Tales of Two Cities, by Jonathan Conlin – review
Tobias Grey 15 June 2013
The figure of the flâneur, captured by Degas in ‘Place de la Concorde’, had its origin in Mr Spectator
Atlantic Books, pp.320, £25, ISBN: 9781848870260
In Jonathan Conlin’s Tales of Two Cities the little acknowledged but hugely significant histoire croisée of two rival metropoles gets a long overdue airing. For, like it or not, London and Paris would be much duller places if neither had deemed fit to discover the other.
Oddly, up until now no historian has ever explored this fecund, though sometimes grudging, exchange of ideas and cultural mores. Perhaps it required an outsider such as Conlin (though resident in London, he originates from New York) to martial the necessary objectivity.
Previously the author of The Nation’s Mantelpiece, the first ever history of London’s National Gallery, Conlin brings an archivist’s industry and an anthropologist’s gift for cross-cultural comparison to this history of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The book is divided into six chapters — the restless house, the street, the restaurant, the dance, the underworld and the dead and buried — each devoted to one aspect of city life that emerged from, or was heavily influenced by, traffic between London and Paris.
It is a surprise to discover the debt Paris owes London for its fine dining and high-kicking nightlife in particular. The first bombshell gets dropped on page 96 where Conlin stresses ‘the English origin of pre-revolutionary Parisian restaurants,’ and notes that the fad for dining out first became widespread in London’s chop-houses and taverns at the end of the 17th century. Though Parisian master-chefs like François Vatel undoubtedly took the art of cooking to another level, English cuisine was not always so frowned upon by the French as some like to suggest. When a certain Monsieur Duclos took over the reins of the first restaurant to open in Paris, the Hôtel d’Aligre, in 1769, he did not hesitate to advertise ‘nouvelle cuisine à la mode anglaise’.
(This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 June 2013)