I received an interesting challenge this week from Badaude, a fellow Paris-based blogger. On her blog, Badaude had imagined a fantasy gathering of artists with connections to Paris and took this very mixed group on a twenty-first century night out. She then challenged three other Paris bloggers to imagine something similar - given a completely free choice, which artists would we select to accompany us on a night out, and where would we take them? Such conundrums are always fun, but this one would also give me the opportunity to write about some real events that have always fascinated me, and mix them with others that I would have the freedom to invent.
My chosen date is February 1855. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are in Paris with the intention of heading on to Bordeaux where Dickens has ‘business’. They will never make it there because Paris is experiencing a vicious cold snap and snow lays thick on the streets. They are staying in the Hotel Meurice, in an apartment which is “thickly carpeted and as warm as any apartment in Paris can be in such weather”. Wilkie Collins, always a sickly man, has once again been ill, but as Dickens explained in one of his many letters, he is “perfectly cheerful under the stoppage of his wine”.
It is here that I will meet them. As I walk along the corridors trying too find their room, I may come across other ghosts from the past. Queen Victoria perhaps who once stayed here, or better still, Salvador Dali who used to spend at least one month per year at this hotel. His behaviour was often predictably eccentric; on one occasion he asked staff to bring a herd of sheep to his room, then shot at them with a pistol after they had been delivered.
I knock at their door and Dickens answers. Wilkie Collins is standing in front of the fire looking rather unwell, but both men are dressed in coats and boots and are ready to accompany me outside. We descend the stairs then head out northwards on foot. “Where are we going?” asks Dickens. “To eat and drink and meet an old friend of yours” I reply. Collins pulls up his coat collars and says nothing.
We walk through the rapidly changing streets of Paris. Wide boulevards are beginning to replace medieval remnants of the city, and gas lights are now flickering their reflections across the heavy snow. Dickens has visited the city several times before and is always fascinated by the light and life of the place. He has joyfully labelled it ‘wicked’ several times before in letters to Collins, and Collins is naturally eager to sample this debauchery. “I think you will very much appreciate where we are going” I tell them, as if able to read their thoughts.
A few minutes later we arrive at the Boulevard des Italiens. In front of us, the garish golden façade of the fashionable Maison Doree restaurant. “Bonjour Mr Dickens et Mr Collins” says a voice at the entrance. A door opens and throws light out across the face of my third guest. “Mr Charles Baudelaire. Bonjour” replies Dickens, recognising him from one of his previous visits to the city. I take the three guests through the public part of the establishment up towards the private rooms. “Let me introduce you to our final dinner guest” I announce as I open the door to our individual room.
Sitting in the corner is a rather scruffy looking individual with a thick, white beard. As he looks up, the three men cry out as one, “Victor Hugo!”. “Bonjour mes amis” he replies, “your friend here managed to smuggle me in to the city, but just for one evening. Tomorrow I must go back to Guernsey before word gets out that I have returned from exile, but tonight let’s just eat, drink and be merry!”. We have 80,000 different wines to choose from, and Baudelaire and Collins have both been looking keenly at the many females wandering around the corridors. “This is the best of times” says Dickens, “it makes one feel so glad to be alive”. At that moment a waiter who looks strangely like Samuel Beckett arrives. “I wouldn’t go that far Mr Dickens” he says.