When I heard that MK (Mary) Tod’s new historical fiction novel featured Sarah Bernhardt and her hospital during the siege of Paris, I begged Mary for a back story. Here it is, along with an extract from her wonderful novel, and a link to my review. Thank you Mary!
Sarah Bernhardt and the siege of Paris
The Franco-Prussian war occurred in 1870 during the reign of Napoleon III. The French were quickly defeated, and the Prussian army soon surrounded Paris, determined to force the French government to surrender. The siege resulted in thousands of deaths and untold suffering. Tragedy didn’t end there. In the middle of March, radical republicans overthrew the government and established the Paris Commune. For ten weeks, the Commune carried out acts of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, until finally expiring in blood and flames.
A perfect setting for a novel!
Serendipity led me to Sarah Bernhardt’s role in the siege of Paris. A biography of this famous French actress had been on our bookshelves for years. I think it belonged to my mother, and at some point in the last thirty years, I ‘borrowed’ it with the intention of reading Sarah’s story. It remained unread, despite its alluring cover, until I had the idea of writing a novel based on Bernhardt’s life.
As it turned out, Sarah’s life and character did not appeal to me—too many affairs, too extravagant, too self-centered and domineering. I have to like my main characters, and in this case, I wasn’t sure I could. So, the biography went back onto the shelf until deep into writing Paris In Ruins, when I wanted one of my characters to volunteer to nurse the wounded and recalled the story of Bernhardt’s good works during the Franco-Prussian war.
In My Double Life, Bernhardt mentions her decision to establish a hospital, or an ambulance as many of the smaller ones were called then.
“The Odéon Theatre had closed its doors, but I moved heaven and earth to get permission to organise an ambulance in that theatre, and, thanks to Emile de Girardin and Duquesnel, my wish was gratified. I went to the War Office and made my declaration and my request, and my offers were accepted for a military ambulance. The next difficulty was that I wanted food. I wrote a line to the Prefect of Police. A military courier arrived very soon, with a note from the Prefect containing the following lines:
‘Madame—If you could possibly come at once, I would wait for you until six o’clock. If not, I will receive you to-morrow morning at eight. Excuse the earliness of the hour, but I have to be at the Chamber at nine in the morning, and, as your note seems to be urgent, I am anxious to do all I can to be of service to you.’” It was signed Comte de Kératry.
Sarah knew the comte from an earlier time. They had even corresponded when he left France to serve in Mexico. At his office in the Tuileries Palace, she asked for ‘bread, milk, meat, vegetables, sugar, wine, brandy, potatoes, eggs, coffee’, and also asked Kératry to get rid of the gunpowder stored in the theater’s basement. “If Paris were to be bombarded and a shell should fall on the building, we should all be blown up, and that is not the aim and object of an ambulance.”
Kératry must have been entranced by Sarah Bernhardt for he fulfilled all her requests and more.
There are many details in My Double Life about the small hospital at the Odeon Theater and others in The Divine Sarah, that biography I mentioned.
“When at last the casualties were brought in, they arrived in horrifying numbers. Beds were set up in the auditorium, the dressing rooms, the bar, and the foyer. Even the stage was filled with the mutilated and the dying.”
I’ve situated my character Camille Noisette as a volunteer in Sarah’s hospital. A privileged young woman accustomed to servants and parties, Camille is determined to help her fellow Parisians and soon becomes accustomed to the horrors of caring for the wounded including the prevalent use of amputation as a treatment.
Ultimately, Sarah’s hospital is forced to close when the Prussian bombardment begins to destroy buildings in the area. I won’t tell you what happens to Camille—that would give the story away—but here’s a little excerpt from Paris In Ruins to spark your interest.
“Do you know where I might find Madame Bernhardt?” Camille asked an old woman sweeping the black-and-white tiled floor of the theater’s vestibule.
A puzzled look caused her to repeat the question, this time a little louder, and the woman waved at a narrow door tucked behind the grand staircase. “Là-bas,” she said. “Down there.”
