Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City and Dirty Bertie, an English King Made in France are two books that examine the same period of history in very different ways. Both explore the development of Paris and London from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century and, in particular, the mutual influence the two cities had on each other as they were ‘coming of age’. But while Tales of Two Cities examines the relationship between Paris and London, Dirty Bertie is an exploration of the relationship one man – King Edward VII – had with France and, in particular, with Parisian society.
Tales of Two Cities by Jonathan Conlin provides a fascinating insight into the development of Paris and London. Amongst other things, the book looks at the invention of the apartment building, the gradual establishment of dining out as an acceptable social activity, music hall and dancing culture, and the construction of large-scale suburban cemeteries. Conlin demonstrates that though there are many things we consider quintessentially French, or downright British, the reality of how those things came to be is rarely so clear-cut. For example, he explains that “the dance known in France today as ‘French cancan’ […] was a fusion of Parisian cancan and London skirt dancing, evolving as performers travelled between the two cities, adapting their routines to suit what they thought were local tastes.”
Dirty Bertie is written by Stephen Clarke and is the first book of his I have read, though A Year in the Merde and 1000 Years of Annoying the French are on my list, too. Dotted with highly amusing jibes at the French (“And [Bertie] understood the French character – they were always at their most aggressive just before letting themselves be seduced.”), the book tells the story of the young (and not so young) King Edward VII’s exploits with Parisian actresses, aristocrats and ladies of the night, as well as his lifelong love of all things French; of how he defied his mother (Queen Victoria) and, later, simply disregarded his wife (Queen Alexandra) by pursuing a series of mistresses and developing a strong playboy reputation. The book also casts a favourable, almost certainly exaggerated, light on Bertie’s involvement in diplomacy. If Clarke is to be believed, Bertie was instrumental in the signing of the entente cordiale in 1904 and, had he still been on the throne in 1914, the First World War could have been avoided. Not sure about that one.
I read Dirty Bertie straight after Tales of Two Cities, which turned out to be an inspired decision. Though Clarke and Conlin take very different approaches to Anglo-French relations, there are many overlaps and I found myself drawing a lot of parallels between the two. For example, the social joints described in Tales of Two Cities are the very places Edward VII is seen frequenting in Dirty Bertie; the Haussmannization of Paris examined in detail by Conlin is also the backdrop to many of Bertie’s visits to Paris, described by Clarke. Both books also deal with the grimier nature of nineteenth-century Paris and as such have a lot in common with Luc Sante’s The Other Side of Paris. An unlikely yet surprisingly complementary pairing, these two books have provided me with an entertaining look at Paris’ relationship with London and, of course, with Edward VII, the most Francophile of all British monarchs.