Blog post

Balzac’s Paris in the dark and in the light

Explore Paris arm in arm with Balzac, 19th century France’s most famous novelist and observer.

Eric Hazan25 June 2024

Balzac’s Paris in the dark and in the light

In Balzac’s vast Human Comedy, a body of ninety-one completed novels and stories, he endeavoured to create a complete picture of contemporary French society and manners. Within this work is a loving ode to Paris and an incomparable introduction to the first capital of the modern world.

In Balzac’s work, the city at night is dark and even black, despite the introduction of modern street lighting in the first half of the century. In the stories of The Human Comedy that take place towards the end of the Empire and under the Restoration, artificial light was provided by the réverbères that had replaced the old tallow candle lanterns of Louis XV’s reign. These were also lanterns, but fitted with an oil lamp and a polished copper reflector which gave them greater range and intensity. 

They were suspended from a system of ropes and pulleys stretched between the houses, which allowed them to be lowered while the lamplighter cut the wick, filled the oil tank, cleaned the reflector and lit the lantern. (During the Revolution, to put the aristocrats ‘to the lantern’ [à la lanterne] meant to hang them using the ropes and pulleys of the lanterns – not to hang the rope from a fixed lampstand, which did not exist.) Balzac never misses an opportunity to speak out against the ‘hideous street-lamps’. On Rue de Langlade, where the beautiful Esther lives at the beginning of A Harlot High and Low, ‘coming from the bright lights of Rue Saint-Honoré, Rue Neuve des Petits Champs and Rue de Richelieu . . . thick shadow succeeds upon a torrent of gaslight. At wide intervals, a pale street-lamp casts its smoky and uncertain gleam, not seen at all in some of the blind alleys.’

The ‘torrent of gaslight’ refers to the slow spread of gas lighting, after its first appearance in 1817 in the Passage des Panoramas, throughout the city under the July Monarchy. In Balzac’s time it was limited to the upper-class districts, and the wealthiest even had gas in their homes. In Cousin Bette, Josépha, the beautiful singer, lives on Rue de la Ville-l’Évêque, in ‘one of those pretty modern houses with double doors where, as soon as the gas lantern is lit, luxury becomes apparent’. The Left Bank and the working-class districts remained in the shadow of the réverbères. 

But, even in those parts of The Human Comedy set in the 1840s – by which time gas had largely prevailed – the nighttime exterior remains mainly in darkness. Illuminated café terraces were to come later, and the fragile light of the réverbères still appears in Baudelaire’s Evening Twilight: ‘Among the gas flames worried by the wind / Prostitution catches alight in the streets.’

Balzac was not particularly enthusiastic about gas, nor about the other technical innovations of the time. He was more attentive to destruction than to innovation. Although he repeatedly details the advantages of the railway in his correspondence, this mode of transport is only present in The Human Comedy as a sign of the times, in the opening lines of A Start in Life: ‘Railroads, in a future not far distant, must force certain industries to disappear forever, and modify several others, more especially those relating to the different modes of transportation in use around Paris.’ 

But there is no mention of the stations built at the time, and we do not see any of the characters taking the train: when they leave Paris, it is by stagecoach or in one of the coucous that leave for the north from the Faubourg Saint-Denis. At the beginning of The Lesser Bourgeoisie, we read: ‘Alas! Old Paris is disappearing with frightening rapidity.’ And in 1845, Balzac published a short text, ‘Ce qui disparaît de Paris’: 

The pillars of Les Halles will have disappeared in a few days, and old Paris will exist only in the works of novelists brave enough to describe faithfully the last vestiges of the architecture of our fathers; for the serious historian takes little account of these things.

The pillars of Les Halles were massive stone arches under which for centuries merchants had protected their stalls from rain and  mud. ‘To the shame of the city, a filthy modern building in yellow plaster was constructed there, removing the pillars.’ This destruction, some twenty years before Baltard, was the first in a series of disasters for the Halles district, a series that is not yet over.

But Balzac was not a militant like his friend Victor Hugo, who wrote in 1832: ‘Whatever the rights of ownership, the destruction of a historic building must not be permitted these despicable speculators whose interest blinds them to their honour; wretched men, and so imbecilic that they do not even understand that they are barbarians!’ Balzac’s own tone is rather melancholy:

In a few years, the lamplighter, who slept during the day, his family having no other home than the contractor’s shop, and walked busily all day, the wife cleaning the panes, the husband inserting oil, the children rubbing the reflectors with dirty cloths; who spent the day preparing for the night, and spent the night turning off and on the light according to the whims of the moon – this family coated in oil will be entirely lost.

Likewise the clothes mender ‘housed like Diogenes in a barrel topped by a niche for a statue made of hoops and waxed cloth’, and the red umbrellas ‘under the shelter of which fruit trees blossomed’, and ‘the street cleaner’s saddle, the stalls metamorphosed into long boards rolling on two old wheels’, and ‘the shellfish seller, the paper-monger, the fruit growers and the old clothes dealers, and the butchers, and the whole world of small businesses’. The conclusion is almost topical: 

One may ask, without insulting His Royal Highness Political Economy, whether the greatness of a nation depends on the fact that a pound of sausages is delivered to you on carved Carrara marble, or that the fat man is better housed than those who live from him! Our false Parisian splendours have produced the miseries of the provinces and the faubourgs. The victims are in Lyon and are called canuts. Every industry has its canuts. 

For the oldest of present-day readers, there is something disturbing about this passage. They can remember the horse-drawn milk trucks – large wooden trays on rubber-tyred wheels, carrying the tin churns in which one-litre measures were plunged, as well as the cylindrical hairdresser’s signs rotating in alternate colours, the two-wheeled fruit-and-vegetable carts with a long handle for balance at a standstill, the gilded horse heads in the windows of the specialist butcher’s shops. 

They have the right to wonder about what will be left of today’s Paris to fuel a new stanza of the recurrent complaint in fifty years’ time: ‘Old Paris is no more’, wrote Baudelaire, ‘the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.’

— An edited excerpt from Balzac's Paris: The City as Human Comedy by Eric Hazan.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

See more books on the politics of walking!

Balzac's Paris
In Balzac’s vast Human Comedy, a body of ninety-one completed novels and stories, he endeavoured to create a complete picture of contemporary French society and manners. Within this work is a lovin...

Filed under: author-hazan-eric