Author Features / Features / Fiction

Barbara Corrado Pope: Mysteries of the Belle Époque

by Jane Hammons

In 2010, Bouchercon—a conference for crime writers and their fans—was held in San Francisco, just across the Bay from where I live. Big names like Lee Child and Roger Crais filled auditoriums.  Kate Atkinson and Zoë Ferraris, two writers I admire, read from forthcoming novels. And there were really interesting panel discussions featuring writers less well known to me. As I perused the detailed schedule, I recognized the name Barbara Corrado Pope.

Hers was not a name I knew from the world of fiction but rather academia: Pope taught women’s history courses at the University of New Mexico when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, and her classes had a profound impact on my life. I learned to read fiction through the lens of women’s experiences and began listening to the voices of women in contemporary politics and culture. Largely because of Pope’s course, I attended readings and lectures by women who came to campus, among them Angela Davis, Bernadette Devlin and Anaïs Nin.

At Bouchercon, like a breathless fangirl, I rushed to the panel called “Let’s Pretend We’re Strangers: Including Real People as Fictional Characters” and listened to her delightful story about meeting the great granddaughter of the artist Paul Cézanne—who appears as a character (implicated in a murder) in Pope’s first novel, Cézanne’s Quarry (2008).

With a PhD from Columbia University in the Social and Intellectual History of Europe, Pope has taught in many places—from Aix-en-Provence to the Harvard Divinity School—but spent most of her academic career at the University of Oregon, where she was the founding director of Women Studies and also led the movement to include courses on race and gender in the curriculum. The University of Oregon now grants the Barbara Corrado Pope Award to the writer of a thesis “in the area of diversity, including gender and ethnic studies.”

These interests of Pope’s were shaped, in part, by growing up in Cleveland and attending Lincoln High School, which she describes as “the white working class and immigrant high school on Cleveland’s near west side, bordering on the steel mills and downtown.” Many of the immigrant families who moved to this neighborhood after World War II were highly educated and introduced Pope to a world of “classical music, encyclopedias, and languages.” She believes these childhood friendships are largely responsible for her interest in European history, and also her yearning for other worlds, a yearning we find in many of her fictional characters, particularly Clarie Martin, the wife of Bernard Martin, the examining magistrate and main character in Pope’s first two novels. Clarie takes on both the protagonist’s and the investigator’s role in The Missing Italian Girl (2013), Pope’s third novel—which featured as a Summer Reading recommendation in 7 Compulsively Readable Mysteries (for the Crazy-Smart Reader).

Crazy-smart, indeed. Titles from a few of Pope’s academic articles suggest some of the themes of her fiction: Female Troubles and Troubled Men in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France; Angels in the Devil’s Workshop: Leisure and Charitable Women in Nineteenth-Century France; Revolution and Retreat: Upper-Class French Women after 1789.

In a 2008 interview with Barbara Altmann, a University of Oregon colleague, Pope revealed that she “had always wanted to write fiction” but had “got[ten] on the academic train and never got off.” In going through files from when she was developing some of the first Women’s Studies courses, she would come across attempts she had made at short stories. When a friend proposed that she and Pope collaborate on a mystery about “Cézanne, Provence, and geology,” Pope was excited by the idea.

Pope ultimately wrote the novel alone, and she felt somewhat insecure as she began. She thought about the fact that a first novel often emerges from autobiography, referencing the old adage “write what you know.” But she explained that what we know doesn’t always have to lead back to the self. Pope thus told herself, “I taught in Provence, I know French history, I love art . . . I know a lot about Cézanne; [this] is something I know. So I did it.”  Pope worked on the novel for about ten years while still teaching and finished it after she retired.

