In 1913, the French writer Charles Péguy observed that “the world has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has changed in the last thirty years.” Kate Cambor’s new study, Gilded Youth, tracks the changes of that era through the figures of Léon Daudet, son of the beloved French writer Alphonse; Jean-Baptiste Charcot, son of the groundbreaking neurologist Jean-Martin; and Jeanne Hugo, granddaughter of Victor. These childhood friends, all born in the late 1860s, were caught between two epochs, between the “pessimism and pensiveness” of the nineteenth century and the “energy and activity” of the twentieth. Sigmund Freud, Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Gustave Flaubert were frequent visitors to their family homes; once the trio came of age, they gained renown in the press—Daudet for his politics, Charcot for his explorations, and Hugo for her social life. All three figures, Cambor argues, battled “with private demons and public expectations to be both worthy of and free from their gilded legacies.”
Each embodied a particular paradox of their time. Despite the technological advances that were putting would-be explorers into the air, Charcot took to the sea, sailing to the Arctic and the Antarctic in his determination to “become a conqueror of new worlds”; in 1936, he would die a particularly old-fashioned death in a wreck off the coast of Iceland. Daudet, a right-wing provocateur and member of the Action Française, a monarchist movement led by Henri Vaugeois and Charles Maurras, took advantage of “an arsenal of modern media to extol the virtues of the traditional values of king, country, and family.” And Hugo, who first caught the public’s attention in her grandfather’s poetry—which famously hymned her as “Jeanne au pain sec” (Jeanne with toast)—was chronically unable to live without the devotion she had enjoyed as Victor’s favorite grandchild. When her marriages did not fulfill her “specific, exalted vision of romantic love,” Cambor recounts, Hugo was willing to resort to “divorce and the resulting disgrace.”
The book begins in 1914, with a passerby’s view of the night the Socialist MP Jean Jaurès was assassinated: “It looked like another lively evening at the Café du Croissant, a popular hangout for journalists whose offices dotted the busy rue Montmartre neighborhood,” when “suddenly the evening was pierced by the sound of two gunshots, then silence, then a single scream: ‘They’ve shot Jaurès!’” The following day—the day the call for general mobilization for the impending war went out—the Action Française claimed responsibility for the killing, and Daudet (who at a younger age might have stuck around for a fight) fled to Touraine.
By contrast, Charcot, learning of the impending conflict, turns his ship, en route to Iceland, back to Cherbourg. His young sailors are jubilant at the idea of going off to fight the boches, but Charcot “could not help but feel that this would be a war for the young and naive.” Hugo, meanwhile, sits in her room in the swank Sixteenth Arrondissement staring “vacantly” into space. “Anyone watching her in that somber room today, as the world rushed toward war, would have seen only a shadow of [her] former beauty.” These “babies of the Republic” (as one socialist journal of the period described them) had grown old almost overnight and were now out of step with their time. They belonged to a “sacrificed generation,” one that never experienced war; the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Commune, defining events for their parents, had all occurred early in their childhoods. Now, the advent of the Great War had made their brand of modernity obsolete.
Cambor organizes her narrative around key moments of the Belle Époque, such as the parliamentary Panama Canal Scandal, Victor’s funeral, and the Dreyfus Affair. And she has real gossip to dish as well: Who knew that Flaubert’s teeth were “blackened from years of taking mercury to ward off the gradual encroachment of syphilis”? Or that Zola made it through his “lean years” by feeding on sparrows he would trap outside his attic window?
However, one of the figures in her gilded frame lacks definition: Where Hugo is concerned, the narrative stalls. Primary-source material on her is scarce—Cambor has to rely on a few autobiographical writings, the diary of Edmond de Goncourt, and what the press wrote about her, though she tries to fill in the gaps with somewhat insipid conjectures about what Hugo must have thought and felt. The result is a less-than-convincing case for rescuing Victor’s granddaughter from historical neglect; she seems, rather, to serve a hinge function in Cambor’s story, having married and divorced both Daudet and Charcot. Hugo is upstaged here by her aunt Adèle, whom Cambor profiles as part of her account of how Victor doted on his granddaughter.
Cambor is also surprisingly forgiving of Daudet’s anti-Semitism, which she attributes to his family and the epoch; her discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, halfway into the book, does not sufficiently explore the conflict between Daudet and his father’s old friend Zola as they led opposite charges in the campaign. The Dreyfus Affair, which Proust famously called a “social kaleidoscope” due to the way it scrambled and recomposed the social scene, is in Cambor’s account an “eruption” that “only exacerbated and prolonged the sense of unavoidable social disintegration,” but she does not thoroughly examine its effects—its recomposition, to stay with Proust’s metaphor. Nevertheless, this portrait of a prewar Lost Generation allows us to take an against-the-grain look at a volatile moment in French history, when these famous “children of” stood poised on the edge of greatness but never made it past the threshold.
Lauren Elkin publishes the Paris-based blog Maîtresse.