In 1867, Tsar Alexander II, nicknamed “the Liberator” had reigned over the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for 12 years – a “Russian Spring” that would continue until the Tsar’s assassination on March 13, 1881. In France, Napoleon III governed a country caught between tradition and the dawn of the modern era. A time in which frivolity contrasted with the threat of popular uprising. Three years later, on July 19, 1870, the French would declare war on Prussia. But let us look back to the way things were in 1867…
The people of 1867 were above all occupied with the upcoming World’s Fair.
The international event opened on April 1, and presented the first “Gallery of Machines” whose creation had been entrusted to a young businessman by the name of Gustave Eiffel. The Fair was held until November 3 on the Champ-de-Mars greenspace and the islands in the River Seine near Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris, and aimed to showcase the glory of the Second Empire. The exhibits formed a museum of labor history and industry developments, featuring a section on the “improvements in workers’ morale and equipment.” The ten million visitors – including Tsar Alexander II, William I of Prussia, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and the Emir Abdelkader – were introduced to innovations such as aluminum, the hydraulic elevator, the deep-sea diving suit, and a hot air balloon that the Empress Eugenie dared to step into. In the foreword to the Fair’s guide, the exiled Victor Hugo wrote that “in the 20th century, there will be an extraordinary nation, an illustrious, rich, thinking, peaceful country, cordial towards the rest of humanity. This nation’s capital will be Paris, but it will not be named France. It will be called Europe…”
After publishing Crime and Punishment in 12 monthly instalments the previous year Dostoyevsky released the full edition in 1867. Zola followed suit, publishing his third novel in the journal L’Artiste. “How is one to impose oneself when one has the misfortune of being born in the same era as Hugo and Balzac?” worried the young author, just 27 at the time. Alongside these literary developments, change was also afoot in the political class. Karl Marx published Capital, and the German thinker of the Russian Revolution claimed it was “probably the most fearsome missile ever to have been fired at the head of the bourgeoisie.”
Meanwhile, the public flocked to the Palais-Royal to watch the 100th performance of Offenbach’s successful operetta La Vie Parisienne, “written by young people whose spirit and cheer are quite of their time,” reviewed Le Figaro – a four-page satirical weekly newspaper founded in 1826 by journalist Maurice Alhoy and writer and politician Étienne Arago, and which is now published daily in modern France.
Baron Gondremarck in La Vie Parisienne. Drawing by Draner.