Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Chevalier's Thermometer Sets the Scene

"The cold on the 8th of February, 186-, was more intense than the Parisians had experienced during the whole of the severe winter which had preceded it, for at twelve o'clock that on that day Chevalier's thermometer, so well known by the denizens of Paris, registered three degrees below zero. The sky was overcast and full of threatening signs of snow, while the moisture on the pavement and roads had frozen hard, rendering traffic of all kinds exceedingly hazardous. The whole great city wore an air of dreariness and desolation, for even when a thin crust of ice covers the waters of the Seine, the mind involuntarily turns to those who have neither food, shelter, not fuel." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1)

Caught in the Net opens like a sensation novel. The time and place are precise, modern and familiar - we are in Paris in the 1860s. Whatever happens after this happens close to home. The setting is made even more ordinary and precise by the reference to 'Chevalier's thermometer, so well known ...'

The Chevaliers were a famous family of instrument makers and opticians. Their shop was first established in 1760 at 31 Quai de l'Horloge by Louis-Vincent Chevalier (1744-1804). Later they also had a shop at 158 Palais-Royal. Their name stood for elegance and quality. The Maison Chevalier was particularly famous for microscopes, camera obscura-devices, but also sold opera glasses, barometers and other instruments. The Chevaliers were involved in the early years of photography. Louis Daguerre (1789-1851) knew the Chevaliers; he was introduced to his long-time collaborator Joseph Niepce by  Jacques Louis Vincent Chevalier (1770-1841). There is a curious thermometer connection here too: in 1835 mercury vapours from a broken thermometer led Daguerre to discover a method of reducing the exposure time of his pictures from eight hours to half an hour. (Source: http://www.historiccamera.com). For a good short summary on the Chevaliers, although in German, see http://www.kambeck.com).

Chevalier's thermometer is mentioned in Victo Hugo's Les Miserables (1862; Vol III, Chapter 20): "when you want to know whether it is cold, you look in the papers to see what the engineer Chevalier's thermometer says about it. We, it is we who are thermometers. We don't need to go out and look on the quay at the corner of the Tour de l'Horologe, to find out the number of degrees of cold; we feel our blood congealing in our veins, and the ice forming round our hearts, ..."

Parisians would have been familiar with the Chevalier's shop windows. A large thermometer next to the shop entrance may have been enough of a landmark to be featured in images of Paris:


 (by HonorĂ© Victorin Daumier.
"The thermometer of the engineer Chevalier was right... at 10 degrees the large rivers as well as the noses have cought a cold... just imagine that it might take three weeks for my nose to thaw!...," plate 5 from Paris L'hiver, 1845. Source: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/7786)

The Chevalier thermometer clearly measured the official temperature of Paris, its numbers were even reported in the US: in 1820, Philadeplphia's The Rural Magazine, and Literary Evening Fire-side (Vol 1. No 4, 1820, p153) reported in its  "Miscellany": "At Paris on the 11th, the thermometer of the engineer Chevalier, stood at 11 below 0. The Seine was frozen over." (Source: books.google.co.uk/books?id=24A4AQAAMAAJ)

In addition to the place and date, thanks to Chevalier's thermometer, we are given the air temperature at a specific point in time. After this almost scientifically defined setting, the opening paragraph turns romantic and displays other familiar aspects of sensation fiction. Bad weather is coming: "the sky was ... full of threatening signs" and movement was "exceedingly hazardous." Forces of nature are foreshadowing dramatic events. Next, the familiar urban environment takes on an ominous character: "The whole great city wore an air of dreariness and desolation." If you wanted to take this textual analysis to extreme, you might argue that by referring to the thin crust of ice that covers the Seine, the narrative warns that appearances are deceptive and beneath smooth surfaces hide ugly, murky depths. This of course, is a fundamental principle of sensation fiction: there will be dark secrets. Finally, as "the mind involuntarily turns to those who have neither food, shelter, not fuel," it is precisely these kinds of unfortunates that we expect to meet next; our minds turn in the direction of the narrator's words.

The opening paragraph of Caught in the Net is excellent in the way it establishes the time and place (close to the reader's own world), makes it dramatic (cold, desolate) and hints at things to come (poverty, suffering, struggle). This is a text-book opening for a sensation novel: it establishes a world that is contemporary and familiar to the readers, and at the same time threatening. It is an ordinary urban setting, but the exceptionally cold weather makes it alien and hostile.

We move to a cheap lodging house Hotel de Perou, a miserable, run-down place of "extreme shabbiness." Its location is very precise, we should be able to find it without any trouble: it "stands nor twenty steps from the Place de Petit Point" (Caught in a Net, Chapter 1). We first meet Rose alone in her lodgings there. She appears to be a traditional romantic heroine (but there are warning signs in her description):

"Rose was an exquisitely beautiful girl about eighteen years of age. She was very fair; her long lashes partially concealed a pair of steely blue eyes, and to certain extent relieved their hard expression. Her ripe, red lips, which seemed formed for love and kisses, permitted a glimpse of a row of pearly teeth. Her bright waving hair grew low down upon her forehead, and such of it had escaped from the bondage of a cheap comb, with which it was fastened, hung in wild luxuriance over her exquisitely shaped neck and shoulders." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1).

A while later, Paul Violaine enters the room, he looks a little like he could be the hero of the tale:

"He was a young man of twenty-three, of slender figure, but admirably proportioned. ... A slight silky moustache concealed his upper lip, and gave his features that air of manliness in which they would have otherwise been deficient. His curly chestnut hair fell gracefully over his brow upon which an expression of pride was visible, and enhanced the peculiar, restless glance of his large, dark eyes." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1)

Paul and Rose are young and beautiful, and poor and in love. Paul arrives in the lodgings without bringing either money or food, and Rose is not happy about this. In the course of their argument it becomes apparent that they are neither brother and sister nor a married couple. Paul laments that matters used to be better between them: "... it was in those days that you loved me." And Rose is only eighteen now! This is a young couple leading a fast life.

The argument is interrupted by "an old man standing upon the threshold. ... He had high, thick brows, and a red nose; a long, thick grisly beard covered the rest of his countenance. He wore a pair of spectacles with coloured glasses, which to a great extent, concealed the expression of his face. His whole attire indicated extreme poverty." (Ibid.)

Despite his appearance, the man, who introduces himself as "Daddy Taintaine" offers Paul a loan of five hundred francs and after a little persuasion Paul accepts; "the two young people who, through their evil instincts led them to be greedy and covetous, were yet unskilled in the world's ways." (Ibid.) Tantaine also offers introduce to his friend Mascarin: "if he takes a fancy to you, - decides to push you, your future is assured, and you will have no doubts as to getting on." (Ibid.)

The young couple are an engaging mix of innocence and greed. Daddy Tantaine is a suitably dubious character to tempt them. The opening set-up of Gaboriau's novel is promising: Paul and Rose, morally flawed and pressured by poverty, are caught in a net.

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