As Britain considers its future relationship with Europe, a University of Southampton historian will discuss cultural links between London and Paris during a Gold Hill Museum talk.
The cancan dance will be the focus of Dr Jonathan Conlin’s lecture, who first became interested in the comparison between the British and French capitals when he found an unpublished manuscript.
“A man called Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who visited London in 1780, wrote a very witty series of short essays comparing all aspects of Paris and London, right down to pets in one city and the kinds of coal that you get in one city versus the other,” explained Jonathan. “He thought that there was a lot that British and French people could learn from each other. That traditional discussion about them as being opposed to each other was getting in the way of that exchange.”
It prompted Jonathan to study the two cities in detail, in particular during the British Victorian and Edwardian periods. He published his book, ‘Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City’ in 2014. “I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if you looked at the history of two of the world’s greatest cities in terms of a discussion, rather than a piece of opposition,” he said.
Today, people in Britain often view Paris as a romantic place or ‘The City of Light’ as well as somewhere culturally refined, with the bonus of exceptional cuisine. I asked Jonathan what Victorian Londoners would have made of the French capital?
“In comparison to badly planned London, they would have viewed Paris as the city of the grand, straight-running boulevards. They would probably have admired it but also associated it in a rather smug, self-satisfied fashion with despotism. They would have said, ‘the streets might be straighter in Paris, but that reflects our tradition of respect for liberty and for private property’. You can’t create straight avenues unless you have a state that’s powerful enough to expropriate people’s land when it gets in the way of a straight boulevard. They would have seen it in terms recognisable to us today – London, the capital of business and work, but not a very pleasant place to spend your free time. Paris would be the flip side of that, the city of pleasure, where little work apparently seems to be going on.”
Jonathan says Paris has influenced its counterpart across the channel. “I’m interested in the architectural side of things. There’s a chapter in my book where I look at how the apartment building, as a way of high-density housing, originated in Paris perhaps in the 17th and 18th century. From being seen as alien and morally suspect in the mid 19th century, living in flats becomes the norm. When the first apartment blocks appeared in London, along new streets like Victoria Street, they were called ‘French flats’. They were associated with that kind of farce-style, of doors opening and closing and mistresses being huddled out of one door while your wife comes in the other. They were very much associated with a very loose lifestyle, with no privacy or morality. Gradually flats stopped being ‘French’ and became normal,” said Jonathan.
British visitors would have taken ideas home from Paris. The city was an ‘entertainment’ destination for well-heeled British men on their grand tour of Europe. “There certainly was an appeal in the 1880s and 1890s, especially amongst men of the upper class, to indulge in what was called ‘slumming’, where you would take a ‘walk on the wild side’,” said Jonathan. “There was an idea that you could relatively cheaply make a journey to Paris and explore a certain amount of sexual tourism alongside the Place Pigalle, with its surrounding musical hall, and enjoy a licence that you wouldn’t have at home.”
He says that this area of the city, known for fun, grew up around cheap drink establishments. “Even for Parisians, the idea of that quarter of Paris is as a place to let off steam. It was already present in the 18th century where, because of restrictions on the price of wine, it was much cheaper if you were outside the city’s walls. It was where you went to indulge almost every Saturday or Sunday with cheap dancing in a relatively free environment, away from the constraints of the city.”
Some of Jonathan’s talk will discuss the city’s musical hall culture and ‘gay Paree’ nightlife. It seems that the people behind Paris’ best-known dance phenomena recognised its tourism appeal. “The French use the label ‘French cancan’. They don’t say ‘cancan Français’, which is what you would normally expect the French to say. They use the English word ‘French’. They see it as a ‘Frenchness’ that’s being applied by and for people who are not French. In my talk, I’m going to be exploring how this apparently quintessentially French and Parisian dance emerged from a London musical style of performance called skirt dancing.”
Even though the area attracted visiting Brits seeking sex, the cancan wasn’t initially as suggestive as one might expect. “Right up until around 1900, neither in London nor in Paris, were cancan dancers bearing any flesh. They would have extended drawers that would have been tied to the top of their stocking. When they did kick up their legs, you wouldn’t have seen anything except a, presumably intended to be appetising, display of drawers,” said Jonathan.
People who protested against the dance were not taken seriously in Paris or London. “There were morality campaigners who tried to have skirt dancing and cancan banned by magistrates in London. Those campaigns were largely unsuccessful and, insofar as they are discussed in the press, the campaigners are being poked fun at. They’re being seen as busybodies who should stop sticking their noses into other people’s business.”
Victorians have a reputation for prudishness, but Jonathan says that attitudes changed during the Queen’s 63-year reign. “The Victorians of the 1840s were very different from the Victorians of the naughty 90s. By the period which I’m addressing, that kind of overtly Christian morality was no longer part of public discussion in the way it would have been in the 1840s, fifty years before.”
I asked Jonathan, if he could travel back in time where would he visit and why? “I think I probably want to go to somewhere like the Folies Bergère, very early the 20th century, when we know Picasso was a relatively new arrival to the city and was first encountering this dazzling electric light on that industrial entertainment scale,” said Jonathan. “Just to see what was going on in his mind as he saw this arc-lit glaring contrast of colour, light and movement.”
Jonathan’s talk, ‘Cancan and the Invention of Gay Paree, 1867-1914’, subtitled ‘Fancy Liquors and Sky-High Kickers’, is on at Gold Hill Museum at 2.30 pm on Tuesday 7th January. The event is free to members of Shaftesbury and District Historical Society. Non-members can pay £3 at the door. You can find more details here.