Anne Green, Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire

Anne Green, Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire (London: Anthem Press 2011) 208 pp. £70 Hb, £25 Pb. ISBN: 9780857287779

The French Second Empire (1852-1870) always had a problem with its public image. Now associated with froth, superficiality and excess, its beginnings were dark and disturbing. Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of the first Napoleon, had presided over France's short-lived Second Republic from 1848 until 1851, and seized absolute power in a bloody coup d'état in December 1851. Victor Hugo saw the writing on the wall and fled to Belgium, from where he wrote an excoriating pamphlet designating the new leader as 'Napoleon-Le-Petit'. Hugo's powerful words did nothing to prevent Louis-Napoleon from crowning himself Emperor Napoleon III in December 1852, and presiding over an empire that would last for the next eighteen years.

Green's book examines how the literature of the Second Empire responded to and engaged with the changes affecting everyday life of the time. In her introductory first chapter she explains that by setting the work of great writers such as Flaubert and Gautier alongside ephemeral pamplets, guides and commentaries of the day she aims to show how material culture brought about lasting changes in writing.

Six significant features of Second Empire life are dealt with in the chapters that follow: exhibitions, transport, food, photography, costume and ruins. Chapter Two, 'Exhibitions', opens with the Exposition universelle of 1855, plans for which were announced by Napoleon III barely four months after the proclamation of the Second Empire. This was seen as a unique opportunity for France to 'stamp its new identity on the world' (5) and create a carefully curated image of itself. The imperial agenda was subtly undermined in novels such as Flaubert's L’Éducation sentimentale and the Goncourts' Germinie Lacerteux which turned the official exhibition aesthetic into something more troubling. Green draws interesting comparisons between the exhibitions of 1855 and 1867 but perhaps slips too easily between the two, and fails to take account of the different political landscapes and motivations behind each.

The chapters on transport and food are entertaining. Despite the optimism and excitement surrounding the new mode of train travel, railway manuals of the time warned middle-class passengers of the risks involved. Green points out that the first hazard was the railway station itself: 'variously described as a labyrinth, a maze, a prison, a swirling maelstrom, a hell where the traveller suffers the torments of the damned, the station in these texts is a deeply threatening place which subverts all the supposed benefits of train travel' (40). Other dangers included missed trains, incomprehensible timetables, lost luggage, violent fellow-passengers, food poisoning and railway accidents. In contrast to the grim tone of such manuals, Green includes such gems as ‘Landscape framed by a train window’, Verlaine's little-known love poem inspired by train travel.

The coming of the railways brought a change in French eating habits, as the newly urban middle classes craved more sophistication and variety in their diet. Even food carried the risk of death by boredom. The food critic Destaminil 'railed against the fashion for blancmange, which for him epitomised the lack of character of his enervated age' (74) Baudelaire compared poetry to cooking, and his urge 'to plunge […] To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!' (87) found its unlikely culinary counterpart at the time in the food writers who called for gastronomic innovation.

For Baudelaire there was a natural alliance between the era's craze for photography and what he called ‘the stupidity of the masses’ (96) The next chapter contrasts many poets' and writers' objections to what they saw as the detached and mechanical nature of photography with the public's  excitement about the new medium. In 1853 Flaubert forbade his lover, Louise Colet, from sending him her photograph, saying ‘I detest photographs as much as I love the originals. I never find them true’(107). It is all the more ironic that Madame Bovary (1856) was denounced by critics for its 'photographic' realism because Flaubert included details such as cows chewing the cud and poultry pecking in the manure when Charles Bovary arrived at Emma’s father’s farm.

The chapter on 'Costume' considers the part the Empress played in regenerating France’s failing clothing and textile industries. Her voluminous, richly decorated dresses encouraged conspicuous consumption, and profits for Lyons silk manufacturers, as fashionable women vied with one another to be seen in increasingly ornate dress. Contemporary fashion also reminded the French of Napoleon III's military adventures; as Green points out, 'even the names invented for the latest textiles and designs reflected the spirit of the age, with Zouave jackets, Garibaldi shirts, Malakoff skirts, and dresses in Empress blue, Imperial green, Magenta, Solferino, Crimean green or Bismarck brown' (118). By contrast, in novels of the time it is often the male characters who feel uncomfortable in their clothes, conveying their confusion and uncertainty about their place in the new social hierarchies.

Chapter Seven focuses on ruins, and Green suggests that all of the preceding chapters show evidence of Second Empire writers’ preoccupation with the idea of 'ruin' in its broadest sense. Negotiating the changes taking place around them, these writers implicitly point to what has been lost. The most symbolic example of 'new' ruins was found in the Haussmanization of Paris over which Louis-Napoleon presided.  Paris's modern ruins - demolished old buildings mixed with their modern replacements - were the perfect analogy to convey a period of change and uncertainty, and the Second Empire's precarious balancing between the past and the future. Green argues convincingly that the quintessential ruin for Second Empire writers was the barricade, so evocatively described by Flaubert in L'Éducation sentimentale and Hugo's Les Misérables. The literary barricade was the perfect metaphor for the 'destructive change, resistance and blocked progress' that characterised the Second Empire they knew.

Changing France does not have the breadth and scope of David Baguley's Napoleon III and his Regime: An Extravaganza (2000), but it packs an awful lot into its less than 200 pages. Anne Green's writing style is fluent and a pleasure to read, and the wide variety of texts are beautifully translated. A minor quibble: it would have been helpful to have had the details of the historical appendix woven into the main text, not least to indicate when the novels quoted were first published. But as it is, it is a well researched, sparkling and insightful overview of how French literature responded to, and was altered by, a rapidly changing world.

Ann Kennedy Smith, University of Cambridge