Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Paris

When the Beating of Your Heart Matches the Beating of the Drums


Let us understand one another. Are we weeping for all innocents, all martyrs, all children, whether low-born or of high estate? Then I weep with you. But, as I said, we must then go back far beyond ’93 and Louis XVII. I will weep with you for the children of kings if you will weep with me for the children of the people.

The culmination of all my reading in 2013 ended at midnight, when I finished Les Misérables. I won’t lie, I was openly weeping. Finishing this book has managed to be both the highlight and biggest loss of January. Yes, there is always great satisfaction in completing such an iconic (and long) classic but I am devastated because book that hasn’t left my side in all this time is over.

Reading Hugo for the first time reminds me of Tolstoy because of the underlying philosophy that seeps through the story. From this book (and Anna Karenina) I think that their ideas are quite similar: The best you can do in life is to love other people and God, and being good and being happy are the same thing. Levin’s spiritual awakening is not unlike Valjean’s early encounter with the Bishop. This philosophy, whether it concerns the muzhiks or French peasants, at its simplest level should extend to politics. The suffering of the wretched all comes down to the government or the King not loving the people. This contrast of law and love is excellently and unpreachingly drawn between Jean Valjean and Javert. Both men are doing what is right, but one stands for human kindness, the other for duty.

A brief timeline of my reading experience would go as such:

  • Part I Fantine: This is really good, even the bit about the Bishop. Excited.
  • Part II Cosette: This is Anna Karenina style good. This book is amazing! Why do people not like it?
  • Part III Marius: I don’t like him, more Jean Valjean please.
  • Part IV The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis: Well, quite good but this is dragging on a bit.
  • Part V Jean Valjean: I CAN’T STOP CRYING

What makes Les Misérables so great? Jean Valjean. In my humble opinion, he is the greatest character in any book I’ve ever read and is definitely the benchmark for all literary greatness. Seriously, you should read this book just for Jean Valjean, an ex-convict whose journey takes him to represent the best values of humanity. I’m way too close to the end of the book to write about him properly because I just want to write in capitals and gush relentlessly. HE IS THE BEST MAN. During twenty or so years he overcame his hatred for the society that refused to see past his so-called crimes. His character is an amazing feat of writing, with a perfect ending.

The only aspect of this book, really, that prevents it from becoming an absolute favourite is that there is so much in it slowing down the action – when I really really really needed to know what was happening to Jean Valjean I found it hard to read twenty pages on Paris’ sewer system. The topical essay style sidelines were interesting, but the highlight for me was definitely the plot. Well, the plot involving Jean Valjean anyway.

Yesterday evening I went to see the film and I really enjoyed it. Sadly I had to leave for the cinema with thirty-three pages left unread but luckily I had pretty much read all the plot in the film. I love the songs from the musical (although a lot of the singing was far from perfect) but the main things that stood out were that the film was very beautifully shot and very well cast. However, despite being a good few hours long it was so shallow, compared to the terrifying depths of Hugo’s novel.


Hats off to Hugh Jackman, who was totally what I wanted Jean Valjean to be.

I’ll just say it again: He’s so good, you should really read about him.

In Memoriam

What is it about Paris and literary graveyards? Montparnasse Cemetery has Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre. Père Lachaise is home to Honoré de Balzac, Molière, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. The Panthéon hosts Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Volaire and Émile Zola.

Pure by Andrew Miller is about Paris’ oldest cemetery: les Innocents. In 1785 the church was destroyed and the bodies were removed and taken to the catacombs. Miller merges historical fact with fiction, as he follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the engineer employed with this task.

The atmosphere of this book is incredible: The cemetery was overcrowded, tainting the air, the streets, the houses of the quarter. Cellar walls collapsed under the strain put on them by mass graves. The church was closed several years after the graves became unbearable. Morbid, yes, but also fascinating. It was an intensely sensory novel – I really got a sense of a cold sweet decaying smell, and the oppressiveness of the church looming over the houses.

I wasn’t as interested in the life of Jean-Baptiste, although the novel did have some good characters. Instead, I found myself stuck into the description of specifically how they emptied the graveyard and moved the bodies. I loved the description of the priests following the bones through the streets, with candles and prayer. It isn’t really a gory book, although in parts disturbing, but the event really caught my interest. After all, it was the end of burials in central Paris that led to the creation of such iconic (literary) Parisian cemeteries.

Paris with Nancy Mitford

This month I changed my mind about everything I wanted to read. I put Dickens to one side and I picked up a modern classic instead. A new reading love affair began with The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Oh, it has been a whirlwind fling! Once I had finished the first book I immediately went and bought Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. I’ve devoured them all and I’m longing to go back to Paris!

Nancy Mitford writes brilliantly witty social commentaries about an age completely lost after the war. She writes about the difference between English and French aristocrats, their love affairs, high society and gossip. The characters are absolutely amazing; there were so many times I put the book down and said ‘You’ll never believe what has happened now!’ In a true testament to how original and enjoyable I found these novels: I feel exactly like Nancy opened a door into these characters lives and let me watch it all play out. I feel really sad that I’ve finished them, but know I’d happily re-read these books over and over again.

The Pursuit of Love is set in the English countryside. Alconleigh is a similar country house to the ones the Mitford girls grew up in. Fanny, the narrator, and her cousin become of age and start looking for love. The book mainly follows Fanny’s cousin Linda, whose marriages take he from conservative MPs in England to Communists in Spain before eventually finding true love in Paris. Fanny is autobiographically based on Nancy herself, and as a narrator she is fantastic. I was dying to know more about her!

