Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque

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9780374162306: Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque

They were the children of France’s most celebrated men of nineteenth-century letters and science, the celebrity heirs and heiresses of their day. Their lives were the subject of scandal, gossip, and fascination. Léon Daudet was the son of the popular writer Alphonse Daudet. Jean-Baptiste Charcot was the son of the famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, mentor to a young Sigmund Freud. And Jeanne Hugo was the adored granddaughter of the immortal Victor Hugo. As France readied herself for the dawn of a new century, these childhood friends seemed poised for greatness.

In Gilded Youth, Kate Cambor paints a portrait of a generation lost in upheaval. While France weathered social unrest, violent crime, the birth of modern psychology, and the dawn of World War I, these three young adults experienced the disorientation of a generation forced to discover that the faith in science and progress that had sustained their fathers had failed them.

With masterful storytelling, Cambor captures the hopes and disillusionments of those who were destined to see the golden world of their childhood disappear - and the universal challenges that emerge as the dreams of youth collide with the realities of experience.

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About the Author:

Kate Cambor received her Ph.D. in history from Yale University. She has written for The American Scholar and The American Prospect, among other periodicals. Cambor lives in New York City. This is her first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE
Tuesday Lessons
Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.
(I am human: I consider nothing human foreign to me.)
—Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos
(The Self-Tormentor) (163 B.C.)
The child’s attitude to its father is colored by a peculiar
ambivalence. —Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927)On October 13, 1885, a young man with a well-groomed beard and a foreigner’s heavy coat stepped out of the train and onto the busy platform at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Letting the other travelers hurry past him, he stood still for a moment, waiting for his ears and eyes to adjust to the strangeness of this foreign destination. Sigmund Freud was twenty-nine years old and had left everything behind, sensing with some strange certainty that his future would begin here, hundreds of miles away from his adored fiancée, Martha, and beautiful Vienna, with its familiar Kaffehaüser and imposing Ringstrasse. He could have remained at home and begun the predictable, respectable career that most young physicians longed for and that he would be required to pursue if he wished to marry. But instinctively he knew that he needed something that Vienna could not offer him. For there, in Paris, shone the great name of Charcot.
Who had not heard of the illustrious neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, or of his famed Tuesday lessons? Each week at his Salpêtrière hospital, he presented for study his ailing patients, who these days were most often hysterical women. He discussed their symptoms—irrational ramblings and convulsive spasms, for example—before a rapt and eclectic audience of curious scientists, skeptical journalists, and chic socialites. Freud had heard tantalizing accounts of these sessions, of writhing bodies brought into submission under the piercing, all-seeing gaze of the great doctor. As a testament to the Frenchman’s considerable power and influence, he was even known as the “Emperor of the Salpêtrière.”
Yet for all these accolades, Charcot was also considered something of a maverick. He had been among the first to treat hysteria as a knowable neurological disorder, despite its vague symptoms that seemed to have no discernible physiological source and despite the fact that many of his contemporaries still dismissed such sufferers—often women—as malingerers. Such courage . . . such confidence—the young Freud was bowled over at the thought of such achievement. And so, hoping that with so innovative a teacher he would find the training and inspiration he needed to launch his own career, Sigmund Freud entered the swirling commotion of the French capital. “For years, I only dreamed of Paris,” he later recalled, “and the extreme happiness that I felt in posing my foot for the first time on these cobblestones seemed to me to guarantee the realization of my other desires.”
Freud’s first weeks in the City of Lights, however, proved disappointing and bewildering. He felt lazy and out of sorts, and, in letters home to his most intimate confidante, Martha, he fretted about the high prices and the exhausting, frenetic pace of Parisian life. His hotel in the fifth arrondissement was small and cramped. His accent and limited knowledge of the French language made the simplest conversation difficult. After failing to make a waiter at a café understand his request for du pain (“some bread”), Freud was too embarrassed to ever go back there. As he waited for his first meeting with the great Charcot, Freud restlessly toured the capital, seeking shelter among the antiquities of the Louvre from the city of strangers and from his own gawky foreignness. To stave off his mounting sense of inferiority, Freud savagely noted the symptoms of that pathology unique to the French: their “miserable megalomania,” which caused them to mount theater performances that lasted four hours and meals that lasted five or six, and bred a misplaced idealization of revolutionary activity. But there was something else, something about the city and its inhabitants that struck him as uncanny and alien. “I think they are all possessed by demons,” he