"What is it that impresses me about this rich world? I think of the many things aristocrats enjoy; music, books, painting and photography. I'm drawn to them too, but not just as the furnishings of a rich person's house. Culture is the path to knowledge and the key to an examined life. At least, that's what the bohemians say.
...Am I truly attracted to the trappings of the gilded life, or have I tricked myself? I'm in a muddle and all I can see it what the rich possess - their winner's spoils, their aristocratic bounty. Confronted with these things I think, That is the life I desire. But is it the box at the opera I want or the music itself?"
For the past few days I have been immersed in this wonderful novel Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Set in nineteenth century Paris in winter, just as the Eiffel Tower is being built, it is an imaginative dance with a more elegant era and it has successfully transported me back in time. It tells the tale of a young runaway who finds herself destitute and without friends, all alone in Paris. After a menial job as a laundress falls through she is offered a position with an agency as a repoussoir - a plain Jane, hired out to the aristocratic families to make their debutante daughters look more beautiful by comparison. It is degrading and dis-spiriting work but plain Maude Pichon is considered to be perfect for the job, much to her humiliation.
In need of funds, Maude accepts the offer reluctantly and is soon hired by one of the first families in Paris to be a companion to their daughter Isabelle in her debutante season. From this moment Maude's life changes and she is drawn into the very heart of aristocratic Parisian high society, where she is dazzled by a swirl of velvet, satin and tulle gowns, silk slippers, fur mantels, balls, carriages and banquets. Here she is introduced to the delights of the opera, photography, classical music and dancing with dukes, while on her days off she befriends a penniless young musician and his bohemian friends.
This double life soon begins to get confusing for Maude and brings out the darker aspects of her gentle personality. The rule at the Agency is that she must not covet or envy her wealthy clients, yet how can she help it when faced which such decadence and opulence on a daily basis? Kitted out in her borrowed plumes Maude starts to pretend to herself that she too is a debutante and before long she comes to believe in her own pretense. She grows haughty with the other agency girls and ashamed of her bohemian circle of associates. At the same time, her client Isabelle, ignorant of Maude's true role as a repoussoir, asks Maude to help her study so she can secretly take an exam and apply to the most prestigious university in France, the Sorbonne, rather than marry as she is expected to do. Maude becomes increasingly conflicted and inevitably gets caught up in her web of deceit. She begins to question exactly what she wants from life and what it is about Isabelle's world that she is truly drawn to...is it the opulence of a box at the opera, or is it the music that stirs her soul? As Maude's world unravels she has bridges to burn and mend on both sides of Paris.
I like this book for several reasons. Firstly because it questions how we look at beauty in women and how we value them according to how pretty they are. Also because it delves deeper into the bohemian concept of beauty in all things, to be found everywhere for those who have eyes to see it. The author touches on two difficult aspects of female relationships - envy between friends and a mother's jealousy of her daughter - things we know exist but which are rarely addressed.
As we move out of the UK recession Belle Epoque is a piece of pure escapism into a world of the wealthy and privileged, yet it makes the reader question their own envious leanings. We all covet things every now and then, but what is the source of that envy - is it the trappings of the opera house, or is it the music? This simple question leads one to examine what one truly yearns for and to discover a way to obtain the deep essence of that yearning without needing to rack up a credit card bill! It is a book which will make you wonder what exactly it is that you are buying into. For that reason alone it's a must-read novel.