Thanks so much for the your response to the first book of the Eye Prefer Paris Book of the Month, The Velvet Hours. How did you enjoy it?
I would love your feedback and comments. Click here to be the first person to comment about The Velvet Hours and you will receive a gift copy of our next book, which I will write about below.
Many thanks to Alyson Richman, who agreed to do an interview about The Velvet Hours.
What was the impetus to write The Velvet Hours?
A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me an article that she saw in the newspaper about an apartment in Paris that been mysteriously shuttered for over seventy years and had once belonged to an elusive courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian
As soon as I saw the beautiful and mysterious photographs of the apartment, I knew that there was a novel waiting to be written. I immediately was drawn to the idea of this courtesan, Marthe, who was both a muse to Giovanni Boldini and a collector, herself.
The book is based on a true story: In 2010, a Paris apartment that had been locked up since 1942 was reopened and was found to have been virtually untouched by time. Can you elaborate on the details?
When the apartment was opened, it resembled a time capsule. Thick veils of dust covered sumptuous antiques and gilded mirrors. Most striking of all was a magnificent portrait by the 19th century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini of Madame de Florian that hung over the marble fireplace. Adding to the allure, love letters, written by the artist, were found in Marthe’s vanity. No one knows why Marthe de Florian’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron closed the apartment during WWII, but as a historical novelist I knew I had plenty of rich material to create a novel.
Aside from the abundance of art and antiques that filled the rooms, I was immediately drawn to the portrait of Marthe de Florian. Dressed in a sumptuous gown of pale silk with exuberant cloud-like sleeves that fell seductively off her shoulders, one could see how beguiling Marthe was. Looking at the painting, my mind filled with questions. Who was Marthe de Florian, how did she come to be painted by the famous Boldini? Were they lovers? Or was Boldini’s affection for Marthe unrequited? Who was Marthe’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron? And why did she shut the doors of her grandmother’s elegant apartment and never return to it, yet pay the maintenance on it until her death in 2010?
What did your research entail and did it involve being in Paris for period of time?
Factually, we know little about her life except that she was born Mathilde Beaugiron, the daughter of a laundress and that years later, after several years of working as a seamstress, she renamed herself Marthe de Florian. We also know she had a son by the name of Henri Beaugiron and that he was the father of Solange.
Luckily the photographs of the apartment that were published online when it was opened by Solange’s grandchildren in 2010, gave me a lot of visual guidance for my novel. From looking at the images of Asian porcelains and myriad of oil paintings, one could see that Madame de Florian was an avid collector. The photographs also enabled me to reconstruct the furnishings and illuminate the eclectic taste of its owner.
I also made two trips to Paris. Although the apartment had already been sold and its contents auctioned off (the portrait of Marthe de Florian was sold at auction for close to 3 million dollars,) I wanted to walk through the streets that bordered the apartment on La Square Bruyere and imagine the daily life of Marthe and her granddaughter, Solange. I also met with a costume historian so that I could ensure that the clothes that the two women wore were appropriate to the time periods in which they lived. On top of that, I also researched the rituals of beauty that women of cultivated pleasure like Marthe took to maintain themselves. All the descriptions in the novel about Marthe’s toilette -from her bath steeped in lime blossom to her using an exfoliant made from crushed pearls- are based on fact.
And lastly, I was lucky enough to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and have two paintings by Boldini pulled from storage. Looking at his exuberant brushwork proved very helpful when writing the scenes in the novel when Boldini paints Marthe.
Was the character Marthe based on a real life person or mélange of similar women?
Although I tried to maintain certain facts about Marthe’s life, such as her being born the daughter of a laundress and reinventing herself, from her original life as Mathilde Beaugiron, I also incorporated a lot of my own grandmother into her personality. My grandmother was a very feminine woman who loved beautiful things and a lot of her went into the way I wrote Marthe.
The story of the makers of ancient Haggadah, which is such a strong part of the book, is that based on fact?
I loved the idea of using the Haggadah as metaphor for Solange’s exodus with Alex and his family from Paris just before the Germans occupy the city. I thought the parallel would be an interesting one. In order to make sure I got the descriptions of the ancient Haggadah correct, I visited the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, and looked at some of the ones in their collection. I also was lucky enough to speak on the telephone with Doris Hamburg who worked on the conservation of the famous Washington Haggadah. She was an essential resource for me in the scenes where Solomon is forced to restore parts of the Haggadah when they reach Marseille.
What was some of the feedback and comments you received from your readers?
I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful, positive feedback from readers. I think people love the fact that the novel was inspired by a true story, and also that it has a lot of layers woven into to it. One of the themes of “The Velvet Hours” is that it is not the monetary value of our possessions at the end of our life, but rather the stories that they hold. From the pearl necklace that Madame de Florian wears in her portrait, to the vanity that holds her love letters tied in satin ribbons, the people who gifted these to Marthe were the most precious. And I think that’s a message that warms a lot of hearts.
Now on to the book for March, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King.
Mad Enchantment tells the full story behind the creation of the Water Lilies, as the horrors of World War I came ever closer to Paris and Giverny and a new generation of younger artists, led by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, were challenging the achievements of Impressionism. By early 1914, French newspapers were reporting that Monet, by then seventy-three, had retired his brushes. He had lost his beloved wife, Alice, and his eldest son, Jean. His famously acute vision--what Paul Cezanne called “the most prodigious eye in the history of painting”--was threatened by cataracts. And yet, despite ill health, self-doubt, and advancing age, Monet began painting again on a more ambitious scale than ever before. Linking great artistic achievement to the personal and historical dramas unfolding around it, Ross King presents the most intimate and revealing portrait of an iconic figure in world culture.
The book has received rave reviews internationally and was shortlisted for a number of book awards. I personally can’t wait to read Mad Enchantment.
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Click here to be the first person to comment about The Velvet Hours and receive a gift copy of Mad Enchantment.