Monday, August 25, 2008


I spent a fascinating day in the Maps room at the British Library recently. I needed to know what Marseilles and Lyons looked like in 1815 for the third book in the Aikenhead Honours Trilogy.

Jack’s story, His Forbidden Liaison, starts in Marseilles where Jack and his fellow-spy Ben have been sent by the Duke of Wellington to try to suss out the extent of support for Napoleon. Suddenly, their careful plans are thrown up in the air. It’s not a question of whether there might be support for Napoleon in the future. He’s actually landed, only a few miles along the coast!

The story takes them from Marseilles, to Lyons, and then to Paris. All the while, Napoleon is making the same progess from Mediterranean coast to capital, gathering enthusiastic support along the way. It’s an exciting, and dangerous story, for my hero and his friend. But they do have help along the way, from Marguerite, a remarkable Lyons silk-weaver, with some interesting uses for a brass candlestick.

Lyons seems to have had a complete make-over after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. In 1813, on the south end of the peninsula between the rivers Rhone and Saone, there was a huge oval place des victoires, a grand tree-lined cours impérial leading up to a semi-circular monument, and a projected imperial palace with huge formal gardens. A year or so after Waterloo, there was almost nothing on the map but fields. All traces of imperial grandeur had gone.

My most urgent research task was to identify the roads around the old port in Marseilles. I had spent a year in the city as a student, but that was no help at all. The Marseilles where I lived was, and is, huge and sprawling. I needed to know how much of it was there in 1815.

What I found was fascinating. There was a maze of twisting medieval streets on the north side of the port, while on the south side, a much more modern and spacious layout had been adopted, with a canal running round what looked to be warehouses. The famous broad street running up into the city from the old port, La Canebière, was there, but wasn’t tree-lined as it is now.

And the names had changed, of course. The city end of the old port was called the quai impérial in 1814, but had become the quai de Monsieur by 1820. (It’s now the quai des Belges.) The place impériale of 1814 had become, predictably, the place royale by 1820. One which hadn’t changed by 1820 was the tiny place du cul de boeuf, which has a rather rude translation, I’m afraid. It amused me so much that I’ve used it in my story.

My favourite, though, was further out beyond the gate in the city walls, on the road north to Aix-en-Provence. There I found the place pentagone. Of course, with that name, it was not square at all, but a huge non-symmetrical space. However, its previous name had been place des 13 escaliers, the square of 13 staircases. Doesn’t that conjure up a wonderful image?



Anonymous said...

Sounds like an exciting story, Joanna. Did Dumas use Marseilles at that period for the first chapters of the Count of Monte Cristo????


Anonymous said...

Quite right Melinda. Dumas did use it and his descriptions are interesting. He also tells us about the French "telegraph" system (which used towers and semaphore-type flags, I think) which was much more efficient than anything anyone else had. As a result, news of Napoleon's landing arrived in Paris much sooner than in other capitals.


Anonymous said...

I think the Square of 13 staircases is worthy of a book all of its own!


Jan Jones said...

Oh, I do so love that map room, Joanna. I think I could live there.

Your square-of-thirteen-staircases sounds just like an Escher print.