The Belle Époque in France (1871-1914) was a period marked by social unrest and provides thought-provoking context for the crimes committed in each of Pope’s novels. Twenty-first century readers will recognize the period’s themes: labor vs. management; access to education; women’s rights; class disparities; immigration reform; questions about loyalty and citizenship; and hate-mongering against targeted groups. After years of writing mainly academic prose about this period, Pope found it challenging to write description— essential to all good fiction, but perhaps even more so in historical fiction (which must accurately represent a distant time while also appealing to the contemporary reader’s imagination)—so she traveled throughout France to conduct research.

In Cézanne’s Quarry—which was nominated for the Oregon Books Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction—Bernard Martin, who has only recently moved to Aix-en-Provence, investigates his first murder, following Inspector Franc to the quarry to retrieve the body of the victim Solange Vernet. As they walk together, Franc finds a scrap of canvas. This leads him to suspect Cézanne, who was known to tear up his canvases in fits of frustration. In addition to this factual biographical detail, Pope recalls Cézanne’s palette:

Here it was not nature that showed the destructiveness of her force, but man.

Below them, literally carved out of the plateau, stood gigantic geometric towers and caves, free-floating steps and walls, curved arches and tunnels; the remains of the greedy hunt to provide the material for Aix’s great honey-colored houses. So fantastic was the quarry’s jumbled architecture that Martin imagined that he was looking at the long-abandoned building blocks of some gigantic ancient gods. The colors, too, were outlandish. The stones glowed orange and red and purple in the setting sun. Everywhere, branches strained and twisted to release themselves from the lifeless stone, reaching for the light in an array of black and yellow-greens.

When Franc suggests that Solange, a cultured woman whose intelligence and independence aroused suspicion, brought her own murder upon herself because of her “Parisian behavior,” Martin reflects upon the fact that “the abuse of young women was by far the most commonly committed and least prosecuted crime in all of France.” Here we see the influence of Pope’s work as a feminist scholar shaping the approach Martin takes in investigating crime.

Bernard Martin and Clarie Frachetti meet in Cézanne’s Quarry, but Clarie leaves Aix to pursue her education. And later Bernard pursues her, admiring Clarie’s independence and determination to get an education. When we meet them again in The Blood of Lorraine, 10 years have passed, and the couple is married and living in Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. Clarie, pregnant with their first child, has taken a leave of absence from teaching.

The title of this dark novel refers not only to blood spilled but also to the question of what it means to be a “true Frenchman”: in The Blood of Lorraine, we see Pope telling the story of nationalism and racial discrimination she knows so well from her scholarly studies. Pope sets this novel in Lorraine, contested territory at the end of the Franco-Prussian war and a province with a large population of “Israelites” (as Jews at that time often preferred to be called). The Dreyfus Affair provides familiar context as Pope introduces historical anti-Semitic figures and texts: Édouard Drumont, publisher of the widely read anti-Semitic periodical La Libre Parole and Abbé François Hémonet, author of Nancy-Juif, “a Nancien version of Drumont, a prescription for hate, a call to action against the Jews.” Hémonet becomes a suspect in the murders plaguing the province.

As the novel opens, Martin is called upon by his colleague David Singer to take the case of an eviscerated baby off his hands. Singer informs Martin that it is “[p]resumably” a “ritual murder . . . An accusation that a Jew has killed and mutilated a Christian baby” and believes he has been assigned the case “as a joke, a trap” because he is Jewish.

Reluctant to take the case, Martin is surprised to discover that he questions whether Singer can be both deeply committed to his Jewish community and also loyal to France; thus Pope explores this more subtle form of anti-Semitism through Martin’s character. At the same time, he envies the deep community ties Singer has as he learns more about both Jewish culture and faith via the investigation. When the details of the crime lead Martin to suspect a Jew, Singer accuses Martin of being anti-Semitic. As the two collaborate on solving the case, they wrestle with the conflict that threatens their friendship. Once the case is solved, Martin tells Singer that he has no question about his friend’s loyalty to France (though this has little affect on the anti-Semitism rampant in Nancy).

