There is much to like in this stand-alone novel by Imogen Robertson as she takes us back to La Belle Époque Paris, where Maude Heighton’s role as impoverished student painter is easier to accept and appreciate than her less appropriate deeds of derring-do with Christian Morel and his younger sister, Miss Sylvie. Money is paid, connections are formed, passions indulged, and an unexpected pang affects Maude in the form of a distant warning. Maude says nothing to her best friend, Tanya, about Sylvie’s opium, or about Morel, who seems on the surface to be “such a gentleman.” For her part, Tanya is worried about Maude: she’s far too thin and too pale for a girl about to face a Paris winter.
Paris is awash with educated Englishmen and women just like Maude who are all too willing and eager to give lessons. Studying by day at the renowned artist’s studio Lafond Academie, Maude is poor and often hungry, hoping to survive yet another year so she can paint as much as she likes. But things change when Maude is offered the chance to be a live-in companion to Miss Sylvie, “this sickly young woman” who wishes to spend her free hours sketching the Paris streets and who “must have some respectable woman to accompany her.”
While Sylvie is a lady with some knowledge of art and Morel is debonair and enthusiastic enough, Maude finds herself flawed by the rapidity with which she descends into Paris’ dark underbelly. Describing the hardscrabble life of Maude as well as the existence of Yvette, Laford’s down-and-out artist’s model, Robertson looks for ways that both girls can escape their penury. In this city of light, we find that misery is excepted, a contrast most evident in the character of Tanya, a Russian of some wealth who, in “her cloud of furs and fragrance,” is under pressure to marry someone of her own station.
Maude’s ultimate betrayal is the crux of the novel, but Robertson also focuses on Tanya and her need to pursue her happiness without sacrificing the world she’s accustomed to (Tanya is much like Jane Austen’s heroines). Perhaps then Tanya is the real spirit of Paris, the place that Maude has failed to become part of: “bright, beautiful modern, and full of light.” Paris soon is “yanking each copper from Maude’s hand,” giving her back nothing but aching bones and loneliness. Spending her evenings alone in cheap lodgings while reading and sketching in poor light, Maude thinks of herself rather wise to the ways of the world—that is, until she came to Paris.
The pivotal moment in naïve Maude’s life comes about halfway through the novel when beautiful, vulnerable Sylvie asks her to buy some opium. Soon this fear and excitement of doing something forbidden taints Maude’s life, affecting every aspect of her world until dire consequences are realized and there’s a sense that Maude’s storybook existence will come full circle. When Maude and Tanya visit wealthy American Madame de Civray, a “catty gossip” who with her profusion of canvases offers a fresh revelation and a sense of comfort, it is Maude who will yet again shut away her feelings about her past in Darlington, even from the women she has grown closest to.
From the wild, animalistic paintings that “come snorting and stamping” into Paris’s many salons to Maude’s supper at Maxim’s, the images coming back to her as if refracted through glass, Robertson tells of Maude’s dire circumstances then sets them against the catastrophic 1910 Great Flood of Paris. One sense keenly that Maude’s situation with Morel and Sylvie is a fake, that her fairy-tale life with them is going to spiral downward with treacherous repercussions. The voices of Maude, Tanya, and Yvette, meanwhile, form a courageous feminine triumvirate of sorts, the three women determined to seek revenge on those who will lie and steal, even kill for money.
There’s the sin of anger where those who commit it are soon surrounded by a “rank fog of revenge.” Robertson beautifully encapsulates Maude’s fear and fragility in this wild, debauched life that lies beneath Edwardian Paris. As the streets sink and the city is gradually throttled by her own river, the author exposes the flaneurs and thieves, the street-hawkers and shop girls, the murderers, philanthropists, chancers and visionaries, and all of the ugly blandishments of Paris, wrapped round its dirty, defiant soul.