The Belle Époque: splendour and contradiction
Brilliant was the era from 1870 to 1914, but in which the myth of progress engendered new lifestyles that were incompatible with moral norms, splendour, and courtesy.
Two impressions come to mind when most people think of the Belle Époque. On the one hand feminine clothing with long dresses, bodices, wide-brimmed hats, etc.; and on the other, men’s clothing with formal evening dress and top hats. Even today on festive occasions men use such clothing as a sign of elegance.
Good manners and courtesy are also a trademark of such clothing which could be seen at concerts and receptions where such behaviour was naturally appreciated and developed to enchant society as a whole. There was also great pleasure in a good conversation.
The art of conversation was very developed and cultivated and centred on courtesy. In other words, courtesy took into account the dignity of one’s interlocutor, whether clergy, noble, or commoner. What was the subject matter? It depended on the social occasion and was as graceful as candles being lit in a grand salon. Its development and choice of phrases were, in fact, circumstantial, but the fruit of a meticulous effort. This is what made it so enchanting.
Rituals like a temporal liturgy
What criticisms should be made? How much should one praise? In case there was an argument, how should one keep the conversation elevated? If invited to dinner, what flowers to offer and what to wear? How should one use the cutlery, napkin and serve oneself of the wine? After the meal, the social rituals indicated the time to leave so as not to be a burden on one’s hosts with prolonged conversation, but also not too soon so as to hurt their feelings.
Every social act had its rules—flexible according to common sense, of course—and constituted a veritable liturgy for temporal society whose purpose was to give one’s neighbour due respect, reverence, and honour. In those days there were a set of values that united the whole of society, and these values were superior to the individual interests and desires. This liturgy was a remnant of Christian charity that taught how to dominate one’s inclinations and control one’s self will in favour of our neighbour.
Thus it was that in the Belle Époque the pleasantness and elegance of social life made it more beautiful. The life of the conversation salon irresistibly attracted all because in human relations courtesy gives a durable pleasure. Courtesy is the best conveyor of respect and friendship: two sentiments that comfort the soul. It makes a person like an angel.
An illustrative example of the time
An example will illustrate this courtesy of those times. In the first years of the 20th century, right in the middle of the Belle Époque, Joaquim Nabuco headed the Diplomatic Corps from Brazil in London. He belonged to a family of politicians, was an intellectual, and liked abstract philosophical and political ideas, which made him a bit absent-minded. One day he received an invitation, beautifully printed, to have dinner at another ambassador’s house. He tried to arrive on time because, even though he was not habitually punctual, in England this was rigorously required. Upon arrival he was promptly attended to by the butler, but nonetheless had to wait longer than usual for the ambassador and his wife to appear. They were very pleasant and happy with Nabuco’s arrival as they were masters in the art of receiving people and encouraging them to speak whether about the exotic forests of Brazil or the recent social movements of the newly founded Republic. This pleased Nabuco greatly. After dinner and an animated conversation, the hosts accompanied him to the door, which was opened by the doorman. At this moment the ever-diplomatic host, with a slight inclination, said: “Dear Dr. Nabuco, as stated in our invitation we had the honour to send you, we await your presence for dinner here tomorrow”. Nabuco had mistaken the date and appeared one day before….
Salons and the noble art of conversation
It is not surprising that as a result of this pleasant treatment that, in the larger European cities, conversation salons multiplied in number in all the social classes. The elites, in their grand homes, spoke of art and literature, both undergoing rapid transformation. Politics was also a central theme. Monarchists used to beautiful and good traditions confronted the republicans imbued with ideas of progress and social reforms.
The conversation salons of the bourgeoisie were in the cafés. Writers and poets frequented literary cafés; professors and scientists frequented university cafes. Everyone was enthusiastic about the new and many scientific innovations and discoveries being made. New medicines were made and new surgical procedures found. Intelligent conversation could be found in every salon.
