Paris in the 1820s: imagining a city in the past

Conciergerie and Pont Neuf - Landmarks of Old Paris
Conciergerie and Pont Neuf – Landmarks of Old Paris

Writing a story with an historical backdrop has all the challenges of fiction writing – plot, character arcs, settings – and also the challenge of creating an accurate and believable world. Setting an historical story in a place like Paris is an even greater challenge, as much of what we see today and consider to be quintessentially “Parisian” was created over a long period of time. Even a few years difference determine what the characters would have seen on their stroll through the city.

I’m working on a story called “The Alchemist of Paris” which is set both in present day Paris and in the 1820s (you’ll be hearing more about “The Alchemist of Paris” in the coming weeks!).

The 1820s was the period after the French revolution and Napoleon, and during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was the time when Paris was beginning to assume its role as the world scientific and cultural capital of the 19th century.

While the plot of “The Alchemist of Paris” is swirling faster than mercury in an alchemist’s bowl, making sure the historical setting was accurate, required some research.

I found it useful to create a list of landmarks.

What our heroine in 1820 would have seen:

  • Place de la Concorde (built 1755) (known as Place Louis XV until the French revolution, then Place de la Revolution during the revolutionary years, then Place de la Concorde in 1795, changing back to Place Louis XV in 1814. In 1830 the square became Place de la Concorde again)
  • Louvre Palace and the Tulieries Gardens
The distinctive buildings of the Louvre palace complex were built prior to the French revolution
The distinctive buildings of the Louvre palace complex were built prior to the French revolution
  • Place Vendôme (1702) and column (1810)
  • Pont Neuf (1607)
  • Notre-Dame (but not in the wide square where it currently stands. The old Notre-Dame church was surrounded by buildings on the medieval Île de la Cité)
  • Conciergerie (built 13th century)
  • Bird Market in the Île de la Cité
  • Père-Lachaise Cemetery (1804)
  • Bièvre River (Paris’ second major river after the Seine. The Bièvre was Paris’ main sewer and was eventually covered over as part of the sanitation measures in the 19th century).
  • Place des Vosges (1612)
Place des Vosges built 1612. Victor Hugo lived in one of the houses - which you can visit today as a museum!
Place des Vosges built 1612. Victor Hugo lived in one of the houses – which you can visit today as a museum!

What our heroine in 1820 would not have seen:

  • The shops and houses on the Pont au Change (due to frequent collapses, all structures on this famous bridge were ordered to be destroyed in 1786)
  • Arc de Triomphe (built between 1833 and 1836) [Although the foundation stones were laid between 1806 and 1811]
  • Champs-Elysées in its current form (although the grand avenue was laid out in the 1700s, the avenue was substantially redesigned in 1834)
  • Opéra House on the Boulevard des Capucines (1874)
  • Madeleine Church (the current neo-classical building was built in the 1830s)
Many of the distinctive grey-roof buildings of Paris were built in the later part of the 19th century
Many of the distinctive grey-roof buildings of Paris were built in the later part of the 19th century
  • Sacré-Coeur Church in Montmartre (built between 1875 and 1914)
  • The Grand Railway stations (there were no trains in 1820!)
  • The Eiffel Tower (1889) (obvious, I know but…)

Have you written a story with an historical setting? Do you have any tips? Share below!

12 responses to “Paris in the 1820s: imagining a city in the past”

  1. An interesting posting thanks. I have written “historical” plays for the stage and (this applies more to people than buildings) a person’s life doesn’t neatly fit into the structure of a play. So I always did what Shakespeare did with Richard III and applied a considerable amount of poetic licence.

    • Good to see you around! Yes, I am aiming for poetic licence too, and trying to avoid anything that interrupts the poetry. I had my character walking over a bridge that had been torn down and another referring to a cemetery that wasn’t there. Setting the story on Mars might be easier 😉 (although you never know)

  2. Very interesting. I had no idea somewhere like Paris would have changed so much over the last 200 years. I’ve always pictured it as looking exactly how it did in the 18th Century (barring a few obvious additions that is). The book concept sounds intriguing…

    • It’s actually quite tricky to get exact dates, because a lot of projects were planned, started and delayed. The foundation stones for the Arc de Triomphe were laid around 1806-1811, but construction of the full arch didn’t happen until twenty years later. The Champs-Elysees would have been an existing thoroughfare, although I did read it was changed and widened.

      I guess the key is not to be too specific, and to check any reference to places. It’s useful to have a general list of landmarks to avoid major historical bloopers!

      I’m quite excited about the story. I hope your own work is going well too!

  3. Researching the factual life of your fictional character, what a wonderful way to create her world for us. And sets you up as a reliable narrator, which opens opportunities too. Did you write, then research or research then write?

    • Interesting question! The story came first, but as I was writing there was so much I realised I needed to confirm. Was my heroine seeing the city of the time? How would she have gone about her daily routine? Although the historical aspects are just background, I want to make sure they are as accurate as possible!

  4. Writing historical fiction does have its challenges and research is the key. I must say, I love researching and writing historical fiction as it allows you to peak in the window of history.
    Your book sounds fascinating MC. Wishing you very best and I look forward to its release. 😀
    cheers, Luciana

    • Thanks Luciana! There is so much to research! Even a simple description needs to be checked. I’m going to visit an historic house built in the 1830s next week, to get a broad idea of the household routine (candles, kitchen, etc) The house is in Sydney, alas, not Paris 😉 but it is a well-to-do house of the era I am writing about.

  5. I’ve written ( not yet published) a historical fantasy romance in 1936 New Orleans. Getting the details right is daunting since many buildings fall or burn down 😕
    My next nove ( prequel) will be set in France early 1800s. I’m reading as much French Revolution timeline info as i can.

    • They both sound like fascinating eras in which to set a story – I’m intrigued that the prequel is set in 1800s France! Even though remnants of the historical world exist today, the characters in historical fiction are walking through a different world altogether, not to mention the things/smells/sounds that they would or would not have noticed. And as you say, so many monuments and buildings that would have defined a place have been destroyed or replaced over the years. A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens is very evocative of the period, even though it was written later.

  6. […] When I was writing The Alchemist of Paris I walked through all these areas, ensuring that Elise’s journeys across Paris were possible. But Elise’s Paris of 1820 was a medieval city, before the grand boulevards and street widening projects of the late 19th century, so much had to be imagined. I compared a historical map with current maps to show the general street pattern and used the place names of the time. If you’d like to know more about what was there in 1820 and what was not, you can read this post. […]

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