I initially submitted what’s below as a 400-word book review to Jackson Free Press in late-August 2009, and then revised it up to 750 words at the paper’s request in early September, and haven’t heard a peep since then. So, I think it’s clear that the piece isn’t going to run. So, um, yay?—my first killed piece. That’s fine. Kate Cambor’s Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Epoque seemed like an outlier to the paper’s interests and audience, and I was never sure why JFP slated a history of French fin-de-siècle culture for review in the first place. That being said, I slogged through a book I didn’t like, wrote a review of it, then rewrote and expanded it as a last-minute request from the review editor, all for no pay. (I get my twenty bucks if, and only if, the review actually runs.) So, I might as well salvage it here. *sigh* Cheers.
By 1870, France considered Victor Hugo to be the country’s poet laureate. The author of the classic Les Misérables and other novels, poems, and dramas, Hugo personified the nineteenth century’s moral vision and social turmoil. Right behind him, in terms of popularity, was the prolific novelist Alphonse Daudet, whose work was compared to Charles Dickens and who also became a household name. Jean-Martin Charcot, a famed neurologist who tutored the young Sigmund Freud, knew both Hugo and Daudet, and moved in their social circles.
Together, these men were deemed by their society as the best and the brightest of the era.
Kate Cambor’s Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Epoque, focuses on their descendants. Jeanne Hugo, Léon Daudet, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot were watched closely by the press, pundits, and the public, and were judged—fairly or not—as symbols of the late nineteenth century. By following them, Cambor tries to trace the roots of 20th-century France:
[They] grew up with certain expectations, inherited and self-imposed, about themselves and their world. These expectations would be challenged, and even overturned, as private demons and international events collided. Childish fantasies gave way to adult compromises as triumphant marriages ended in divorce, careers were cast aside, and politics led to ostracism, exile, and even war. The new generation of writers and politicians around them were engaged in a battle of epic and Oedipal proportions; at stake was nothing less than the heart and soul of Mother France.
Indeed, Cambor wants these two sons and one granddaughter to represent their generation’s uneasy transition into modernity. They engage with the causes and effects of the Dreyfus Affair and anti-Semitism, political conservatism and anarchy, the rise of modern science and Darwinism, and the slide toward World War I. They all hobnobbed with a who’s-who of France’s famous–microbiologist Louis Pasteur; writers Émile Zola, and Marcel Proust; politician Georges Clemenceau; and polar explorer Ernest Shackleton all make appearances in the book.
These celebrities, in fact, often overtake Cambor’s protagonists, and she loses Jeanne, Léon, and Jean-Baptiste for chapters at a time. In particular, the presence of Victor Hugo looms heavily over his granddaughter Jeanne, and Cambor doesn’t make her an engaging person in her own right. Unlike the other two, Jeanne doesn’t merit a single chapter fully devoted to her.
In fact, Cambor seems to actively dislike Jeanne, portraying her without much sympathy or empathy. Jeanne may have been a spoiled heiress—though Cambor doesn’t examine why this was so, nor does she discuss Jeanne at all except with relation to her famous grandfather or to the men she married. (Since Cambor seems so uninterested in Jeanne [born in 1869], she could have concentrated on the writer Colette [born in 1873], a Frenchwoman who greatly affected the country’s cultural history and who was, like Jeanne, a constant source of scandal during her life.)
Cambor describes the two men—when she focuses on them at all—in loving detail. It’s alarming that a woman author gives such short shrift to one of the book’s few prominent women. It’s even more disturbing, though, when considering how Léon turned out. His ambitions led him to a career into an incendiary right-wing columnist who stoked anti-Semitic sentiment and organized thugs to disrupt town-hall meetings and trials of his political adversaries. Cambor, though, seems to admire him more than Jeanne. For all of Jeanne’s faults, she didn’t advocate Jew hatred and street violence. Léon did, and sometimes sold out his friends and peers in the process.
Jean-Baptiste’s life, meanwhile, was more benign, spent mostly exploring Antarctica and Greenland. His expeditions brought new species to Europe, and it’s while writing about him that Cambor works best. Even here, though, she assumes unproven knowledge about what the characters are experiencing. When Jean-Baptiste watches his sinking ship, “he felt calm about the fate that lay before him, but the desperate movements of his sailors during their final, frightened struggle were too much to bear.” There’s no written record of Jean-Baptiste’s thoughts during this event. Gilded Youth cites lots of correspondence, archives, and newspapers, but it regularly attempts to tell readers what the protagonists are thinking, without any supporting evidence.
All three people, however, ultimately get lost in Gilded Youth’s sweep of events. Cambor seems more interested in the broader history than in her particular protagonists, whose significance she never quite justifies. Because of this, Gilded Youth isn’t much different from, or any more revealing than, countless other popular accounts of this noted period.