Possibility throbs

Richard Altick

  • Palais-Royal by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 274 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 14718 6

By 1828, the courtyard of the Palais-Royal in Paris, once a fashionable bazaar, had degenerated into the commercial slum Balzac would later describe in Les Illusions Perdues: three rows of badly lit and leaky shops and sheds, the squalid premises of trades-persons ranging from booksellers to prostitutes. At that moment, the landowner, the Duc d’Orléans, decided to restore the valuable property to its former use by pulling down the ramshackle structures and erecting in their stead a pair of shining, spacious arcades with iron frameworks and roofs and walls of glass. London’s Burlington Arcade, opened a dozen years earlier, was the partial model for the new Galerie d’Orléans, but this enterprise was far to outdo it in innovative boldness and size.

The architect the duke commissioned was Pierre-François Fontaine, and it is the premise of Richard Sennett’s attractive novel that he chose for his assistant a young Englishman who was just finishing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Frederick Courtland was the son of an architect who had learned his profession under the comfortably traditionalist John Nash, but his own vision, actuated by the ‘throb of possibility’ (lovely, phrase), was engaged with the architecture of the future as embodied in Fontaine’s designs. He was a practical idealist, and the heart of the novel is the fate of his dream.

The Galerie d’Orléans was successfully completed, and after an interval in 1832 when it was converted into a huge shelter for cholera victims it became what the duke and Fontaine meant it to be, the most elegant premises for shopping and strolling in France if not the whole Western world. Iron and glass took on a prophetic significance as an architectural pairing peculiarly and explicitly dedicated, a century before Le Corbusier, to serving human needs. Eventually, Frederick thought, its example would transform Paris into the ideal city – a whole glassed-in metropolis impervious to the whims and hazards of nature. His association with the project brought him commissions to duplicate it on a smaller scale elsewhere in Paris. England might be a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon once remarked, but France was the only nation of glass-enclosed shopping centres.

Frederick’s ardent dream enlarged to the point where it became what his fellow Parisian Hector Berlioz (a faint background figure in the novel) called, in a musical context, an idée fixe. Where population pressure made land so expensive, as it did in Paris and London, why not go vertical and raise homes and offices in the sky? There was, after all, the centuries-old precedent of the clustered towers at San Gimignano. In the demotic new age, the kind of structures that had once served rich Tuscan families for protection as well as ostentation might be adapted to providing cheap housing in London’s East End. But when Frederick returned to London to become his father’s partner, English demand for glass and iron structures, for whatever purposes, was non-existent. He submitted a characteristic plan for the building that was to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it was rejected and as a consolation prize he was given the subordinate commission of designing a vast dome that was to squat atop the monstrous brick box that had constituted the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s winning plan. But there was not time enough to erect such a building, and into the impasse plunged the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardner, Joseph Paxton, who enlarged his design for the famous glass and iron conservatory at Chatsworth into what Punch promptly dubbed the Crystal Palace. This glorious network of glass and colourfully painted iron supports in Hyde Park represented the ultimate realisation of Frederick’s dream, and as he had to admit, it was a better building. It was, in fact, the exemplary architectural design of the future, but it was Paxton’s creation, not his.

On the day the Queen opens the building, Frederick, an honoured guest at the ceremonies, shakes hands with the triumphant Paxton, who gives no sign of recognising his name. On the way out he comes upon a grotesque machine – a metal man in the shape of the Apollo Belvedere, made of 7000 pieces of steel plates, springs and wheels. (There is a picture of it in the official catalogue of the Great Exhibition.) Frederick turns the crank issuing from the figure and in thirty seconds Apollo, the ideal of the human form, has been inflated to the double life-size of Goliath. ‘Frederick cranked it back down again. When it had arrived at human size, ever smiling, Frederick reached out to shake the Man of Steel’s hand with a firm, confident grasp.’

