To write A Man in Uniform, a novel set in Paris of the Belle Époque, I researched everything from the lives of French mistresses to the names of French wines. Below I give you a little flavour of my findings and my methodology as applied to courtesans, society balls, gambling and spies. I also researched the psychological impact of the Franco-Prussian war, the history of public transit in Paris, the introduction of electric lighting, the development of photography, the state of newspaper journalism, the reform of French army uniforms, improvements in French artillery, the wages of French lawyers, and the history of any street name I used. And, of course, I researched the Dreyfus Affair. For information on that topic see How much is true?.
“Between five and seven, Maître Dubon visited Mademoiselle Madeleine Marteau in her apartment off the boulevard des Italiens. He had been visiting her there five days a week for the past eleven years, ever since he had rented the apartment for her in the seventh year of his marriage…”
— from Chapter 1
Madeleine, the demimondaine, is a particular phenomenon of the Belle Époque. A former seamstress, she started her career as a “grisette,” a young, single, working woman supplementing her income by taking paying lovers. Now, supported by Dubon, she has pretentions to be a courtesan, a paid mistress. Dubon, however, keeps her in a small apartment without a ladies’ maid and is right to fear rivals: an ambitious courtesan would expect to be kept in a much grander style by a string of lovers. Some were so popular they lived in mansions surrounded by servants. Cora Pearl, the British native infamous as the woman who once had herself presented as dessert, naked on a serving platter, kept a stable of 60 horses. But even the most successful might fall on hard times once her beauty faded. Pearl spent her final years hawking her possessions and sending her one remaining servant to beg from former lovers. For readers interested in the role of the courtesan, I highly recommend Virginia Rounding’s Grandes Horizontales: the lives and legends of Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Paiva and La Présidente. (The book’s title is the rather nasty French name given to the courtesans, a reference to the position in which they did their work!)
“Most women of her age — those muffled matrons now sitting out the dance on the little gilt chairs that lined one wall of the ballroom — would have been unable to carry off such an uncompromising look. Geneviève, however, could hold her own against any of the debutantes swirling across the floor in their white dresses.”
— from Chapter 2
To write Chapter 2, I researched social customs amongst the French aristocracy in the late 19th-century, and especially the social ritual of the ball. A married woman like Geneviève could show off her diamonds and her décolleté; debutants were modestly dressed in white. They could either dance, with partners who had signed their dance cards or men who cut in, or they could sit at the edge of the dance floor — but they could not move about the room without a partner accompanying them. Young military officers were an essential source of partners for the debutantes, although they did not necessarily provide ready husbands: unless they had family money, their low pay often forced them to delay marriage. Still, the ball was a way of allowing young people of marriageable age to meet in circumstances where their chastity could be carefully guarded. As a young aristocrat, the French writer Elisabeth de Gramont recalled that in 1900 “If I ever made the mistake of dancing with the same man twice I was severely reprimanded.” She is quoted in Danser en société by Henri Joannis Deberne, my main source of information on the topic.
“You mean if there’s a house? You think Esterhazy was running a game?”
“I don’t know the vocabulary…”
“Taking a cut. Organizing the game, and then taking a cut of the winnings.”
“I assume you don’t do that, when you organize your games?”
“Goodness, no, Dubon. That’s not legal. Mine are gentlemen’s parties.”
— from Chapter 49
In pre-revolutionary France, nobles and courtiers were mad for card games and dice, and gaming houses were tolerated by the authorities. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that the king was the highest card in the pack until the French guillotined Louis XVI and elevated the ace. After the revolution, there were various attempts at prohibition and by 1897 gambling for profit or “mercantile gambling” was not legal. Gentlemen gambled in private – and military officers were notorious for it – while illegal gaming clubs still flourished. The first public casinos in France were established in resort towns such as Deauville after the law was relaxed in 1907. Roll the Bones: A history of Gambling by David G. Schwartz was one of my sources, which also included the websites of various French casinos.
“Spies!” Jean-Jean was appalled. “How do you know they are spies?”
“Well, that’s Schwarzkoppen from the German embassy and that’s Panizzardi from the Italian. They are busy spying for their countries; that’s what they do.”
— from Chapter 2
Spying is as old was war itself, and most histories of espionage begin with the ancients, but during the 19th century the European powers were systematizing their efforts, building up intelligence units within their armies and using military attachés in their foreign embassies as semi-official spies. The Germans were leaders in the field: Bismarck’s famed spy master Wilhelm Stieber liked to boast he employed 40,000 agents in Britain and claimed that, at the London Exhibition of 1851, he chatted up Karl Marx to elicit enough personal information about the man’s hemorrhoids he was able to obtain the membership lists of the Communists League from the pharmacist who acted as party secretary.
France began building up a military intelligence service after her defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 fuelled paranoia about German activity. The bumbling Statistical Section of A Man in Uniform is actually a relatively accurate portrayal of France’s fledgling counter-intelligence unit and its rudimentary filing practices.
The British, meanwhile, began to organize their military intelligence during the Boer War and became increasingly active at the beginning of the 20th century when they became obsessed with the idea German spies were at work on British soil. If they were, they were hardly alone: every nation in the tangled web of European allegiances and enmities that eventually gave rise to the First World War was spying on the others.
For information about European diplomacy at the time, I relied heavily the background accounts in books about the Dreyfus Affair, but if you want more details about spying in the period try The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage by Terry Crowdy.