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5 Painful Truths About Mercedes’ Paris

5 painful paris truths

Setting a story in history requires tons of research. It’s one of the reasons I love writing historical fiction. While writing The Devourer, I dug up numberous dark details that didn’t make it into the story, but some of them are too delightful not to share.

The year is 1858, and in Paris…

…drinking tea is a capital crime.

A cup of Earl Grey will not have turned too many heads, but the herbal infusion that Anne gives Mercedes is inherently illegal.

Today, ultra-conservatives are despised for their criminalisation of a woman’s right to her own womb. When we call these people ‘stuck in the 19th century’, we’re not far off the mark. In Mercedes’ time, contraceptives were equated to abortion and abortion was punishable as murder. Until the 1970s, French law dictated the death penalty for murderers.

That Mercedes has a good, medically sound reason for using contraceptives is of no consequence. Criminal law of the time didn’t account for mitigating circumstances. In his book Les Misèrables, French writer and statesman Victor Hugo propagated that there should be ‘a tear in the eye of the law’. But that book will not be published for a few more years, and the laws will not change for a few more decades.

And thus the threat Carmen eludes to is by no means an exaggeration: Mercedes is a criminal, destined for the guillotine.

…faux-gypsy fortune tellers make a fortune.

In the 19th century, the trope of the gypsy fortune teller is already so trite that various contemporary novels poke fun of it. My favourite example is Jane Eyrewhere Mr Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy woman to coax some honest answers out of his guests.

This gypsy woman stereotype was so strong at the time, that anyone who wanted to make their own fortune telling rich people theirs made use of it. Likewise, Anne dresses up and puts on an accent to convince her customers that she is ‘the real deal’ and thus worth the money they pay her. These days, marketeers use methods that aren’t any less despicable to cajole people into buying items and services that they don’t really need.

But neither is Anne a true fraud. The card readings she does work by free association, a mental trick to get the mind to abandon an ‘idée fixe’ and consider different views or approaches on a situation. There is nothing paranormal about this. However, since psychology was not much more than a twinkle in the eyes of medicinal science, such concepts might as well have been magic.

…soon a whole island will be wiped clean.

Unbeknownst to Mercedes and Anne, a few years from now, all houses on the Île de la Cité will be razed to the ground and their inhabitants relocated elsewhere in the growing city.

The old city centre, with the Cité at its core, were a maze of tiny, dirty streets that had been cesspools for diseases like cholera for decades, killing tens of thousands in the 19th century alone. To sanitise Paris as well as allow the city to cope with the increasing traffic and population growth, streets and bridges had to become wider, and old houses had to be replaced. And that is what Haussmann did – much to the detriment to the people who lost their shops and homes in his wake.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Baron Haussmann redesigned the inner parts of Paris. He constructed the boulevards and typical houses we now know and love, but which Victor Hugo called indistinguishable. To do so, the ancient – and often decrepit – heart of the city had to vanish. Only the Ancient Cloître remains.

A little piece of trivia: the street on the cover of The Devourer is actually a photo of rue Gervais Laurent, where Anne lives. It was taken in 1865, not long before it was demolished. Today, you will find the flower market in its place.

…Mercedes has less rights than a new-born baby.

This sounds ridiculous, but it was true. Women had substantial disadvantages of men to begin with, but married women had even fewer rights than that. Indeed no woman (and only few men) could vote, but that seems the lesser problem in the face of the facts.

A cursory overview of rights we now consider ‘normal’, but which Mercedes didn’t have:

  • She can’t own anything. No real estate, no items, no money. Even her sewing kit belongs to her husband Eric.
  • She isn’t permitted to enter into contracts or transactions. That means that, legally speaking, she can’t as much as buy groceries without Eric’s consent.
  • She cannot inherit. If someon had left her an inheritance, this would automatically become Eric’s property.
  • Had Danielle survived, Mercedes would not have had a say where her daughter was concerned.
  • She has no right to physical integrity: rape and abuse couldn’t legally exist within a marriage.

An unmarried or widowed woman had rights similar to those of a man, and a new-born baby girl could at the very least receive an inheritance. But a married woman was the legal and moral property of her husband.

Barbaric, right? Yet it took Western society until the second half of the 20th century before new laws amended all this.

…the city morgue is a family day trip.

In a large city, enough people die anonymously. Every week, unidentified bodies were recovered from the streets and from the river. Not always intact, some even less than half so, but always in need of a name. Hence Paris morgue organised public displays:

“Their unfortunate remains were displayed on slanted marble tables behind glass, inviting friends and families to claim the deceased. Word of the morbid (and free) exhibition of dead bodies quickly spread, and soon the morgue became a fixture on the Parisian social circuit, enticing the curiosity of men, women, even children from all social backgrounds.”

Like the catacombs are to this day, the morgue was a tourist attraction in the truest sense. A theatre open seven days a week from dusk till dawn. Disease, starvation and accidents left enough unattended corpses, but the major contributor to the proceedings was the Seine. Few people knew how to swim and even for those who did, the Seine was a notoriously dangerous body of water.

Plus, the fast-flowing river was a popular means of committing suicide: success assured. Those who disappeared under water might not resurface for days or weeks.

Just imagine what those corpses in the morgue’s displays must have looked like…


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