By Jodie Lynn Zdrok
My debut novel, Spectacle, takes place in—you guessed it—1887. When I thought of how to approach the idea of introducing readers to the world of 19th century Paris, my mind went through all the visuals and atmosphere I evoke in the novel. Nathalie Baudin, the main character, is a 16-year-old morgue reporter with a magical ability. What if…what if we could turn back the clock and Nathalie was on Insta?
Here are a few of the places and cultural details from Spectacle that I’m pretty sure Nathalie would be posting. Some are lost to history and imagination, and others remain in Paris to this day.
The public morgue. Uh, as in, corpses on display? Yes. Nathalie’s job in the novel is to write the daily morgue report for Le Petit Journal. People went to visit for fun (otherwise known as Being Fascinated with Death Before Movies, Video Games, Netflix, and Such). It stands to reason that they’d post #publicmorgue pics…unless the morgue prohibited it, which they probably would have. Even so, chances are people would at least pose for selfies outside the building, located directly behind Notre-Dame Cathedral, or show how long the lines were. Alas, we can’t do the same—the morgue was closed to the public in 1907. The site is now home to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, dedicated to those who were deported from Vichy France to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
The Catacombs. Also inherently creepy. I MEAN. The remains of 6 million or so people, stacked like cordwood—think, skulls here, hip bones there, a pelvis wall over there, even a few intact skeletons lest you forget what they looked like—is a mood if there ever was one. It took 12 years in the late 18th century to empty out cemeteries and move remains to labyrinthine tunnels beneath the city. If you go, you’ll be greeted with a sign that reminds you to “Stop! This is the empire of the death.” Nathalie carries catacomb dirt in a jar for good luck (I know, right?), and there’s a scene here (sorry, can’t say too much more because spoilers). A Spectacle ARC visited the Catacombs last fall with my brother.
Notre-Dame Cathedral. This is on the cover of Spectacle. Nathalie has an unsettling scene here late in the novel and has a few favorite gargoyles on the façade. The cathedral has been there since the late 12th century, took forever to build (a century or so, with many enhancements and renovations since then), and is a magnificent structure inside and out.
Père Lachaise Cemetery. You know your novel is morbid when the cemetery is the least unsettling place housing the dead. The 110-acre cemetery, open since 1804, is the final resting place of more than a million people, and it was an impressive place with elaborate gravestones, memorials, and cenotaphs even in Nathalie’s time. Famous tombs there include those of Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Jim Morrison.
Cafés. One of my favorite French sayings is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they stay the same. It often has a cynical connotation, but I’m invoking it here in a much more positive light: coffee + pastry 4EVA. Nathalie and her friends frequent cafés and enjoy coffee, pain au chocolate, bread, cheese, and other goodies. I’m confident that Nathalie would take pictures of her food because food was meant for sustenance but also photographing.
Omnibuses. If a horse-drawn carriage and a bus had a kid, it would be an omnibus. (Although the latter is the origin of the term “bus.”) Nathalie gets around the city via an omnibus several times throughout the book. A long, sometimes double-decker vehicle, the horse-drawn omnibus was public transportation at the time. After posting horse stories, Nathalie would probably spend her time on the omnibus scrolling through Instagram while she was shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers who, let’s remember, didn’t bathe with the frequency we do. Just going to leave that sensory detail right there.
Pneumatic tubes. This sounds like an anatomical detail, but it was actually a means of facilitating communication. To send something from one part of the city to another, one could use this system, which involved pushing a cylindrical container along a tube network using compressed air. (Nathalie receives a message this way later in the novel.) Pneumatic tubes still exist here and there today, largely at banks and the like. Once upon a time, though, it was envisioned as the Next Big Thing in transport—messages, objects, humans, and otherwise.
The Eiffel Tower…foundation. The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, that is, the World’s Fair (*cough* setting for the Spectacle sequel *cough*). Nathalie might have taken pics of the foundation pillars, but that’s about all that was there in June 1887 when the novel opens.
This is just a glimpse of Spectacle’s 1887 Paris. The peoplewatching, fashions, department stores, bridges, buildings, Seine River, and overall hustle and bustle of city life would have had plenty of Instagrammable moments. Words will have to take us there instead.
Jodie Lynn Zdrok is the author of Spectacle, which comes out February 12, 2019. You can visit her website at jodielynnzdrok.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @jlzdrok. Come for the bookish posts, stay for the cat, office life, travel, and food ones.