When I tell people that my new novel is set against the backdrop of the Paris Floods of 1910, I tend to get blank looks. What floods? Well, these ones.
I saw some of these images online around the time of the centenary and, as these things do, they burrowed deep into my mind when I was thinking about writing a new book. Paris at this time was the city of the future, a place where nature had, it seemed, been firmly put in her place. The new métro was being extended; there were telephones and electric lights; hotels proudly proclaimed they had gas on all floors; there were cars on the streets and the first Paris Air Show held in 1909 proclaimed that man now had control of the skies as well as the earth.
The floods of late January 1910 showed how quickly that apparent control could disappear as many of Paris’s innovations were turned against her. The swelling river found ways to break through the embankments via forgotten waterways and the new sewers and métro tunnels, causing flooding in areas that were a good way away from the river. The pavements gave way leaving sink holes gaping in the middle of Hausmann’s elegant and ordered boulevards. The Chamber of Deputies was reachable only by boat and what seemed on the first days to be a mild diversion, a few streets turned into a little Venice on the outskirts of town, became a frightening and disastrous threat. The sound of wreckage hitting the Paris bridges was said to sound like artillery fire. The electricity began to fail and the municipal clocks all stopped as the water fought modernity and won. There were reports that the Eiffel Tower itself was shifting and in danger of collapse. The glories of the Louvre were saved only by the heroic actions of workers and soldiers who raced to keep building up the embankment, protecting the Palace as the waters continued to rise and rise. Paris was awed and, perhaps briefly, humbled. Saint Sulpice was thrown open to shelter refugees flooded out of their homes, the theatres held special benefits to collect contributions for those affected and in the end there was a sense of the city, so divided by inequalities in wealth, coming together for support and comfort. The waters did not care if you were rich or poor, and though as always the poor suffered most, they did not this time suffer alone.
The image of the city, so ordered and confident, being eaten away by forces it could not control or understand became the central image of my novel. The idea that just when you feel most secure the waters might be eating away at the foundations haunted me through the writing. I finished it feeling we should all be suspicious of what seems like solid ground.
For a non-fiction account of the floods, I recommend Paris Under Water by Jeffrey H. Jackson
My novel, The Paris Winter, is published on 11th April.