A Tale of Two Cities: Portrays a City’s Woes


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In a past post, I asked whether Charles Dickens’ description of Paris during the French revolution truly reflected the same city that Ben Franklin had visited shortly before the revolution. (A good example of just how much the aristocracy could continue to remain out of touch with the constantly degenerating living conditions would be the Letters of a 50-year-old Woman, her account of returning to Paris as an emigre).

Although Dickens centralizes his story around the St. Antoine district, a stone’s throw from the Bastille, you can read a compelling document of the times, Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s “Tableau de Paris” which describes the St. Marcel neighborhood (13th arrondissement). “There, a man holes up in a garret, evades the police and the hundred eyes of their stool pigeons, almost like a tiny insect escapes the most concentrated effort to find him.”
(Does this sound vaguely familiar?). It’s exactly at this moment in A Tale of Two Cities when Dickens actually begins to get his plot rolling. I would love to know if he had read these lines of Mercier’s book and said ‘aha’.

The miserable conditions are obvious enough – so much so that even the sometimes romantic exaggerations of the 19th-century really don’t seem to fall short of the actual conditions of the day for working class Paris.

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Fodor’s description of Paris neighborhoods would have you bellieve that the ‘grimy’ 13th arrondissement doesn’t offer much for visitors – but that’s far from the truth. The 13th may well be one of Paris’s most fascinating and overlooked neighborhoods (and you must look for its little pockets of treasures). In past posts, I’ve mentioned Paris a Velo, C’est Sympa which offers a bicycle tour to some of the 13th’s most charming locales (Le 13eme Insolite). Drop breadcrumbs along the way because it’s hard to find your way back to some of these streets otherwise – unless you have your Plan de Paris and a good memory for street names.

One of my favorite spots in the 13th is the Hopital Pitie-Salpetriere – which started off as a gunpowder depot (salt peter), then a prison, then an asylum for indigent women, prostitutes and the insane.
It’s worth noting that during the French Revolution, the prostitutes were liberated -but the insane were murdered (according to Wikipedia).

Also, you’ll learn at the Wikipedia site that architect Liberal Bruant designed the Salpetriere Chapel in 1675. (He also built Les Invalides).
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(Wikipedia.org photo) (Visit their site for more info about the Hopital Salpetriere.)
The hospital grounds can be a very pleasant place for an afternoon stroll. If you sense the phantoms of past residents are hovering over you – that wouldn’t surprise me one bit.