In her third novel, The Missing Italian Girl (2013), Pope takes us to 1897 Paris and explores gender roles in a way that contemporary readers will recognize.  Here, it’s interesting to see Pope—a scholar living in the 21st century—portray a 19th-century marriage in such modern terms.  The couple has moved to Paris so that Clarie can teach at the prestigious Lyceé Lamartine, a school for girls. Though nervous about being unemployed in the opening pages, Bernard is thrilled to leave behind “vulgar sordid” cases and looks forward to doing “some real work against those who break the laws to make a profit” when he gains a position at the Bourse de Travail (Labor Exchange). Clarie and Bernard are parents of a healthy toddler, Jean-Luc, and Clarie worries about the balance between career and family life.

For most of the novel Bernard is busy learning the routines of his new job, while Clarie wraps up the school term and looks forward to a summer that will allow her more time with Jean-Luc. However, she spends much of her summer involved with a different child—Maura Laurenzano, the daughter of the Lyceé’s charwoman, who asks for Clarie’s help when Maura disappears after being implicated in the murders attributed to her anarchist friend Pytor Ivanovich. Clarie tells Bernard about the charwoman’s problem, and fearing for her safety, Bernard tells her not to get involved.  It’s through this rising conflict that Pope puts Clarie’s independence to the test, and we also see Pope’s academic interest in “Charitable Women” coming through. 

At first Clarie agrees to abandon her involvement with Maura, but after trying to find help for the Laurenzanos, she realizes that no one is concerned about their plight. Clarie claims the right to seek justice for the abused and oppressed, telling Bernard, “[ . . .] I know from you about justice. How we should seek it. How we should understand what it means to be poor [. . . ] Girls are beaten every day, by their bosses, by their husbands by their lovers, and you always found their trials rather ‘sordid.’ Perhaps I have a different sense of justice: for mothers who have lost their children for girls lost in the world.”  Here, Pope finds a way to portray Clarie’s assertion of strength, within the realistic parameters of a woman’s sphere at that time. 

It is in joining forces with the aggressive, outspoken historical character Séverine, (pen name of the feminist, investigative journalist Caroline Rémy de Guebhard), that Clarie finds the ally she had hoped to find in Bernard, as well as entrance to a world previously unknown to her. When she first goes to Séverine’s apartment she is greeted by the journalist dressed in “a florid silk gown and felt slippers” and follows her into a room that looks “more like a greenhouse, or a menagerie, or even a museum than a parlor.”

Palm trees and cacti filled every corner. Fresh flowers sprung from vases on the coffee table and desk. [. . .] Newspapers lay in piles on the floor by the desk, which was laden with books and papers, and pens and pencils, gathered like soldiers ready for action by the inkpot

In Clarie and Séverine, Pope joins two professions open at the time to women seeking to exercise power and influence in the world: journalism and teaching.  As they begin to uncover important evidence about the murderer as well as Maura’s whereabouts, they demonstrate that while their methods might not be those of men trained to investigate crime, they are just as effective.  Whether or not two women would have been able to have this kind of impact on a crime investigation at that time, Pope makes an argument here for their efficacy in both creating that opportunity and uncovering the truth.

Having begun her career as a writer of fiction after retirement, Barbara Corrado Pope writes on her blog that she has difficulty calling herself a writer, a problem common among writers who “have spent most of their lives doing something else.” But in these novels, Pope develops engaging, believable characters that transport readers in time and place as they wrestle with the historical circumstances of their lives in solving each mystery. Her concern is one she can put to rest.

Bloom Post End

Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley where she is the recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award. She has a story in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton) and an essay in The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (Seal Press). She is the recipient of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Her writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals: Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, Verbicide Magazine, and Word Riot.

Homepage photo via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

One thought on “Barbara Corrado Pope: Mysteries of the Belle Époque

  1. Pingback: Barbara Corrado Pope: Mysteries of the Belle Époque | Lighting Out for the Territory

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