“Monique, why don’t you wait for me here?” Camille said, pointing to a low bench. “I’m sure I won’t be very long.”
Following a dimly lit corridor that slanted downward, Camille reached the back of the theater and discovered a series of small rooms and a jumble of props and costumes as well as ladders, lamps, chairs, and a panel where tools of all sizes and shapes hung in an orderly fashion. A light glowed softly in the distance.
She took a few more steps. “Bonjour,” she called. “Is anyone here?”
“Oui, un instant,” came the reply.
A minute later, a dark-haired beauty dressed in black emerged from a doorway, and although Camille could not see her face clearly, she knew from the mass of curls and statuesque posture that she was about to meet Sarah Bernhardt.
“Yes?” Bernhardt said. “If you are an actress, the theater is closed because of the war. I cannot help you. Life is difficult for anyone in the theater. You will have to make do, just as I am, as there are more important matters at hand.” She arched her dark eyebrows and tilted her head as if expecting Camille to leave.
“My name is Camille Noisette, Madame, and I’m not an actress. However, I’ve heard you may soon open the Odéon as a hospital for our wounded, and I would like to help.”
Bernhardt frowned and moved closer to Camille. “Where did you hear such a rumor?” The tone was dismissive, but the voice was pure as crystal.
“It’s not true?” Camille asked.
“I didn’t say that. I merely asked where you heard the rumor.”
“I . . .” Was truth the right strategy? Would Sarah Bernhardt be offended if told of the gossip at Madame Lambert’s salon? The actress’s reputation held her to be impetuous and demanding, a woman of powerful connections and great willpower who was capable of daring risks to have her way. There was no point in lying. “I heard it at an evening salon. One of the gentlemen in attendance speculated that the Comte de Kératry would willingly help you.”
Bernhardt laughed—a deep, throaty sound accompanied by a toss of her head. “Yes. That’s exactly what people would say about me. And they’re right. I am planning to open a hospital here, and I saw the comte yesterday. He is being most generous.” The last sentence was accompanied by a sultry look.
“Well, I would like to help,” Camille said. “I believe you will need volunteers, and although I’m not trained to nurse, I’m sure I can be useful.”
Sarah Bernhardt tapped an index finger against her lips while surveying Camille from head to toe. “You don’t look useful. You look like a young society woman accustomed to having others wait on her. Why would I need someone like that? You’d only get in the way. And I’m having enough difficulty as it is. Both the French Society for Aid to Wounded Soldiers and the French Army medical corps are in hopeless disarray.”
It hadn’t occurred to Camille that her station in life would be a reason for refusal, and for a moment she searched for an adequate reply. “I can . . . I can read to wounded soldiers,” she said. “Or write letters. I can fetch supplies, fold linens, and spoon soup into the mouth of someone too weak to feed himself. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Hmm. You’re right. Those tasks might be useful. Do you know anyone who could provide supplies?”
“Food, medicines, fuel, coffee, clothing, blankets. The hospital will need all sorts of things if we are to treat the wounded and help them heal. The Comte de Kératry told me definitively that they are expecting thousands of casualties, possibly tens of thousands. Many will die before they can be treated, but others we will save. They will all need to eat and drink and be kept warm.”
“Tens of thousands, Madame? But how can that be? Paris is completely fortified.”
When the siege was almost at an end, Sarah wrote this in her memoir: ‘The infamy of war. What has happened to humanity when our enemy deliberately targets buildings flying the ambulance flag? Will there ever be a time when wars are no longer possible? When the ruler who wages war is dethroned and imprisoned? This horror is like poison seeping onto our streets, affecting every man, woman, and child.’
The siege and the insurrection that followed were a turning point for France and Sarah Bernhardt, one of France’s most famous actresses, played an exceptional part.
M.K. Tod writes and blogs about historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS is available for pre-order on AmazonUS, AmazonCanada, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.
Thank Mary, fascinating. Here’s my review: Goodreads Review | Paris in Ruins