Edward Rutherford has written a series of books about different places, London, New York, Dublin. He appeared to talk about his latest historical novel, Paris at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and was the embodiment of a romantic Parisian; in orange jumper and black beret. Edward has been in love with Paris since he was eight years old. His family is English but they have a tremendous connection with France. His father was brought up in France and they have relatives who live in Paris.
Rutherford described Paris as a captivating city; of revolution, seduction and dark secrets. A city that always retains its sensuous grace; where Mediterranean warmth and clear light collide with northerly order. He told a fascinating, humorous and enchanting tale of the history of Paris, his life, and how these play out in Paris.
The novel is a big family multi- generational saga, reminiscent of Ken Follett, with a love of buildings and rich with romance. The families were chosen out of the necessity of history, to portray the diversity of French society, and reflected his own experiences. The strangest stories in the novel are the ones that really happened.
The structure opens in La Belle Époque, traces back through centuries, to the first war, the resistance, 1968 student revolution to modern France; the city of romance, dreams and scholars. Edward would have loved to live in La Belle Époque period of La Folie Bergerè, and brothels, which he assured us he knows only from research. Back then, he told us, the hills surrounding Monmartre were covered with vineyards and gypsum mines, which is where the term ‘plaster of Paris’ originated.
It was the age of impressionists. There was an enormous colony of painters at Giverny, which was featured in Paris with the love story of a girl and her mother who both fall in love with the American painter’s son. This mirrors Rutherford’s own love story at 19 when he fell in love with a 35 year old. The purity of romance in Victorian Paris is embedded in the story; horse chestnuts blossoming at Notre Dame and old-fashioned chivalry.
Rutherford talked about the history of the Eiffel tower, which nobody liked until it was built, and Parisians still love to hate. During the war the French built a fake Paris to fool the Germans at nights. The real Paris was blacked out and the fake Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower, lit up. Hitler wanted to go up Eiffel tower in 1940, Parisians were determined he shouldn’t go so Thomas Gascon, Rutherford’s ex-girlfriend’s brother cut the cables.
The novel reveals how the French treated the Jewish in Paris. Rutherford was concerned with how to handle anti-seminism and he told the story honestly. Most of Europe, he said, were anti-semitic, particularly the upper classes.
French losses were massive in the 1st and 2nd world war. The English think the French didn’t do that much, which is totally untrue. The French mutinied across the entire front including 50 divisions. The French government silenced this news for 50 years. Rutherford still treasures a shell he was given from the trenches, which weaved its way into the novel.
Melding of history and fiction for Edward is tricky. History, he said, gives you amazing plots but it’s also about our ancestry. For this reason, he remained loyal to history. Novels, he claimed, seep insidiously in our minds so authors need to be accurate and responsible. When asked what the virtues and qualities of a historical novelist are, he replied he’s not keen on virtue and he likes vices – how very French!
Paris has seduced me for years and Rutherford fuelled my excitement to planned return in July to the city of romance to celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary. I’m going to savour Rutherford’s Paris to whet my appetite for everything French. And I’m going to take his advice – if in doubt I will appeal to the French’s innate sense of chivalry.