This wry little episode is the symbolic climax of a novel in which the symbolism is normally implicit rather than overt. Frederick, a quietly embittered man, returns to Paris, to finish building a utilitarian fire-brigade station in the Rue de Grenelle. He sees the Gare St Lazare trainshed roofed over with a vast iron and glass canopy, and a new Palais de l’Exposition, in whose creation he was not asked to participate, imitating the Crystal Palace. His life, so hopefully begun, ends in what his brother Charles aptly called ‘civilised disappointment’.

Charles was the most intimate and sympathetic witness of Frederick’s journey into quiet despair. He had troubles of his own, which constitute the subsidiary theme of Palais-Royal. A Church of England clergyman driven by the demons of both religious and self-doubt, he left his Gloucestershire parish and in time the Church itself, and settled in Paris. He was deeply moved by the liberal Abbé Lammenais’s failure to convert the Pope to ecumenism and to enrolling religion in the cause of revolutionary democracy, and he suffered agonies as he sought to find a role model – Pascal or Byron? In coming, as he did, to embrace agnosticism, he slowly developed a way of life if not utter peace of soul. In his later years, known to the French as ‘the English Voltaire’, he edited the influential quarterly, the Free Thinker.

The narrative of these two widely different yet intertwined careers is told in a series of letters exchanged by the central figures, as well as (in Charles’s case) published and unpublished essays, and passages from the diary of Frederick’s wife in all but name, the popular actress Anne Mercure. No flash-in-the-pan demi-mondaine with an offstage following of well-heeled lovers, she is a durable professional who ages gracefully from romantic heroine roles into character parts. She has the innate manners of a gentlewoman – in her later years she becomes positively bourgeois – and though her life with Frederick is not without its irritations, they are a thoroughly devoted couple. The cast of diary-keepers and correspondents is completed with the genially stereotypical figure of Sever-us Rood KC (‘Snigs’), the family solicitor, confidant and godfather to both brothers, a bronchial valetudinarian of an orotund habit of speech who furnishes some of the humane comedy that plays around the serious themes.

Palais-Royal has the earmark of a period piece, but it is leagues removed from both the bodice-rippers and the creampuff confections to be found in the ‘romantic novel’ section of the paperback shelves. One of its most engaging qualities is the vivid authority of its evocation of time and place. It is a tale not only of two brothers but of two cities, in a span reaching from the ‘glorious three days’ of the Paris revolution of 1830 to London’s Crystal Palace year of 1851. In an epilogue Charles returns to find Paris, once ‘the bright ante-chamber of youth’, transformed, not by the magic of glass and iron architecture, but by Baron Haussman’s wholesale substitution of broad boulevards for the huddled quarters surviving from the medieval city. Second Empire fashion has moved to the Bois de Boulogne, and most of the shops in the Galerie d’Orléans are vacant, though Frederick’s gardens remain, as they do today.

Sennett’s extensive historical research has served him well. Charles describes the riotous first night of Hernani, though typically stressing, not the scandal and violence, as the most familiar accounts do, but the sheer poetry of both play and occasion. Anne’s diary reports the scepticism and outright opposition that met the plans for the Great Exhibition, including the egregious Colonel Sibthorp’s conviction that the event would convert London into a hotbed of seditious terrorism. It was in Sibthorp’s spirit that Brunel explained to Frederick why his glass and iron proposal would never work:

a building entirely of glass is the easiest target in the world. Think: Queen and Consort walk through the central aisle on opening day; one revolutionary pokes a rifle through one glass pane, that’s all he needs to do, break one glass pane, anywhere, to take aim. Or knocks out an upper pane with a pole; tosses in a bomb; glass everywhere, blood, panic, one minute for the Festival of Arts, Commerce and Industry to end in disaster. It was beautiful, what you did. Beautiful. However, brick was the only answer.

