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France, Fin de Siecle by Eugen Weber (Harvard University: $20; 294 pp., illustrated)

September 14, 1986|Lynn Hunt | Hunt is author of, most recently, "Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution" (University of California Press, 1984). and

In the 1880s and 1890s, the French thought they were not just approaching the end of a century ( fin de siecle in French) but the end of an entire era. Decay, degeneration and decadence seemed to be everywhere. The great nation of Napoleon's time had fallen behind the Germans in population and industrial output, crime was increasing and morality was waning. The economy was stuck in a prolonged depression, and France was leading the world in the number of alcoholics. Fashionable people ate strawberries soaked in ether at their dinner parties, and the newly popular scandal sheets were filled with tales of sodomy, sapphism, and transvestitism in the highest circles. No wonder the doctors, poets, novelists and critics were all preoccupied with nervousness and neurosis.

The epoch immortalized by Marcel Proust in "Remembrance of Things Past" has now found a historian equal to the task of capturing its tones and textures. In this engaging and nicely illustrated book, the eminent UCLA historian Eugen Weber shows that history can be fun and instructive at the same time. The two opening chapters on "Decadence" and "Transgressions" immediately draw the reader into the emotional swirls of the upper-class, aesthetic life. But then the author shows his true purpose, which is to contrast the often exaggerated, upper-class fascination with decadence to the very real changes that were transforming the lives of ordinary people. The bicycle, the extension of railways, street lights, the building of the Paris metro and the conquest of cholera, smallpox and rabies meant a better life for everyone.

Not that everything changed all at once, however. Weber is already well-known (in his book "Peasants Into Frenchmen") for the view that French rural life changed slowly and fitfully. Here he extends that observation to the cities as well. In many of the suburbs of the big cities, families lived in dwellings with no electricity, no gas, no running water and no windows right up into the 20th Century. Even the upper classes bathed only once a month (women washed themselves through their bath shirts!), long hair was hardly ever washed and toothbrushes were rare. Still, more and more people were able to afford meat and white bread, and there was growing sentiment that clean streets, clean water and clean air were essential to public health.

Some of the best chapters of this book describe the growth of new leisure-time activities. With the theatrophone one could dial a play, recital or meetings of the National Assembly (though in 1900, the French had many fewer phones than the residents of New York City). As the new device's name suggested, the most popular of all the arts was the theater. In the 1880s and 1890s, half a million Parisians went to the theater once a week. The lower classes favored melodramas, music-halls and cafe concerts (as well as an occasional public execution). The lucky few had always left town for more pleasant spots during the heat of summer, but now seaside resorts and health spas developed huge clienteles, thanks to the railroad. Great palace hotels were being built with free electric light, bathrooms on all floors, elevators, telephone booths and luxurious restaurants. Special trains took the faithful to shrines such as Lourdes, which attracted more than 300,000 pilgrims a year in the early 1900s. The new mass-circulation sports newspapers carried news about the Tour de France (first run in 1903), auto racing (from the 1890s) and horse racing. Rugby and soccer teams were being established in the major cities.

Weber has a great talent for making the patterns of everyday life seem surprisingly fascinating, but his definition of everyday life is actually quite limited. It excludes almost everything political. A few excellent pages on the dramatic terrorist acts of the anarchists liven up an otherwise perfunctory chapter on the crises and financial scandals of the still-fragile Third Republic. The Alfred Dreyfus Affair seems hardly more important than the death of President Felix Faure in the arms of his mistress after lunch.

The 1880s and 1890s saw more than the introduction of telephones and electric lights; the new republican generation lived through the installation of an ambitious lay educational system, increasing conflict between church and state, the expansion of the French colonies and the growth of trade unions and Socialist parties. Royalism declined as a serious alternative, and France joined the still very small ranks of liberal democracies. Bathtubs, public transport and sports clubs appeared all over Western Europe; so, for that matter, did the use of drugs and complaints about decadence. What distinguished France was the particular nature of the country's political development. A history of everyday life might properly include some attention to the ordinary person's experience of education, politics and imperial propaganda. If only someone could write such a book with Weber's verve.

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