Travelling by Book to Paris, Meeting Fascinating People, Finding a Terribly Strange Bed, and then Moving On …

I have been visiting the twenties:

I am delighting in reading Flappers by Judith Mackrell. I have met Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Tamara de Lempicka, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker. Six fascinating women who between them spent many year in, and made a huge impact on, the City of Paris.

The only sad thing is that one book isn’t nearly enough space to tell me all I want to know about their lives, and so I’ll be searching out more books. I have the first volume of Diana Cooper’s autobiography, I have Laura Claridge’s biography of Tamara de Lempicka, and I have a library catalogue to search.

But before any of that I will be meeting Zelda and Scott again, because Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

And I’ve been reminded of others I must read more about who crossed their paths. Natalie and Romaine: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks by Diana Souhami is already on my bedside table.


And I have been back to the previous century:

When I noticed that Wilkie Collins had set a story in Paris I set my heart on tracking down a copy of A Terribly Strange Bed. It wasn’t at all difficult to find, you can find the full text here, and my only disappointment was that it was a short story rather than the novella I had been led to expect.

I met a young man with a tale to tell. He was in Paris with a friend, and they set out to one evening in search of excitement.

“For Heaven’s sake,” said I to my friend, “let us go somewhere where we can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter thrown over it all. Let us get away from fashionable Frascati’s, to a house where they don’t mind letting in a man with a ragged coat, or a man with no coat, ragged or otherwise.” “Very well,” said my friend, “we needn’t go out of the Palais Royal to find the sort of company you want. Here’s the place just before us; as blackguard a place, by all report, as you could possibly wish to see.”

Our young man won. And then he won again. And again. His friend suggested that he had won enough, that they should move on, but he wouldn’t listen. He was, in his own words ‘ gambling drunk.’

He broke the bank, and then he celebrated until he really was drunk.

It was fortunate that there was a good man, and old soldier, present to offer wise counsel.

“Listen, my dear sir,” said he, in mysteriously confidential tones–“listen to an old soldier’s advice. I have been to the mistress of the house (a very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to impress on her the necessity of making us some particularly strong and good coffee. You must drink this coffee in order to get rid of your little amiable exaltation of spirits before you think of going home–you must, my good and gracious friend! With all that money to take home to-night, it is a sacred duty to yourself to have your wits about you. You are known to be a winner to an enormous extent by several gentlemen present to-night, who, in a certain point of view, are very worthy and excellent fellows; but they are mortal men, my dear sir, and they have their amiable weaknesses. Need I say more? Ah, no, no! you understand me! Now, this is what you must do–send for a cabriolet when you feel quite well again–draw up all the windows when you get into it–and tell the driver to take you home only through the large and well-lighted thoroughfares. Do this; and you and your money will be safe. Do this; and to-morrow you will thank an old soldier for giving you a word of honest advice.”

He took his advice, but he found himself in a terribly strange bed and terribly strange things began to happen ….

I shall say no more.

It’s a simple story, the way it unfolds is not entirely surprising, but it’s told very effectively by a masterful storyteller.

And it left me wanted to read something else from the nineteenth century. And so I’ve just begun to read Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, and after just a few pages I was hooked.

So my Paris in July is going rather well …

10 responses

  1. Don’t you love it when a book takes you to amazing times and places…like Paris in the Twenties? I love to travel in books…especially when I can’t afford to travel in real life.

  2. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on the Souhami bio – I like her books in general, but this one had an unusual quirk. (I’m assuming it’s the same book – my edition is called Wild Girls)

    • Yes, it is the same book. Diana Souhami writes in the introduction to the new edition that she was never happy with the original title (which was imposed on her) and so when she was gives the option of changing it she did.

  3. Armchair travel is one of my wife’s favorite genres. I recently bought her “One American Woman Fifty Italian Men” by Lynne Ashdown, and she loved it, but she read it so quickly I’m now looking for a new one to get for her. I might look in to “Flappers” for her birthday coming up. Thanks for the post and idea.

  4. So often the simplest ideas for stories are the most memorable ones; I don’t think I’ve ever read short fiction by Wilkie Collins, but this story sounds very satisfying. Happy P-i-J-ing!

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