Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Epoque

Focuses on three notable children of famous French families: Jeanne Hugo (granddaughter of Victor Hugo), Jean-Baptiste Charcot (son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot), and Leon Daudet (son of Alphonse). Chapter 8 “The Heiress and the Polar Gentleman” concerns Jean-Baptiste Charcot, his two Antarctic voyages, and his much later death by drowning off Iceland. Cambor makes about 15 relatively minor mistakes in the Charcot chapter, enough to wonder about other less-familiar parts of the book.

p. 187: on his first trip aboard the Français: “Although Jean-Baptiste loved working beside his men and reveled in the camaraderie of meal time, he also enjoyed his solitude and looked forward to retiring to his cabin, which was so small that he could barely turn around in it, but in which he could relax and reflect on the day’s events. Sometimes he read the old authors that, as a young man, he had found tedious and whose works he had quickly skimmed to avoid getting a bad grade or a punishment: Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Montaigne, Dante, Cervantes, Swift, Hugo, Saint-Simon, Michelet, Dumas père, Rabelais, and Shakespeare. Now all the lessons from these works, which to his schoolboy self had seemed either hopelessly quaint or quixotic, came alive for him. Sometimes he simply stared at photos of his loved ones—his wife, his sisters, his father and mother, especially his father, who was never far from Jean-Baptiste’s mind, and from whom he was still seeking approbation.” Also had winter school aboard, for the semi-literate or uneducated.

p. 188: “The men also took turns reading one another the stories of Jules Verne or Dumas père.”

p. 199, on the second voyage: “They marked the time the only way they knew how. They had access to more than fifteen hundred books in the ship’s extensive library and to back issues of Le Matin, issued daily. Jean-Baptiste and his officers offered courses in grammar, geography, English, and navigation, while the ship’s assistant doctor and zoologist gave classes on first aid. Lieutenant Rouche attempted to write a romantic novel, The Typist’s Lover—he read each chapter out loud as soon as he had finished it…. They could also listen to the gramophone, and some of the men even founded a musical society that gave concerts on Sundays.”