Making a Parisian magic carpet
One of the most important elements of a Beauty and the Beast story is the rose that sets off the whole tale. And then of course there are the enchanted gardens.
So what do you do when your Beauty and the Beast retelling takes place in a typical 19th -century Parisian apartment building, mostly in the dead of winter, in a moment of history when gardens weren’t exactly a priority and public parks were often used as grazing grounds for the city’s stock of edible animals?
For Hearts at Dawn, my Beauty and the Beast retelling, I decided to use a magic carpet.
Many Haussmannian apartment buildings in Paris have carpets that run up the length of their stairways. Although their colors and motifs vary, a good deal of them feature flowers inspired by Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs.
So, there would be my flowers, my garden.
The only problem was, try as I might, I haven’t been able to establish with certainty that these were the kinds of carpets that were used in Parisian stairwells in 1870.
The best-known nearly contemporary description of a Haussmannian apartment building is a scene near the beginning of Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Pot-Bouille (a tricky title often translated as Piping Hot). In it, Zola writes, Un tapis rouge…couvrait les marches. (A red carpet covered the stairs.).
But at the third floor (fourth for Americans like myself), the carpet changes to a cheap gray covering. This is because Haussmannian buildings typically had a hierarchy. The wealthy lived on the lower floors and the higher you got, the poorer the inhabitants were (early Haussmannian buildings didn’t have elevators and climbing six flights of stairs every day isn’t the height of luxury).
Zola says nothing about any possible designs that might be on the red carpet on the lower floors of the building in his book. It’s possibly a detail he didn’t care about (a bit surprising for Zola), or it’s possible that this particular building just has a plain red carpet. But for Hearts at Dawn, I’d need some vegetation. And so, I took a risk.
I’ve had the privilege of climbing many Haussmannian staircases in the years I’ve lived in Paris. Not all of them have carpets, but many that do have a typical floral pattern. I’ve come to learn that this kind of carpet is called a tapis Smyrne, named for the Turkish city of Smyrna (known today as İzmir).
I can’t find any confirmation about when le tapis Smyrne was first used on a Haussmannian staircase, but one Parisian carpet company’s website calls it un modèle de tapis très prisé dans les escaliers des immeubles Haussmanniens. (a style of carpet that’s very sought-after for the stairwells of Haussmannian buildings).
Turkish carpets were certainly available in mid-to-late 19th-century Paris, and industrialization would make them relatively easy for French manufacturers to copy and mass-produce. With that in mind, I decided the building in my book would have a version of a tapis Smyrne in two different colors and qualities, in accordance with the wealth of the residents. The carpet on the sixth floor where the Turins’ photography studio and the former chambres de bonne are located, on the other hand, is another story. I picture it as very thin, functional, and worn — though it, too, has flowers, if you look closely enough.
Hopefully the carpets in my book are historically accurate. Sometimes I wonder, though. But then I remind myself that while Claire and Orin’s building is supposed to be a typical Haussmannian one near the Grands Boulevards, it’s also suffused with magic, as the Beast’s castle always is. So maybe the carpets are from another time and no one has thought twice about it.
That said, you may not spot roses in the vegetation on Smyrna carpets. I vividly remember a carpet in a similar style, all in reds, blues, whites, and silvers, in one Parisian stairwell I’ve climbed, but I haven’t been able to revisit that building. If I do, I’ll sneak a picture just like I did for the others in this article, and put it here.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I might not have precisely followed the rules this time. One thing I’ve learned from visiting friends, tutoring clients, and even doctor’s offices housed in Haussmannian buildings is that there are no strict rules.
You think that there will be, but there’s always that strange extra room or corner or choice that was made by a long-ago building board. Maybe one building in a not-so-nice area has stunning stained glass windows, while another in a neighborhood that’s always been posh has windows of plain glass. Maybe you pass through the entryway into a courtyard or a space crowded by a grand staircase.
You never know exactly what you’ll find inside the heavy doors of a Haussmannian building. That’s the magic of Paris.
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A Beauty and the Beast retelling that will enchant lovers of fairy tales, Paris, history and romance, Hearts at Dawn is currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
And if you do, I’d be forever grateful if you left a review. These help books gain more visibility and credibility.
Until next time!