[Paris 1785: Jean-Baptiste has a new job, and decides he needs a new suit]
Two hours later, Jean-Baptiste is examining himself – examining someone – in a large, brilliantly polished oval mirror. He is wearing a suit of pistachio silk, a silk lining of green and saffron stripes. The waistcoat, cut at the top of the thigh, is also pistachio, with modest gold-thread embroidery. The cuffs of the coat are small, the collar high. The cravat – saffron again – is almost as large as Armand’s. For a long time, Charvet and Cedric have been pulling pins from between their lips, have been snipping and sewing and handling him with that freedom reserved to their trade, to that of body servants, surgeons and executioners. They are almost done. They stand back, careful to exclude themselves from the mirror’s scope. They look at him looking at himself. It is, Jean-Baptiste is perfectly aware, far too late to refuse the suit or even to criticise it.
observations: I have read and re-read this passage several times, and I still don’t understand how the suit appeared. It seems unlikely that the tailor’s shop had it ready-to-wear, but did they really rustle it up in two hours? Both seem very unlikely.
A couple of people mentioned this book to me, and one (thank you, AS) actually sent it to me, and indeed the scene of the pistachio suit is hard to resist. Poor Jean-Baptiste, the suit (‘the colour of pea soup’) will be a minor irritant to him in times to come. It is a symbol of his naivete, hammered home like everything else in the book. (He is green, you see.)
The story has a fascinating setup: an overfull cemetery – packed with plague victims – must be moved from the centre of Paris. It is unhealthy, and is blocking progress. Jean-Baptiste is the engineer put in charge of the project, and the book follows what seems to be about a year, and is completely fascinating in part. But: this is clever, original, well-researched (I presume) – Miller has taken his idea and flown with it. Yet the book is full of the wince-making clichés of historical fiction. On p21 we have the maid at his lodgings. ‘Like everyone else in the house, she suffers from dreams’ – I nearly threw the book across the room at this point. What does it MEAN? Like every other woman in the book, she is obviously attracted to the pleasant but unexceptional Jean-Baptiste. One woman is driven mad by him, and (it pains me to type this) there is a local prostitute who is very beautiful and who – amongst other things - uses sex to obtain books, so yeah, she gives up this (completely unimaginable and unconvincing) life to be with him, without any discussion. Not one word of this seemed real.
When it’s not based in historical-fiction-land, the story is strangely modern: Jean-Baptiste travels to the capital for work, makes a few mistakes, gets drunk and does foolish things with his friends, meets a girl, they move in together, he goes home for a visit and sees he has moved on from his family. It’s all rather like a Tony Parsons or David Nicholls novel, I found it far easier to imagine him in the 1980s or 1990s. And the lengthy Christmas trip home really bothered me (like the suit): would a young person in his position in 1785 really have been able to go off like that? I was back in 1985: Did he have a Young Person’s Coach Card for the journey, and take some Christmas presents bought on 23rd December on the Champs Elysees, after a visit to the pub with his mates where he moaned about his family?
I’m being so rude about the book because I wanted it to be better than it was – there were scenes where it really took off: a lot of the scenes with the miners, the party they had, the clash between the miners and masons and what followed: all were wonderfully-well-done. (The miners reminded me of the characters in one of my favourite books of all time, No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod – set in the 20th century and half the world away, but also miners). But then we’d be back with the mysterious attraction to girls, and the spot-the-foreshadowing for the French Revolution.
This has been a hugely successful book, many many people loved it. But I can’t help comparing it with the completely forgotten The Nebuly Coat by J Meade Falkner, on the blog this week: again, a technical man comes to work in a church, and makes friends with the organist, has dealings with women. The Falkner is far superior, has depth and nuance, and to me was much more involving.
The picture is a portrait of the Drummond family by Benjamin West from 1781. I like to think that Jean-Baptiste is giving the benefit of his views to the beautiful Heloise (she can read, you see) and Armand the organist.