves the Durandeau Agency. Later she is forced to return after a brief stint in a Paris laundry does not work out well. Maude has a difficult time reconciling herself for the work of a repoussoir and is not ready to be considered as "one of life's castoffs, some rich girl's social advantage."

Taken under the wing of a seasoned repoussoir, Marie-Josee, Maude begins her training at the agency. She learns dancing, manners and customs for being in high society. Almost immediately, Maude is chosen to be a repoussoir for the Countess Dubern's daughter, Isabelle. Unlike many of the other clients, the Countess demands that Maude's purpose is  kept secret from Isabelle. Maude will be passed off as a distant relation of Count Dubern who will be spending time in Paris at the start of "the season". The Countess is looking to arrange a suitable marriage for Isabelle to another member of the Parisian aristocracy.

Maude has been warned that many of the young, wealthy clients treat the repoussoirs viciously and at first it seems Isabelle will be the same. However, as Maude spends more time with Isabelle attending balls and other social functions, she realizes that Isabelle is indifferent to the prospect of meeting rich men. Despite warnings from Marie-Josee to keep their relationship professional, Maude begins to form a friendship with Isabelle.

Maude soon discovers that Isabelle has a secret of her own, one that is in direct opposition to the wishes of her mother. This sets Isabelle in conflict with her mother but also creates a serious problem for Maude.  If she helps Isabelle, Maude will lose her job, yet if she tells the Countess, she will prevent Isabelle from achieving what she really wants in her life -- a goal Maude herself can relate to.

Maude begins to realize that she is living a double life on two fronts; as a repoussoir she appears to be a debutante taking in her first "season" but she's really a young woman without title or fortune and secondly as a friend to Isabelle but  really an employee to Isabelle's mother. Can Maude save her job while being true to her new friend, Isabelle? And can she be true to herself in the end?

Belle Epoque tells an interesting story about a period at the turn of the last century that many young readers likely know little about.  Ross doesn't create a strong picture of what the age was like, but she does give her readers a general overall impression. The wealthy live lives of extreme opulence and extravagance where title and fortune still matter. Life revolves around money and keeping it within the aristocracy. Meanwhile, in the cafes and theatres, all the classes mingle, their love of art and music drawing them together.

Ross' novel is somewhat slow at the beginning but if readers persist the dilemma she creates for her main character, Maude is interesting and draws on a number of themes. In particular, Maude and Isabelle consider the concept of feminine beauty and also the role of women in society.

What defines beauty and is physical beauty in a woman all that matters are two questions to be considered. When Isabelle and Maude are discussing the Eiffel Tower, which at this time was only half constructed, Isabelle tells Maude that many Parisians hate the tower because they think it is ugly. Maude wonders, "Perhaps something unrefined can still be beautiful," - a direct reference to herself who society considers unattractive and therefore unmarriageable. Later on Isabelle questions society's view of beauty and what constitutes beauty when Maude tries to explain to her the thinking behind the use of repoussoirs to highlight another woman's beauty.
...There is no empirical scale for beauty. Humans are more complex. ....there are other attributes to measure, aside from physical appearance, that can render one person more or less attractive than another."

..."Such as what?" I ask, getting irritated. "In this city, physical beauty rules supreme."

"Intelligence, wit, kindness -- in short, the quality of person you are. Then there's the other factor you haven't mentioned: the beholder of the gaze, yet another human complexity."
Ross also has her characters consider the changing role of women in society. Isabelle is interested in making her own life and exploring the world around her. Times are changing and she doesn't accept that her only path in life is to marry a rich man. Her aspirations are set against family and social obligations and expectations. This is also reflected in Maude who wants to make something of her life, but who is constricted by the norms of her time when family connection and fortune mean everything.

Maude and Isabelle are both strong female characters, who in the end band together to help each other achieve their dreams. With a beautiful cover and an unusual hook to draw in her readers, Ross has written a good novel that will generate plenty of discussion for those who are interested.

Ross was inspired to write this novel after reading Emile Zola's Les Repoussoirs. Those who wish to can read Zola's short story here at google books. The title in the collection of Zola's short stories, The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories, is Rentafoil. The story begins on page 13.

Book Details:
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
New York: Delacourte Press     2013
323 pp.

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