Most period pieces, including Scott’s and Thackeray’s, seek to strengthen the illusion of authenticity by mingling historical figures with the fictional ones. But Sennett does so with considerably greater finesse than is ordinarily seen nowadays. To be sure, a number of such characters make only cameo appearances, as mere walk-ons or persons alluded to in conversation: the insufferable, histrionic Théophile Gautier in his all-green costume, George Sand, Liszt, Chopin. Several of them attend a soirée given by Liszt’s mistress, Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult. But Sennett adeptly erases the dividing line between fact and fiction. Several well-known public figures are woven into the plot. The Comtesse d’Agoult is Anne Mercure’s friend, and the actor Frédéric Lemaître is not only Anne’s theatrical colleague but the father of her two daughters in a liaison that predated her permanent attachment to Frederick Courtland.

Of these characters from life, the most prominent is the opera singer Adolphe Nourrit, the first Neocles in Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth and later the first Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Like Courtland, the visionary architect, and like so many other artists in the heady days of French romanticism, even like Charles in his indomitable search for a spiritual modus vivendi, Nourrit too felt the throb of possibility, most strongly when he embraced Saint Simonianism, which posited a nexus between socialism and music. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, enacted at lunch hour on a construction site over a working sewer, he leads a chorus of unkempt workmen and filthy street waifs in the militant hymn ‘Man will ascend to Progress’ followed by the somewhat less trendy ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Charles’s obituary of Nourrit, who flung himself from the fifth-floor window of his Naples lodgings, is reprinted from the Free Thinker for June 1839. It is almost as factual as the entry in the New Grove.

Sennett’s verisimilitude is so expertly contrived that the compulsive nit-picker finds little scope for his wretched compulsion. Pace Anne, writing in 1843, crinolines didn’t ‘tilt’ then – they started to do so only when they were draped over the bell-shaped metal frames that were introduced in the mid-Fifties – and the British Library didn’t acquire that name until the 1970s. The word ‘pub’ was as yet unknown even to the slangiest of English tongues, and so there was no basis for Anne’s supposition that it meant ‘café’.

Sennett wisely does not risk a pastiche of Regency-Victorian prose style. His characters write well in their respective earnest ways, and very seldom do specks of modern idiom flow from their pens to threaten the illusion. And they are as thoughtful as they are articulate. Frederick formulates the philosophical meaning of the architect’s art: ‘The beauty of what we shall build, Father, is also life,’ and (also to his father) ‘M. Fontaine is near his time; a few months more of eating and sleeping mean little to him. The preservation of that geometry made tangible in glass, iron, leaf and gravel is his last connection to the world: the architect miraculously endowed squares, circles, parallel lines with the capacities of life. He little imagined – why should he? – that this geometry could therefore die.’ But later he reverses himself: ‘What is the beauty of architecture if not the reassurance of solidity, the promise of enduring, of the eternal?’ ‘He spoke of architecture,’ wrote Charles after his brother’s death in 1866, ‘as an exercise of intellect, its forms matters of serious choice, these choices to be maintained in the face of shifting fashion.’

‘The lessons derived from Nature by the Great Romantics,’ Charles asserted in the International Courier for June 1833, ‘have no application in this building’ – the Galerie d’Orléans. ‘Man, far from suffering at the hands of blind Nature, laughs at its terrors. The arcade nullifies cold, its brilliant lighting erases night; man admits into this architecture of control only what is pleasing – tropical plants, for example, to decorate the corridors of his life under glass.’ Perhaps Palais-Royal was conceived in one of the more extravagant American shopping malls, the ultimate magnification of the Galerie d’Orléans. Certainly the future towards which Frederick once directed his roseate dreams is now. If you seek his monument, Sennett is saying, look about you: not only at the gleaming expanses of shopping malls, sealed for air-conditioning as well as to exclude rude nature, but at the topless towers of London, and Paris’s La Défense, about which a kind word has yet to be spoken. They are as far removed from the human scale, and from humanity itself – the measure of Frederick’s vision – as Count Dunin’s expandable robot with its cold handshake.