An Interview with Barbara Corrado Pope
1. The Dreyfus Affair is one of those historical milestones that keeps coming up in current events and in fiction. What actually happened and what is its relevance today?
In the fall of 1894, a cleaning woman in the German embassy in Paris found a piece of paper in a waste basket indicating that someone was selling French military secrets to the Germans. Anti-Semitism was on the rise at this time, in books, among politicians and in the press. Alfred Dreyfus, who had risen higher in the army than any other Jewish Frenchman, was accused of this treason. We now know that he was framed because he was a Jew. He was convicted, stripped of his rank, and sent to Devil’s Island to live out his days in solitary confinement.
The famous “Affair” actually refers to the year 1898 by which time many Frenchman became convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence. They felt that the very notion of a Republic based upon justice and the rights of man depended upon his retrial and acquittal. On the other side were people who would never be convinced of his innocence or felt that the sanctity of the Army was more important than the life of a Jew. The country was deeply divided; friendships were broken; family members estranged.
As for today—a country deeply divided into partisan factions, sound familiar? I was impressed in reading contemporary accounts that for some anti-Dreyfusards facts did not matter, that no amount of evidence would convince them that someone else had committed the treason. And, of course, there is the issue of injustices perpetrated on “despised minorities.” This is the point that Louis Begley made in his recent book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. He compares the treatment of Dreyfus to the way Muslim men are being treated in Guantánamo, which, he says, violates American principles.
2. Is the case you follow based on a real crime? The gutting of an infant to remove incriminating evidence (whatever the baby ate) is so ghastly to the modern mind that, if you did make it up, why?
No, I must admit the crime is not real. However, the medieval slander that Jews would kill a Christian baby in order to use his blood in their ceremonies reached well into the 19th century. Two widely reported cases of so-called “blood libel” occurred in Damascus in 1840 and in Hungary in 1882.
3. The role of the press seems familiar: invasive, sensational, biased in a number of ways. Is that your point, that a free press may be important philosophically but in reality it's a big distraction?
Oh no, a free press is critical for a democratic society. Real investigative journalism is invaluable, necessary. What we need are critical readers and television viewers. If you take the case of the “blood libels” you will see that the anti-Semitic press exploited these incredible slanders, while the other newspapers disputed and condemned them.
4. The need for Christians to portray Jews as beasts reminded me of the Time magazine cover of OJ Simpson that was altered to make him look like a threatening black monster. Are contemporary parallels on your mind as you write, or do you care if readers make certain links to the present?
What made me passionate about writing a mystery with these themes was my work as a teacher dealing with racism in our own country. Anti-Semitism was the racism of 19th-century Europe. It is so easy to caricature, stereotype, and, then, persecute a “despised minority”. I hope readers will draw parallels and see where such prejudices can lead. I quote a passage from a book written in 1893 which surely should bring to mind the Holocaust.
5. Anti-Semitism is blatant in Nancy at this time, but do you think these feelings are as prevalent today (just more hidden)?
One consequence of the Dreyfus Affair was to move vocal anti-Semitism out of the mainstream to the extreme right of French politics. You still see this more “traditional strain” in the party of Jean-Marie LePen (the National Front) which usually claims 15-10% of the vote in national elections. However, France today is a very different country with a large Muslim population, much of it young and disaffected. Most of the incidents of violence against Jewish persons or property in the last few years have been committed in the name of a anti-Israeli politics.
France has had a schizophrenic relationship towards the Jews. The first country to emancipate them, it became the seedbed of the “modern” anti-Semitism which is the backdrop to The Blood of Lorraine. We know the Dreyfus’s conviction inspired Theodore Herzl to become the founder of Zionism. On the other hand, it has the largest population of Jews outside of Israel and the US, and Jews are very prominent in cultural and political life.
6. Why did you decide to set your story in Nancy?
As I was doing preliminary research on the history of Jews in France, I discovered there were four distinct Jewish communities in France, the largest and most traditional were the Sephardic community around Bordeaux and the Ashkenazy Jews of Alsace-Lorraine. Since the two communities were quite distinct with very different social histories, I had to choose between them before I could start thinking about creating characters. So I wrote a friend who had spent a lot of time in France and asked where he would like to spend a few weeks. He led me to Nancy.
