by Isabella Sharipova-Williams, published 12th May 2024

Charles Cros, poor fool, but can we blame him?, lamented his falling for a beautiful parisienne:

Vrai sauvage égaré dans la ville de pierre,

À la clarté du gaz je végète et je meurs.

Mais vous vous y plaisez, et vos regards charmeurs

M’attirent à la mort, parisienne fière.

Je rêve de passer ma vie en quelque coin

Sous les bois verts ou sur les monts aromatiques,

En Orient, ou bien près du pôle, très loin,

Loin des journaux, de la cohue et des boutiques.

Mais vous aimez la foule et les éclats de voix,

Le bal de l’Opéra, le gaz et la réclame.

Moi, j’oublie, à vous voir, les rochers et les bois,

Je me tue à vouloir me civiliser l’âme.

Je m’ennuie à vous le dire si souvent :

Je mourrai, papillon brûlé, si cela dure…

Vous feriez bien pourtant, vos cheveux noirs au vent,

En clair peignoir ruché, sur un fond de verdure !

Plainte, Charles Cros, Le coffret de santal (1873)

Ah, but I should probably provide you with a translation.

True swain in the midst of this town of stone, I rove

In the glare of the gaslights I languish and die.

But you delight, and your looks so charmed and so sly,

Proud parisienne, verily, they will my death prove.

I dream of spending my life in some corner fair

Under lush glades or on aromatic hills tall,

The Orient, or close to the Pole, not at all

Near the papers, the shops, and the gossiping air.

But you love the crowds and the hum so without rest,

The Opera’s dances, the renown and the light.

I forget, in seeing you, the cliffs and the forest,

In my quest to refine myself, my soul I fight!

So often do I tell you what is on my mind!

I will die, a burnt butterfly, if this endure …

You would look well, yet, black locks flying in the wind,

In a light, gathered gown, surrounded by verdure!

Plainte, Charles Cros, translated by Isabella Sharipova-Williams (2016)

Charles published this poem in his collection Le coffret de santal (The Sandalwood Casket) in 1873, in a new France, during the Third Republic, which followed Napoléon III’s Second Empire. The Second Empire was notably marked by a massive overhaul of Parisian housing and infrastructure. Much of the city really hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages: wooden-beamed, rickety houses lined the narrowest of lanes, somehow daring to call themselves streets. Victor Hugo didn’t have to imagine the landscape for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, for he had seen it. It was a maquis, the keep of poverty, disease, crime, overcrowding, and revolutionaries, who didn’t hesitate to use the narrowness of the streets to their advantage in their famous barricades. (If your curiosity is piqued, we have an apartment you can rent in near the Mediaeval Latin Quarter, in Saint-Germain-des-Près.)

Napoléon knew this – he himself had been a revolutionary, it was how he had risen to power. He understood that in order to keep this, he would have to fortify himself by defortifying his capital. And so he enlisted the help of Georges-Eugène Haussman to create an open-plan city, of large boulevards, where his cavalry could quickly quell any uprisings, and barricades would be swept away with the rubble heap of the history that once contained them. He also instructed the Alsatian Prefect of the Seine that he should make it beautiful. (The best view of the greatest boulevard in the whole of Paris can be found here.)

This was met with opposition – some bittersweet chronicles emerged from the pens of Monsieur Emile Zola (Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883) and the renegade Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857). An old way of life was bulldozed down to make way for tall, uniform but ornate buildings, department stores such as the Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché, and the Opéra Garnier. Even the Empress Eugénie is recorded as being confused, indeed, aghast, at the new theatre – she said to Charles Garnier, “But this is awful! This is not style. It’s neither Greek, nor Roman…” “It’s Napoléon III, madame,” replied the architect.

If you have never been inside of the Opéra Garnier, you must go – it is the most bizarre but beautiful building. Perhaps maximalist. It has to be seen at least once. The hall is still lined with the very kind of gaslit lamps (no longer lit by gas, thankfully!) that Monsieur Cros was so anxious to avoid. The neighbourhood is still filled with same kind of hubbub. The shops are still imposing and magnificent. Sophisticated individuals still vie for the best places in the auditorium, to watch an opera, or a ballet. (You can get tickets to watch from a box for €10 if you buy on the day of the show, but shhhhh – we didn’t tell you that. Sophisticated individuals also still vie for a room in Rue Saint-Honoré, just 300m from the Opera, but we didn’t tell you that, either.)

The renowned and sublime writer and socialite, Nina de Villard de Callias, was the muse behind Cros’ coffret. Cros, himself, was an Occitan poet and scientist, almost-inventor of colour photography and the phonograph, who, despite his literary complaint, remained in Paris until his death. The portrait of the enchantress, La Dame aux éventails, by Edouard Manet, can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay.

If you are intrigued as to the cause of this fatal attraction, to see it for yourself, why don’t you check out some of our elegant apartments, situated in the city’s very heart?

Alternatively, if the author has persuaded you of the superiority of the truly open air of the countryside, we would welcome you at any of our delightful properties in the south of France.