When weather permitted, especially in the spring and summer, concerts and shows brought crowds to the large parks and gardens where people from all the conversation salons would meet.
Salons even in the smaller towns and villages
There were also salons—probably more authentic—in the small towns and villages. After Mass, small groups of people would meet at a café or around the table at someone’s home. Literature, art, science were not the subject of these conversations, but rather the life of the place. It might be a goat that had disappeared, a fox after the chickens, the fire in the neighbour’s garden, the arrival of a newcomer, rumours that thieves from afar had come into the region, and many other subjects such as to animate these conversations.
At times the meetings took place while religious feasts were being prepared, or even processions. At these events even children participated, listening quietly, learning from their elders. There was no radio, much less television. There was not, therefore, the agitation of novelty and the cravings awakened by commercial propaganda. Because of this, people preserved the authentic character of the family and their region, full of rich and unique personality. It is precisely this richness that made encounters interesting, because what is the sense of meeting people standardised by propaganda? In these local conversation salons possibly the courteous delicateness and subtlety of language might not be the dominant note as in the capital, but the authenticity of souls offered a variety of characters that was enchanting in its own right. This splendour of social relations gave the Belle Époque its name of beautiful, thereby making it unforgettable.
Modern inventions and social changes
There was, nonetheless, another side to this—a reality that contradicted the social enchantment of the Belle Époque. This is the second impression that comes to mind when we consider the period between 1870 and 1914.
This reality insidiously presented itself under the attractive guise of enormous technical progress. The great cities were the first to adopt the new inventions: electricity, telephone, radio, cinema, bicycles, and motorcars. The conquests of technology were inebriating. Eyes filled with tears at seeing the first dirigibles flying around the spires of cathedrals, or about hearing news from far away while the guns still smoked as it arrived via the telegraph. It was thought that steam engines and electricity would give the world a newfound happiness.
However technical progress brought in its wake profound social and moral changes. Few saw the danger. It was hoped that technical progress could be added to the social splendour.
With the machine, however, came speed and mass production, which undermined society. The train—and soon after the motorcar—brought the urge to travel to unknown places, and hence tourism was born. Sporting events also increased and changed clothing that now had to be adapted to the new ways of being that accepted what used to be considered immoral. Sport divided the generations since the older people did not do them because of norms of propriety. How ridiculous it was to see someone in top hat and tails riding a bicycle!
With sport came dances whose rhythm seemed to compete with the speed of the machines—ever faster and more sensual. From the minuet came the waltz, then the Charleston, and then on to the tango.
Industry employed young women, until then linked to the paternal home until marriage, who now worked as labourers or secretaries. Affairs outside of wedlock increased in number, bringing an increase in divorces; at the same time religious practice decreased. In several European countries prostitution could be seen to rise. The glorification of speed intoxicated the spirits who no longer had a taste for recollection. When considering the dirigibles and the cathedral spires, the latter were like a petrified past in relation to the former that presented a future of vast horizons.
Socialist utopia, the fading of a beautiful epoch
Politically, the republicans harkening from the French Revolution look sympathetically upon these new ways of being. They knew that the moral decadence of the years preceding the French Revolution in 1789 had been one of the main causes of the revolutionary victory. Being partisans of progress and technology, they considered the remnants of Christian traditions as being incompatible with the new times. This same current of opinion evolved, gradually tending towards the acceptance of a socialist utopia.
Both the aficionados of social elites, who considered this an ideal to safeguard, as well as the partisans of progress were rudely awakened with the outbreak of the First World War in mid-1914. The former saw the terrible conflict as destroying those precious and beautiful traditions. The latter realised that progress had created death machines never before imagined. The brutality of the War suffocated the beauty of the epoch in the mud of the trenches and the deadly gases. The world was never the same. Social splendour faded, turning into darkness.
Today, amidst the frustrations of a highly technological society devoid of moral and religious content, a growing number of people admire splendour and lament the disappearance of that sweet liturgy in relationships regulated by courtesy of the Belle Époque.