Love in a Cold Climate follows Fanny as a newly married woman in Oxford. She tells the story of a childhood friend, Polly, and her marriage following her return to England from India. There are some brilliant characters and plenty of high society. I’m not sure why this is the referenced Nancy Mitford novel, I preferred The Pursuit of Love.

The Blessing is a full on Parisian extravaganza. The love affair is between Grace, and English girl and her french husband Charles-Edouard. Their son is a total brat and concocts many an elaborate scheme to keep them apart. Full of Parisian life and romance, this novel is a decadent indulgence, but has plenty of ridiculous characters to laugh at!

Don’t Tell Alfred is a (for me) much appreciated return to Fanny’s life. It takes place after her children have grown up, when her husband is unexpectedly given the job of Ambassador to Paris. It is only fair that Fanny gets to go to Paris too, I suppose! This is a slightly sad novel as it covers the changing attitudes of the younger generation.

What comes Next? I fancy going for WWII / 1930s-1950s  kind of books so expect Atonement, more Stella Gibbons, maybe even the beginning of The Forsyte SagaLittle Dorrit is not abandoned, but there is plenty of time for Dickens when I’m more in the mood. Ditto Clarissa. Meanwhile it’ll be a test to see if I can wait for payday before I buy Wigs on the Green – the last (in print) novel of Mitford’s left to read.

Hemingway’s Side

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I suppose I read this and The Paris Wife the wrong way round, and am consequently a bit biased in my opinion that Ernest Hemingway was a bit of a bastard and Hadley Richardson was hard done by. HOWEVER, it was interesting to see how much Paula McLain had used this book in reference to her fictional version of the Hemingways’ life in Paris.

That book struck a chord with me and I’ve been dying to read one of his novels ever since. My verdict: despite the man, I love his writing. Its sparse, utilitarian feel means no word is unnecessary. So very readable; the anecdotes about some of my favourite writers of late (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford) made this a real treasure. How cliched, but Paris in the twenties as a writer sounds like a time never to be recaptured.

As a side note, the edition I got is the restored edition which was published earlier this month. It has been updated to include some of Hemingway’s drafts and sketches that didn’t make the final original text. I’d recommend getting an edition with these extras in because you see how considered and evaluated Hemingway’s writing is, and how much effort must have gone into every last sentence.

Hemingway is a Dude. Examples.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

“The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book. I wrote it and left it out.”

“I held my hand against the silky weight and bluntness against her neck and said something secret and she said, “Afterwards.”
“You,” I said. “You.”

“This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

Yesterday I got tangled up with the Hemingways. Their years spent in the 1920s literary scene in Paris and their beautiful and awful marriage. By the end of the book I was feeling pretty glad that somebody was giving Hadley Richardson (Ernest Hemingway’s first wife) a voice that deserved to be listened to. Because, oh, she had a hard time! The novel covers a little of Hemingway’s personality and life in the years leading up to the establishment of his literary career with The Sun Also Rises. There is a sense that the demise of this first marriage opened (eventually) a floodgate that lead to a kind of unsettled melancholy that plagued Hemingway for the rest of his life.

For a novel that is marketed (here in the UK) as looking a bit chick lit, there is a fair bit about the literary scene in Paris to counteract the fluff. Special reverance is given to the craft of writing and its approach by different authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce – at times this book is a whos who guide to american writers of the 1920s.

I did really believe in Hadley’s character. Most of the time I thought her unwaivering devotion was an excuse to not attempt to achieve anything on her own terms. However, the demise of their marriage – whilst I always knew that is how the book would end – made me so surprisingly angry on her behalf.

I’m definitely going to read A Moveable Feast, Ernest’s account of their life together in Paris, but this book will stay very vividly in my head for a little while.


This isn’t a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes…
Paula McLain, The Paris Wife

A Place of Greater Safety

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel

This book is historical fiction at its finest. I was in the mood to read something really long, and this fitted that requirement beautifully, at a lovely eight hundred or so pages. A Place of Greater Safety is the story of three men: Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, told pretty much chronologically. The men turn out to be instrumental and powerful in and after the french revolution in 1789. My only criticism is Mantel manages to make this exciting period of history a little bit too soap opera. Even so, it was a very satisfying read, and I enjoyed the twists and turns of the characters’ fates.

Trips to Paris

Parisians, Graham Robb

Louis Chevalier hated people for liking Paris in ignorance of what it had once been. To him, Paris was a composite place built up over the ages, a picture book of superimposed transparencies, over-populated with the dead and haunted by the ghosts of the living.

Want to know about Paris from the people who actually spend their time there? Go for an ‘Adventure history of Paris’ instead of the ordinary travel guide. Graham Robb writes very personally but incredibly readably – he really knows his french history but he isn’t writing for history buffs. There are all kinds of stories in here, from the modern day right back to pre-revolutionary France. Sixteenth century poets to a bit of Proust (hurrah!), student riots in the sixties to the building of the metro. This is the real gritty history of Paris, supplied by Parisians.

Hilary Mantel is Epic

“She remembered, for some reason, a couple of occasions when she’d thought she might be pregnant again, in the years before she and Claude had separate rooms. You thought you might be, you had those strange feelings, but then you bled and you knew you weren’t. A week, a fortnight out of your life had gone by, a certain life had been considered, a certain steady flow of love had begun, from the mind to the body and into the world and the years to come. Then it was over, or had never been: a miscarriage of love. The child went on in your mind. Would it have had blue eyes? What would its character have been?”

“Human nature being what it is, and the afternoons so long; the girls visiting friends, the streets deserted, no sound in the room except the ticking of clocks, the beating of hearts.”

“She wondered if he had been very frightened: if pushed and driven by the crowds he had forgotten the calm at the eye of the storm, the place of safety at the living heart of all the close designs.”