Godfrey on Foss (2020)

Foss, Colin. The Culture of War: Literature of the Siege of Paris 1870-1871. Liverpool UP, 2020, pp. viii + 236, ISBN: 978-1-78962-192-1

The four difficult months from September 1870 to January 1871 that saw Paris besieged by Prussian forces are often represented as either a concluding episode to the decisive defeat of France at Sedan on 4 Sept. 1870 or as a prologue to the violence of the Paris Commune from March to May 1871. In this fine book, Colin Foss focuses instead on the Siege itself as a discreet event and on the surprising outburst of cultural energy that it generated. Energy that, in the words of one memoirist of the period, seemed to grow in direct proportion to the dangers Parisians faced. In this, Foss has provided us with a welcome complement to art historian Hollis Clayson’s 2002 Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870-71).

Not to be misled by the title, the book is about much more than literature stricto sensu. The primary authors in the story Foss tells are, in the first instance, not novelists but journalists and diarists. Following years of censorship under the Second Empire, one of the first acts of the new Republic was to declare the freedom of the press and the deregulation of the professions of printer and bookseller. Thus, for instance, from September 1870 to January 1871 the dépôt legal registered an astonishing 860 non-periodical publications. Many of these—tracts, poetry, political tirades, texts of speeches, and even cookbooks—dealt directly with the Siege. Most remarkable perhaps, in the face of the serious scarcity of paper, was unprecedented growth in the number of newspapers, political broadsides, pamphlets. Indeed, the Moniteur de la papeterie worried that “the passerby who used to buy one newspaper on the way home in the evening now takes off with an assortment of three or four” (73). Foss’s meticulous research into the material and editorial conditions of journalism under the siege allows him to establish how newspapers, with their Republican and patriotic rhetoric, participated in the everyday lives of their readers and at the same time “documented, commented, and organized the experiences of those readers” (95).

On a more intimate level, the experiences of those readers were communicated in a wide assortment of siege diaries that Parisians kept during this period of boredom and restlessness. Some of these were originally composed as letters to friends and family, letters never sent because of the blockade of postal services. In the evocatively titled chapter, “Letters to No One,” Foss offers the example of Caroline Chaumorot, a Parisian newlywed, who in 1871 compiled her unmailed letters to her friend Blanche as a journal intime and explained that they were “written to pass the long hours of the nights of siege when Paris, encircled by the iron walls of victorious Germany, fought to raise up its honor dragged through the mud at Sedan” (119). Letters and diaries offered a way for Parisians to process the changes affecting them during the months of isolation and anxiety. For Foss, they also represent a new form of historiography to challenge the eventual weight of positivist histories. As one anonymous diarist writes: “Those who were present and acted in this great drama will find here the history…of each hour. For those who were absent, it will be easy for them to understand our anguish…. What you’ll read here was written from day to day…” (145).

The cultural activity Foss itemizes is not limited to the written word. The first chapters of the book are in fact devoted to the role filled by theaters—as opposed to plays—to represent and inspire patriotic duty. If, in the immediate aftermath of Sedan, theaters were closed, by the end of November 1870 they were again playing to full houses and staging performances that spoke to the present moment. Proceeds from many performances went to patriotic causes and charities. Some theatres served as makeshift hospitals. Sarah Bernhardt, herself, not yet the star she would become, served as a nurse in the besieged Théâtre de l’Odéon.

Foss offers a particularly vivid account of the hoops Édouard Thierry, director of the Comédie française, had to jump through in order to accommodate his theater to the circumstances of the Siege. In the chapter, “Hugomania,” he recounts the story of Thierry’s negotiations with Victor Hugo on a staged reading of the poet’s collection of poems, Les Châtiments. That volume of verse, first published in 1853, scathingly denounced Napoleon III, the emperor who had seized power in a coup d’état and who would later lead the country to defeat at Sedan. That defeat and the declaration of the Republic provided Hugo the occasion for his much-hailed return to France from self-imposed exile. Accordingly, in September 1870 he published an expanded edition of Les Châtiments; twenty thousand copies of the book sold in four months. Theaters rallied to stage readings of the book. When Thierry went to Hugo to request permission for the Comédie française to perform some of the poems Hugo agreed on the condition that the entire collection be performed. Judging this too incendiary, Thierry refused and was attacked by hardline Republicans. Eventually he reached an agreement with Hugo and a selection of poems was read at a matinée. It is here that Literature—with a capital L—figures directly in Foss’s book and in the culture of the Siege, with texts by France’s leading poet linked to the Republican project of state building.

Foss’s book is rich in examples such as these of how “industries of culture” flourished during a dark period of privation in Paris when so many sectors of the economy ground to a halt. In its presentation of the “circonstances” (the term diarists used to qualify the siege they were living through) the book succeeds at both the macro-level and the micro-level: in its consideration of the broad role of cultural activity at a time of political regime change and in its interpretation of everyday examples of that activity, whether public or personal. More than a book on the literature of the Siege, this book contributes in significant ways to our understanding of the cultural history of this murky period of life in Paris.

Sima Godfrey
University of British Columbia