confided to Martha. “The French are a people of psychical epidemics, of historical mass convulsions, and they have not changed since the time of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.” Freud felt that great poet, who had died only a few months earlier, had captured something elemental and unsettled about the capital. At first glance Paris seemed to him like a city flush with possibility. Everywhere he looked, there was something to catch his eye, from the dance halls and cafés lining the grands boulevards, to the Luxor obelisk in the center of the place de la Concorde, or the impressive array of goods at the new department stores. People were whisked to and fro in the elaborate system of streetcars and omnibuses, and many were already talking with excitement about the centennial celebration of the French Revolution that would take place four years later at the Universal Exposition. But while Hugo had embraced the volatility of the capital, Freud was unnerved by it. Underneath the frenetic exuberance, one could just make out a dull throb of anxiety. Nor was he alone in thinking that something was afoot in Paris: specialists of the day only half-jokingly called Paris “the hysteria capital of the world.”
But as he slowly settled into a routine, Freud found himself warming to certain benefits of Parisian living: the coffee, he allowed, was excellent, as were the dramatic talents of the sublime Sarah Bernhardt. The cathedral of Notre Dame left the most lasting impression upon him. And a week after his first visiting the church, Freud breathlessly invoked it in another letter to Martha as a metaphor for his own evolving relationship with his new mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot, under whom he had begun studying:
I am now quite comfortably installed, and I think that I am changing greatly. I will tell you in great detail what is causing this change. Charcot, who is one of the greatest doctors and whose genius is only limited by his sanity, is quite simply in the process of demolishing my ideas and my plans. I leave his course as if I was leaving Notre-Dame, full of new ideas about perfection. But he exhausts me, and when I leave him, I no longer have any desire to do my own work, which seems so insignificant . . . Will the seed produce any fruit? I don’t know; but all that I do know is that no other man has ever had so much influence on me.
Like a man intent on heralding his own mythology, Jean-Martin Charcot enjoyed telling his students about his origins. They in turn would whisper these stories to one another before lectures or after making patient rounds, and in this way the contours of their teacher’s life and those of the scientific discipline that he was building became virtually indistinguishable.
He was born in Paris on November 29, 1825, to Simon-Pierre Charcot, a twenty-seven-year-old carriage builder and artisan, and Jeanne-Georgette Saussier, who was not quite seventeen. His first years occurred against the backdrop of the political turmoil of the final days of the Restoration and the revolts of 1830, most famously immortalized by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. His family was of modest means, and Jean-Martin lived with his parents and three brothers in a lively section of Paris near the grands boulevards on the Right Bank. It was a pleasant childhood, marred only by the death of his mother when Jean-Martin was just fourteen years old. Yet he was a stern child, who already showed signs of that cold, taciturn disposition for which he would later become famous, preferring to spend his time alone reading and drawing than playing with friends. In 1843, when he was eighteen, he finished his secondary schooling and was faced with the prospect of choosing a career either in art or in medicine, ultimately deciding to become a physician, with its promise of greater economic and social advancement.
At the time, the field of medicine was enjoying a newfound prestige in light of doctors’ prominent role in the July Revolution of 1830 and in fighting the cholera epidemic in 1832. “No lifestyle that I know,” gushed the author of The French As Viewed by Themselves, a popular book published while Jean-Martin was in school, “is more varied, more complete, than that of the medical professor. To advance the interests of science and his own fortune, to have a clientele and an audience, to be obliged to reveal a thousand secrets in the name of art, but never breaching the trust of his patients . . . He sees all aspects of pain . . . a palace, and a leper asylum, this is his world.”
To be both master over and witness to the sick and diseased— this was what young Jean-Martin wanted for himself. And so he began his training at the School of Medicine in Paris, the Faculté, at the center of the city, off the rue de l’École de Médecine. A thin, pale young man, with long black hair and a small black mustache, Charcot spent most of his free time sketching scenes from the Latin Quarter rather than mingling with the other students, many of them fellow children of the lower and middle bourgeoisie who had enthusiastically embraced the credo of upward mobility captured in the exhortation of statesman François Guizot: “Enrich yourself!” In 1853 he presented his doctor’s thesis, in which he differentiated between the symptoms and lesions of gout and those of chronic rheumatism. For the next ten years, Charcot steadily and tirelessly worked his way up through the ranks of the medical hierarchy until he had built himself an impressive enough portfolio in teaching and research to earn a hospital post in 1862. At the age of thirty-seven, he was nominated to the Salpêtrière clinic in Paris, and he accepted a chaired position there in 1882.
Charcot had first entered the Salpêtrière as a student on January 1, 1852, passin...

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