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Friday, April 24, 2015

“Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Époque” by Kate Cambor

336 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374162306

Ah, La Belle Époque – that era in French and European history that began with the defeat of the French by the Germans in 1871 and ended with the onset of the Great War in 1914 that say that defeat, ultimately, avenged. In Kate Cambor’s book Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Époque the author attempts shows us this world through the lives of three of its blessed members: Jeanne Hugo, granddaughter of Victor Hugo; Léon Daudet, political provocateur and son of the writer Alphonse Daudet; and Jean-Baptiste Charcot, polar explorer and son of the pioneering neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. All three subjects were childhood friends, whose fathers (or grandfather, in the case of Jeanne) were such famous people that all three found it difficult to make an independent way in life (another link is that Jeanne married first Léon, divorced Léon, and subsequently married Jean-Baptiste; ah, the French). All three were also born and died within a few years of each other; their long lives spanned, and were framed by, France’s Third Republic (in this respect he book’s subtitle is a little misleading, as the milieu of this book is the entire Third Republic as mentioned above, not just the Belle Époque; so you might say that the book delivers twice as much history as its title promises).

The linkages among Cambor’s three lives provide a rich vein of psychological, biographical, and historical material for the author to exploit; complex personal and political relationships, substantial career achievements (in the case of the two men), and the almost unimaginable changes in France (from horse-drawn carriages to radar) that formed the backdrop of their lives. It’s an embarrassment of riches, from which Cambor extracts much gold while remaining unavoidably selective. There is plenty of history here, although with many gaps and jump-cuts; the artistic milieu is subordinated to the political, and the children-of-the-rich-and-famous theme is subordinated to both. However, I found the book to be rather disorganized and overwritten, and Cambor writes it as if she were the omniscient narrator of a novel, making one impossible presumption after another about what characters were thinking (and these thoughts were embellished with excessive prose). It was irritating and distracting, but didn’t have to be, as the author shows flashes of excellence, as the passage about Daudet’s defamation trial, which was well-written and concise; had the entire book been written with the same focus, I would have enjoyed it much more. Some of the stories are elliptical – although the divorce between two of the protagonists would be seem to be relevant to the story, she passes over it quickly and then tosses in a hundred pages later that Jeanne Hugo left Charcot for her third husband. A more robust discussion of the divorce would have been far more relevant than the excessive detail about polar expeditions other than Charcot’s.

While a learned a great deal about these three persons of whom I was ignorant, Gilded Youth could have been so much more: better organized, more concise, and less opinionated. Still, as a primer of the Belle Époque, one could do worse.

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