6. Was he right?
More than either of us realized at the time. After the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871, Nancy became the capital of a truncated part of France, as Germany claimed and took over most of Alsace-Lorraine. This made Nancy attractive to those Alsatians and Lorrainers who didn’t want to stay under Germany’s rule and created, for the anti-Semites, the specter of an “invasion.” It also made Nancy both a border town and a garrison town, adding to the tension. Finally, it allowed me to discover some dramatic home-grown anti-Semitism.
7. Your protagonist is a judge who's still inspired by the goals of the French Revolution of 100 years before and attempts to apply high standards of justice to his cases. Does he represent anyone or anything you're trying to pursue in this novel?
His struggles are my struggles. How to promote justice? How to deal with the way that prejudice can seep into our souls? How to recognize and accept the differences between ourselves and others?
As for defending the Revolution, it was not a “done deal” at that time in a deeply divided country where “Church and Throne” or a popular dictatorship were not yet “just history.” I think that what we have found is that the struggle for justice is never quite “won.”
8. Some of the practices noted here - like sending infants to the country to be wet-nursed -- are fascinating and seem to be changing significantly during this fin-de-siècle period. Did you choose this time and this city in particular to explore what happens when civilizations are in a key state of flux?
The political revolutions at the end of the 18th-century, industrialization and urbanizations—all these forces made the 19th-century a century of change. So that had little to do with my specific choice of time and place. And, yes, sending infants to the country still occurred, although the government tried hard to control it. The Republic’s efforts to condemn the practice were motivated by changing attitudes towards children and women. Western societies were becoming more child-centered and the ideal for women was to be a good and devoted mother. The other factor motivating these French laws was concern about depopulation (especially with ever-growing Germany on its border). So it was only the poorest of working women, like Antoinette Thomas, who continued to send their children away at this time.
9. The controversy over Clarie's insistence on exercising her right of choice re working as a teacher also has a familiar ring. Do you see instances of a rise of feminism here or do you think any historical novel, if thorough, would show women chafing under the dominance of men and rebelling in their way?
Both answers are yes! Women have always found ways to get around male dominance. At the same time, “the woman question” as it was called at that time was very much on people’s minds. The French Revolution emancipated slaves and Jews, but left women out. And so, throughout the 19th-century, there were various movements to liberate then (utopians, socialists, suffragists). By the end of the century, there was a worldwide feminist movement. It was never as militant in France as it was in England or the US.
10. Clarie's background and her spirit make her a loner. Do you think women throughout history have been slow to support changes on their own behalf?
I don’t think Clarie would have thought of herself as a loner. She had a “corps”—the other teachers in her school--and a husband. Had she been unmarried, stuck in some rural school, then she would have been lonely and on her own. As for the attitude of those she met at the formal dinner, well, yes, many women clung to their more traditional sources of power and influence. Religion played a role, too. In Catholic countries women were by far the majority of churchgoers, and the Church upheld tradition.
11. When you did your research, were there any surprises? Did you find for example that anti-Semitism, biases against women, attitudes toward class, lack of awareness re sanitation, etc. were far more virulent than you thought, or less so?
The real fun of research is uncovering new sources—especially sources that can add to the atmosphere of a novel.
Since I wrote a dissertation on 19th-century Frenchwomen and have taught women’s history, their story yielded few surprises. The same is true with the national rise of a “new” anti-Semitism. Edouard Drumont’s scurrilous La France Juive (Jewish France) was one of the biggest best sellers of the century. I also knew that Clarie’s doctor should have had access to information about sterilization, but that the medical profession was stubborn and slow to change.
But I discovered Nancy was also a garrison town, which added to the tension of the novel. I also found out that by the 1890’s about 50% of the houses had running water. Otherwise I would not have let the Martin’s have a faucet!
Most important of all, I found a real priest, the Abbé Hemonet, who, a year before my novel opens, wrote a real book, Jewish Nancy, against local Jews. My guess is there are only five or six copies of this book extant, but I managed to get one on microfilm from the Jewish collection of the New York Public Library. The priest and his “work” added grist and authenticity to the roiling mill of prejudice and hatred.